‘France’ (‘Les Habitants’): Film Review

Veteran documentary filmmaker Raymond Depardon takes a tour of his own country.

With dozens of feature-length documentaries and hundreds, if not thousands, of original photographs, Raymond Depardon is perhaps the greatest living chronicler of French life, capturing everything from the Kafkaesque machinations of criminal law (Delits flagrants, The 10th Judicial Court: Judicial Hearings) to the hard-knocks tranquility of farming communities (Modern Life, Profils paysans) to the unseen byways of the government and media (Reporters, 1974: une partie de campagne).

He is very much the Gallic version of Frederick Wiseman, although his movies tend to focus less on institutions than on the individuals caught up in them, offering up a comprehensive portrait of les français that’s at once brutally honest and filled with shreds of humor and warmth. For his latest film — entitled Les Habitants (The Inhabitants) in French and simply France internationally — Depardon and his longtime producer/sound recordist Claudine Nougaret travelled across their country in an RV, stopping in small towns and cities to invite people inside their trailer, where they engaged in one-on-one conversations that are presented without commentary.   

The Bottom Line

An affectionately realistic portrait of a France we seldom see.

It’s an intimate way to capture the changing face of a nation that most of us associate with the glamorous world of Paris, but which in reality is made up of working-class denizens — many of them immigrants — scraping to get by in places we’ve never heard of. By concentrating on that France, rather than on the one seen on TV and in most movies, Depardon delivers both a generous love letter and necessary corrective to our image of the French people, in a film that should receive a genuine embrace at home while traveling abroad to festivals and art houses already familiar with the director’s oeuvre.

Per the press notes, Depardon was preparing to leave on a location scout to Chad when the Charlie Hebdo attacks occurred, prompting him to abandon the project he was working on and focus instead on a new one involving his fellow countrymen. Throughout the following spring, he traveled to 15 locations across Gaul and filmed 90 different conversations within his trailer, hiding behind a curtain so that his subjects could speak freely with one another about anything and everything, though most of the discussions center around personal issues: babies, breakups, divorces, unemployment, weight loss, grandkids, seduction, cohabitation, etc.

An early scene features a provincial couple talking about their future child, and it’s mimicked by a closing sequence with two young African-origin lovebirds discussing the possibility of making a life together. While both moments are filled with hope — and the idea that the coming generation of Frenchies will be white and black — they bookend other scenes that are less upbeat, revealing people beset by financial and marital woes, or else fears of an uncertain future where jobs and stability are hard to come by. (An early and rather disturbing scene also has two high school kids crudely detailing their sexual exploits, including what sounds like a possible rape.)

Despite what some could consider a pessimistic outlook or a certain form of “miserablism,” Depardon manages to mine many such instances for affection and laughs, while capturing the creativity of all the natural, unscripted dialogue — some of it pronounced with heavy-duty accents and lots of local slang. If the filmmaker’s depiction of French life is perhaps skewed in a specific direction (blue collar, immigrant, often Muslim), it’s reminiscent of Wiseman’s generally harmonious vision of a multicultural America in his latest work, In Jackson Heights, and both movies concentrate on a section of the population that, in the years to come, will likely grow in numbers and stature.

Shooting on 35mm, the helmer’s minimalist approach nonetheless yields its visual rewards, offering up images of la France ordinaire — desolate village squares, bland modernist apartment blocks, people who would never make the cover of Elle or Vogue — that contain their own quiet beauty. While the majority of the film is set within the RV, Depardon and his team hit the road between setups, at which point a playful score by Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech, Read My Lips) takes over to accompany the crew toward parts unknown.

Production companies: Palmeraie et Desert, France 2 Cinema
Director: Raymond Depardon
Producer: Claudine Nougaret
Director of photography: Raymond Depardon
Editor: Pauline Gaillard
Composer: Alexandre Desplat
Sales: Wild Bunch

In French
Not rated, 84 minutes