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Film Review: ‘This Is Our Land’

Variety logo Variety 6/13/2017 Dennis Harvey

The rise of nationalist groups and xenophobia is once again a global issue, lending “This Is Our Land” a relevance well beyond the specific French political trends it fictionalizes. It also lends appeal to audiences beyond the European ones catered to in territorial releases earlier this year, before the recent high-profile French elections. The latter saw Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party take some losses that reassured many observers. But that outcome wasn’t guaranteed when Belgian writer-director Lucas Belvaux crafted his drama, which is loosely based on a novel by co-scenarist Jerome Leroy.

Here, a figure very much like Le Pen leads a supposedly kinder-gentler 2.0 version of the extremist bloc her father founded, its populist makeover encompassing the drafting of a hitherto apolitical working-class nurse as a local puppet candidate. Though marred by minor narrative-logic flaws, “Our Land” provides an insightful, non-hyperbolic perspective on Western extremism by focusing on this Everywoman seduced by a flattering package whose myriad attached strings she’s slow to spot. This intelligent political drama should continue to travel past its original local expiration date, with the applicability of its general ideas to numerous escalating ideological clashes overseas raising the prospect of remake deals.

Pauline (Emilie Dequenne of “Rosetta” and “The Girl on the Train”) is the face of barely-getting-by normalcy just about everywhere: a harried single mother (her loser ex being no help at all) raising two preteen children on a visiting-home-care nurse’s salary. She’s always stretching herself to the max in serving disparate patients’ needs while also having to tend to those of a cranky widower father (Patrick Descamps) who isn’t well and won’t take care of himself properly. Her predicament isn’t unusual in the economically depressed northern town she’s always called home, where public services are being cut every year and the only private businesses that seem to flourish are Arab groceries.

Considering herself disinterested in politics, she politely dismisses initial overtures from longtime family friend Dr. Berthier (Andre Dussollier), who out of the blue suggests her combination of deep community roots and zero experience make her an ideal mayoral candidate. He assures that the Renewed Nation Party led by Le Pen doppelgänger Agnes Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob) is different from the fascistic Patriot Bloc her late father founded, with a reasonable-sounding focus on strengthening the internal economy and stemming the tide of third-world refugees who are overtaxing national resources.

Pauline identifies as “left,” as much as anything, and her father is a still-fiery onetime communist radical. But there’s appeal in the good doc’s pitch — it would mean a significant, much-needed salary boost, for one thing. And others around her encourage her to accept, including Guillaume Gouix as Stephane, the high school boyfriend she’s gotten very happily re-involved with.

But both he and the RNP aren’t revealing all their cards. It takes Pauline some time to realize she’s just a puppet candidate for a party that’s pushing an agenda considerably more reactionary than it had sold her on. Its racist rhetoric alienates clients and colleagues appalled by her new affiliation. Meanwhile, Stephane is hiding a secret life as a leader in a neo-Nazi group whose goons regularly terrorize migrants and other marginals.

It’s not entirely convincing that our seemingly levelheaded heroine would be nose-led onto an incendiary political path so easily — let alone that her old flame would turn out a notorious fascist rabble-rouser, just the kind of violent hooligan Dorgelle’s media-savvy RNP is trying to distance itself from. Such stretches of credibility and coincidence might have stood out less in a longer runtime, with more space to let the plot’s busy intrigue unfold and to explore several underused subsidiary characters. (There’s easily enough narrative fodder here to have floated a miniseries.)

Nonetheless, “This Is Our Land” works within its own scale as an eventful, generally plausible illustration of variably ordinary folk whose frustrations with worsening social conditions lay them open to manipulation by more extremist mind-sets. Belvaux stresses authenticity in his evenhanded but crafty assembly, with the Pas-de-Calais locations exposing a side of France — neither urbane nor prettily bucolic, its once-sustaining mining industries now largely gone — seldom seen by offshore viewers. Dequenne and Gouix provide strong leading turns, while the supporting ones are impeccably cast — though some at home took great offense at Jacob’s nuanced but unflattering “caricature” of Le Pen.

Notably, “Chez Nous” (as the pic was called in French-speaking territories) got yanked from at least one cinema in March by a National Front-aligned French mayor after his party condemned it as “scandalous” propaganda. That in turn provoked furious cries of censorship and fears that such acts might become typical — a worry that seems at least temporarily suspended, given Le Pen’s crushing defeat at the polls.

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