Our Struggles | 2019 Panorama Film Festival Review
Strife Sentence: Senez Presents Quietly Effective Domestic Drama
Director Guillaume Senez teams with writer Raphaëlle Desplechin (sister of Arnaud and Cesar winner for Mathieu Amalric’s On Tour, 2010) for sophomore feature, Our Struggles, a quiet, unassuming domestic drama about a blue-collar dad left in the lurch. It’s a scenario we’ve seen countless times before, and yet, like his 2015 debut Keeper, Senez balances a fine line between kitchen-sink and human rights subtexts.
Sans any major dramatic outbursts, the simmering humanistic narrative of this French-Belgian co-production is kept afloat by a strong performance from Romain Duris in one of his finest dramatic leads in a decade. The balance of work vs. home life intersects with unyielding gender expectations of heterosexual nuclear familial patterns in realistic ways, with streaks of levity allowing for Senez and Desplechin to sidestep the expected miserabilism typical of comparable narratives.
While consumed with union duties at work, Olivier Vallet (Duris) is shocked when his wife Laura (Lucie Debay) suddenly leaves one day, an unpleasant situation discovered when she neglects to pick their two young children up from school. Perplexed at her absence, he’s unable to file a missing person’s report since she took her belongings. Shortly after, a postcard arrives and the truth hits home—Laura has abandoned them without explaining why. As he attempts to juggle increasingly tense work situations, Olivier tries to find out why Laura may have left, discovering she may have been more unhappy with their life together than she had let on. With the help of his sister and mother, Olivier struggles to find a new rhythm in this unwelcome reality.
Although Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) is an obvious comparable template, Senez displays subtler sensibilities in keeping with a fine tradition of similar French contemporary directors. The empathetic antidote to something like Xavier Legrand’s impressive but distressing domestic abuse drama Custody (2017), Our Struggles is also an essay on working class realties which inform day-to-day foibles and persona defining workplace politics. As such, Senez follows in the footsteps of early Laurent Cantet and Dardenne Bros. offerings, confirming himself a peer of Stéphane Brizé, whose recent Vincent Lindon titles The Measure of a Man (2015) and At War (2018) are kindred spirits to Duris’ Olivier Vallet.
As the emotionally distressed wife, Lucie Debay (who also recently starred alongside Duris in Nicolas Boukrief’s The Confession, a remake of the 1961 Melville classic Leon Morin, Priest) manages to make the most of her limited screen time, particularly in an emotionally fraught breakdown at work as she responds to a client’s distress at not being able to afford her purchases. The exchange perfectly exemplifies her character’s unvoiced depths of an unfulfilled existence.
Duris shoulders the film’s heavy lifting, and the celebrated French actor doesn’t disappoint, sharing a handful of frazzled interactions with problematic human resource representatives who have forgotten how humanity is supposed to be part of their job description. Tempestuous interactions with family members arriving in the wake of Laura’s disappearance feel authentic, with a brief but resonant supporting turn from Laetitia Dosch as his prickly sister. Senez purportedly required his cast to improvise dialogue based on the parameters of the sequences, a tactic which may account for some unexpectedly empathetic elements in predictable scenarios.
Although Our Struggles might eventually feel too slight to make a major impression (Senez premiered out of Critics’ Week in Cannes in 2018 while the film nabbed Cesar nods for Duris and Best Foreign Film), it’s a well-crafted working class drama on resiliency and sacrifice.
Reviewed on May 4th at the Panorama Film Festival at MoMI. 98 Mins.