The film that takes on skinheads and the far right
By Hugh Schofield
A new French movie is causing ructions over claims that it is too incendiary for general release. The Film is about a violent skinhead and the origins of France's far-right political movement.
A film that shows the redemption of a racist thug: does it help us understand the true nature of racist thuggery? Or does it normalize racism? Or does it trivialize the problem? Those are questions raised by the movie Un Francais - A Frenchman.
Directed by the little-known Patrick Aste, who goes by the name Diasteme, Un Francais tells the story of a 1980s skinhead who starts life beating up black people but 30 years later is helping migrants at a Paris soup kitchen.
Marco's journey is being hailed as a breakthrough in French cinema, because Un Francais is the country's first ever film to deal in depth with the violent ultra right and the roots of the Front National.
Though the party is never actually named, the FN's presence permeates the film. Early on Marco gets taken on as a party security goon, and by the end his one-time colleagues are basking in the far right's new respectability.
"You can see the film as a metaphor for the progress of the Front National. Like the party, the hero starts out as unacceptable but he evolves into something much more conformist, more banal," says Jean-Christophe Buisson, arts editor at Le Figaro magazine.
In his early scenes Diasteme is unsparing with the violence. We see Marco beating up Socialist bill-posters, and humiliating Arabs in a cafe. In the most disturbing scene - based on a real-life incident - a black man is made to drink caustic soda and dies.
But already there are signs of his impending crisis. Marco suffers a fit of breathlessness after he sees the fear in the faces of an Arab family on a bus. He befriends a doctor and gradually falls out with his skinhead gang.
Fast forward to today, and Marco's friends are in prison, dead, or transmogrified into spokesmen of the new smooth-talking far right. He is alone, in the same dead-end high-rise from where he started out.
Critical reaction to the film as a piece of cinema has been mixed. The central performance by Alban Lenoir is strong, but structurally Un Francais lacks dramatic tension. In its first week on national release, it has only sold about 35,000 tickets.
But over the subject matter - far-right violence - debate is raging, especially after director Diasteme claimed cinema managers found it too hot to handle.
According to the director, around 50 avant-premier, or previews, which were to have taken place ahead of release last week were cancelled. He said this was because of a "campaign of hate" against the film on the internet.
The implication was that supporters of the far right - incensed by the film's portrayal of skinheads - were threatening cinemas, and managers were deciding to drop the film rather than risk trouble.
In fact there is little evidence of any campaign of hate mail, and several French newspapers have suggested the whole row was a publicity ruse.
It is also far from certain that the film necessarily harms the far right.
Undoubtedly it was conceived by Diasteme as an anti-FN project. The violence is graphic, and even in airbrushed modern-day garb the far-right characters are obviously intended to be nasty.
For film critic Romain Blondeau of the magazine Les Inrockuptibles, "It is an important film because of the political context of today.
"Just as the FN is trying to become normal and respectable, Un Francais is a timely reminder that it is not a normal, respectable party. It is a party whose origins are violent and racist."
But at a deeper level, some would argue that merely by making the far right the subject of a film, Diasteme has unwittingly abetted the process of FN "normalisation".
"Until now the far right has been taboo in the world of culture," says Buisson. "The only way to treat it was as a moral evil, to equate it with fascism, and damn everyone who was associated with it.
"But now we have a film which is so much more interesting because it dares to talk about the psychological path of an individual.
"For the first time in French cinema we are looking at a member of the far right as a human being. No longer are they just the savage brutes whose only interest is beating up their enemies. Here is someone on the far right with the same doubts, feelings and frustrations as everyone else."
In other words, just as the FN is becoming part of the political mainstream, so are far-rightists being portrayed for the first time in the arts as more than mere ciphers.
Not that that thought particularly pleases the people on whom Un Francais is actually based - French skinheads.
Today far-right skinheads are a tiny minority in France. For all the attempts in parts of the press to portray them as such, they are hardly a national threat.
That is partly why ex-skinheads like Serge Ayoub are so incensed at Un Francais. In his eyes, the film is a lazy potshot at an easy target.
"How about this idea for a film," he says ironically. "A Maghrebi drop-out from the banlieues who deals in drugs and guns, and then has a conversion and discovers that he loves France. Now that would have been a courageous film!"
Ayoub, who is 50, began adult life very much as Marco in the film. As a young far-right tough, he loved English punk and earned the nickname Batskin. Today he remains a theorist of the ultra-nationalist right, and is watched by the police.
"What I loathe about this film," he says, "is the way it frames life in terms of good and evil. To redeem himself, the hero has to leave behind his 'evil' past.
"But the world is more complicated. If skinheads are violent, it is because violence is all they have left. All the skinhead has are his hands to work with. And his fists to express himself.
"That is why the skinhead is revolutionary. That is what is interesting. And that is what this film does not talk about."
As for the Front National, the party's vice-president Florian Philippot told me the film was so detached from reality that it was not worth commenting on.
"I know the director wants to pretend it is all about the FN, but in fact it is about a handful of thugs. There is no connection at all," he said. "Also I am told it is a lousy. I expect it to sink without trace."
Un Francais is certainly not going to make box-office history. But its importance lies less in its cinematic qualities than in the fact that it was made at all.
Reproduced with acknowledgements to BBC News Magazine