Based on the 2009 novel of the same name from French writer Laurent Mauvignier, this historical drama from Belgian director Lucas Belvaux exposes the often hidden scars of war.
It is 2003 in a village in Burgundy. There is a subdued gathering in a local hall to celebrate the 60th birthday of Solange (Catherine Frot). A late guest, Solange’s elder brother Bernard, known as Feu de Bois, (Gérard Depardieu) arrives and makes his way through the crowd that gathers as one to witness the sibling exchange. His gift to her of a fantastically expensive brooch elicits comments of his being a thief from some of the gathered family that draw attention to why this man is more of a spectre at the feast than the Prodigal son.
Following a racial slur to one of the guests that provokes another saying, “You didn’t always give Arabs the brush off”, Bernard leaves the party to dine alone in a local café. When he returns drunk and dangerous, the two long rows of diners exude palpable discomfort as old bitterness rises like curdled milk while racist slurs and accusations of the selfishness that allows his sister to be in the kitchen on her birthday spill from his mouth. These slurs are directed at Saïd Chefraoui (Farid Labri), whose close link to the family is not clear, and result in Bernard being bodily removed from the gathering.
His cousin Rabut has known him through boyhood and manhood in the army during the Algerian war of Independence. His weary and wary resignation is nailed by Jean Pierre Darraussin as he watches the drama unfold. Bernard’s subsequent visit to Saïd’s house, where further birthday preparations are visible, is ugly and menacing, cementing his outsider status within the village and the family.
Using flashback scenes and narration by Bernard or Rabut, the film takes us to the Algerian war in the ‘60s and to their earlier life, gradually giving insights into Bernard’s character. This device frankly takes a bit of adjusting to in order to realise which of them is speaking, but is fine once that hurdle is crossed.
Yoann Zimmer gives a taut performance as the young Bernard who, even back then, is an outsider, preferring prayer to prostitutes and valuing punishment over forgiveness, yet visits the home of army comrade Idir (Ahmed Hammoud) who is a Harki (a Muslim Algerian who served in the French Army) and married Mireille (Fleur Fitoussi) an Algerian girl. We learn that behind his rigid views and bitterness is an attempt to address his life and past faults.
With Depardieu on form as the man hated by so many yet nursing his own very private wounds, this film cleverly lays bare the complexities of allegiances and acquired attitudes that make up being human while revealing the mutually dehumanising acts of war and in the vicious circle of vengeance.
Frot as his little sister Solange perfectly embraces the role of a woman who has come through life with this family and has used up all her resources. She alone is so aware of his inner conflict behind his rough and bluff exterior as she alone was the recipient of his self-censoring of letters from Algeria that protected her while maintaining his family loyalty only to her.
Real news footage of early days post war Algeria, that shows demobbed men carrying bundles containing gifts home but with real burdens inside their heads, serves as an excellent symbol for this striking film that thoroughly deserves to be seen.