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Retour à Reims (Fragments)


Returning to Reims (Fragments) | 2021 Cannes Film Festival Review

Returning to Reims (Fragments) | 2021 Cannes Film Festival Review

Blue is the Warmest Collar: Periot’s Projects a Sublime Visualization of Potent Memoir

For his third feature length documentary, Jean-Gabriel Périot tackles the celebrated 2009 memoir by Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims (Fragments) (only recently translated into English in 2018). A celebrated writer and professor (his first publication was a lauded autobiography on Michel Foucault in 1991), his memoir provides an intimate anecdotal family history which simultaneously charts the political narrative of France’s working class at large from post-WWII on.

Periot makes this a stellar visual odyssey, tossing in Adele Haenel as narrator to voice Eribon’s prose (the commingling and collapsing of sexual orientations and identities from this creative choice leaves a profound impression), weaving her voice over a series of footage from both documentary and narrative cinematic elements. Some familiar faces from the annals of Gallic cinema flash across the screen, but always in the service of underlining particular period sentiments which, in turn, were reflected in Eribon’s family lineage.

Eribon’s prose is poetic, whether in the foreboding quips relaying the “forces of the social order,” the “ironmongery of misfortune” or even the more clinical terminologies (“social endogamy” indeed), and flows beautifully from the mouth of Haenel. The pieces of French narrative films allow a sort of levity in what eventually feels despairing (from flashes of Michele Morgan to Vincent Lindon, which is similar to Palfi’s montage narrative in 2012’s Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen), but some of the most powerful elements are documentary footage or news reels featuring working class men and women reflecting on social attitudes and realities. Through the story of Eribon’s grandparents and parents, we see how cultural phases created an endless vortex from which the working class could never escape. And not unlike across the Atlantic, where white, poor working class populations were similarly conditioned to despise racial others, Returning to Reims unfortunately finds history repeating itself, such as the anecdote about how the working class came to vote for Le Pen and the National Front.

Resignedly, Eribon’s childhood is referred to as being marked by ‘ordinary racism,’ where white flight assisted furthering misunderstanding and division. Project housing which once saw white French working class clamoring to have windows and bathrooms for the first time would only be abandoned decades later with incoming Algerian immigrants.

The uniting force of May, 1968 was another instance of temporary camaraderie, the kind which upsettingly never seems to transcend during cultural ‘down time.’ Periot’s sentiments and presentation, while technically a documentary, has the resounding pulse of something like Marin Karmitz’s 1972 title Beat for Beat, which outside of film festival play, has fallen into obscurity. And this is perhaps the importance and hope for this humanizing historical trajectory of capitalism’s significant ills, a chance to illuminate once again the social disparities which are continually and conveniently brushed under the rug for those who benefit from our distraction and forgetfulness.

Reviewed on July 11th at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival – Directors’ Fortnight. 80 Mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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