by Sarah Williams Film

Returning to Reims | Jean-Gabriel Periot

Credit: The Party Film Sales

Jean-Gabriel Périot’s films center around archival footage, crafting stories from multimedia video and grafting them in and out of multiple contexts. Best known for the post-war generation documentary A German Youth, which features fellow left-wing filmmakers Helke Sandler and Harun Farocki, Périot now takes on philosopher Didier Eribon’s 2009 memoir, Returning to Reims, with his signature curatorial style (actress Adèle Haenel, last seen in Deerskin, Heroes Don’t Die, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire premiering back-to-back-to-back at Cannes in 2019, and currently focusing on stage work in Gisèle Vienne’s L’Etang, lends her steady, slightly husky voice to the narration). A history of France’s working class, Returning to Reims (Fragments) is more concerned with personal narrative than political timeline, utilizing anecdotal stories of and centered around Eribon’s family to mark the passage of time across a broader society.

The early chapters of Périot’s film constitute a revolutionary mini-canon, drawing from the history of French cinema to act out its source text. Most recognizable are segments from Germaine Dulac’s Celles qui s’en Font and Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant, filling in for the unarchived years. As with the cinema of Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard, of motion pictures painted from history textbooks, Returning to Reims (Fragments) arranges and assembles clips of the past with a fluid, not ungainly lyricism. (Some sequences, in particular those of French women accosted on the streets after being accused of sleeping with German officers during the war, have previously appeared in his 2006 short Even If She Had Been A Criminal…). Spanning nearly a century, these archival gems are less a coalescence of events into straightforward narratives than a family tree’s montage — hence the titular “fragments.” The motion picture history that Haenel’s voiceover accompanies is gradually whittled down, evolving from a more passive narrativization toward an activist consciousness whose records of both domestic and public demonstrations culminates in an epilogue on modernity, flashing through today’s myriad civic causes, from “Justice pour Adama” to climate change. Crucially, Périot notes the frequently intersectional nature of social justice, reviewing its diversity of working-class emancipation, women’s liberation, and racial equity; though arguably its backbone adheres closest to the materialist feminism of Marxist writers Monique Wittig and Christine Delphy, centering women as the class most essential to social liberation of the masses.

While Périot’s adaptation of Eribon isn’t the latter’s first (a 2017 stage play exists), his filmed version comfortably complements the text, explicating the story of an intellectual lamenting the betrayal of his working-class roots with the much-needed verve of recognizable and contextualized images. With most filmic assemblages, the worry is of their theoretical and potentially impenetrable nature, which can leave viewers averse to discovery, despite whatever emotional core the subject matter may possess. Happily, Returning to Reims (Fragments) bucks this trend as a deft, generation-spanning anatomy of community, one full of hope for the “liberty that the chance to study may have given her”: a liberty that many a mother of the past has wished for, and, for those in the fight for justice today, still do.


Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.

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