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Union Blues

Claude Berri traps himself in a coal mine

When I heard that director Claude Berri was filming the Zola novel Germinal, I didn't know whether to consider him courageous or crazy. Adapting a massive 19th-century novel about the pre-union tribulations of French coal miners sounded like a hernia-inducing endeavor. On the other hand, I thought that maybe Berri would be able to take an audience back to those heady days when the door to the future was clearly labeled with one name -- Marx.

After all, Berri did return to the French past with considerable success in Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. But those films deal with old-fashioned human cruelty of the pre-ideological kind, so they still ring true today. In Uranus, a more recent foray backward, Berri got bogged down in post-WWII French politics. His characters' passions were the result of concrete historical events, which Berri unfortunately wore like concrete shoes.

The same is sadly true of Germinal, an epic as smudged with "yesterday" as it is with coal dust. Berri makes the mistake of putting the labor movement, and incipient Marxism, ahead of his characters. If the film had been more personal, I might have become interested in it.

The movie's best moments come when Berri takes us into a mine to watch Maheu (Gerard Depardieu) and his more politically aware friend, Etienne (Renaud), chip away at the coal; during the occasional relaxed moment in the Maheu house; and at a village dance, where we get a sense of working-class life. In one particularly engrossing scene, the mighty Depardieu rises naked from his washtub to paw at his exasperated but amused wife, Maheude, played by Miou-Miou. (Actually, for me, Germinal's happiest moment came during its opening credits, when in plain white letters over an austere black screen the name "Miou-Miou" appeared.)

But Berri doesn't stick with this material. His emphasis on the labor movement, and particularly the way he uses it to see labor as a class rather than a collection of individuals, squeezes the life out of Germinal just as surely as the mine owners squeezed the life out of the workers. The film isn't even set in a time when we could have the satisfaction of watching the miners eventually triumph. Its only optimism comes at the bitter end, as Etienne walks away and a voiceover informs us that all the dead miners are now seeds planted in the earth, ready one day to conquer same. But after hours of watching babies die

-- Maheu loses four or five, I lost count -- and seeing the humanity crushed out of characters, that wasn't quite enough.

The film is so relentlessly grim that it becomes simply dull. Watching it feels like back-breaking labor, performed in the service of very little.

--David Theis

Germinal.
Directed by Claude Berri. Starring Gerard Depardieu, Miou-Miou and Renaud.
Rated R.

158 minutes.

 
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