TIFF 2015 Review | Neo-Nazi Drama ‘French Blood’ is Full of Heart and Wisdom
When we first meet neo-Nazi Marco (Alban Lenoir), his rage against his enemies — “Arabs, fags, commies” — seems to be the only thing keeping him alive. Struggling to catch his next breath as he beats up innocent strangers with his skinhead buddies, the teen looks like he just might explode from hatred if he didn’t express it regularly with his fists, boots, or the butcher’s knife he carries around in his back pocket.
In the last French presidential election, the nativist and neo-fascistic National Front — long the party of choice for white supremacists and Holocaust deniers — came in third with voters. Spanning the last thirty years — during which National Front leaders Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine Le Pen became ugly fixtures in Gallic politics — French Blood chronicles Marco’s decades-long attempts to distance himself from his racist, violent past — if only it’d let him go.
Writer-director Diastème’s* historically based drama isn’t so much political rhetoric as a fascinating sociology of anger. As might be expected, Marco suffers from too little education and too much family dysfunction. But the film eschews easy psychologizing — it really doesn’t matter why he believes what he believes — to explore instead how unexamined fury corrodes not only the soul, but one’s opportunities for success and self-actualization. As the script acknowledges, there are ways to make wrath and fearmongering work for you — just ask Donald Trump — but picking on everyone who isn’t like you and getting into constant turf wars with other thugs is much more likely to land you in the hospital, or worse.
At the festival screening I attended, Diastème explained in a post-movie Q&A that he wanted to see how a young-ish man who had renounced the vile beliefs of his youth might (or might not) save himself. French Blood’s fatal flaw is that it’s never quite clear whether Marco really has turned his back on his neo-Nazism, or simply decided to walk away from the daily aggressions that are part and parcel of his adolescent politics. It’s an unproductive ambiguity that muddles the story the film is trying to tell. I’m going to give Diastème the benefit of the doubt here and discuss the film as if it actually had made Marco’s gradual enlightenment explicit, as Diastème had intended.
There’s little place in civilized society for a run-of-the-mill brute, which is why Marco flits from job to job, offering his muscles as a bouncer, a bodyguard, and, in the most intellectually demanding of his jobs, a bartender. He’s smart and charming enough to seduce and marry the gorgeous niece (Lucie Debay) of a wealthy political donor, but his police record and lack of higher education force him to mingle and work alongside the very immigrants he despises most. Smartly, Marco never has an aha! moment that turns him into a convert for liberté, égalité, et fraternité. Other than a post-beatdown panic attack, it’s really the kindly mentorship of a paternal pharmacist (Patrick Pineau) and aging out of his testosterone-overdose years that make him realize that he needs something more than racism and violence to give his life meaning.
If Marco has paid economically for the grave follies of his youth, the costs of drifting from his ultranationalist pals and spouse are even steeper. From the outside, he may look like a failure, but his journey toward serenity, filled with sacrifices, is a compellingly admirable one. At no point does any plot development feel forced to make a political point, but the film is wholly convincing in its argument that rage as a lifestyle is a dead end in which the barriers are erected before you can even see where your life could have gone. French Blood is that rarest of tragedies: one full of hope.
* Like Madonna, he goes by a mononym.