Belgian-born Francophone director Guillaume Senez impressed with his first feature, Keeper, about a 15-year-old working-class boy who dreams of becoming a soccer goalie but who gets his girlfriend pregnant and becomes a father instead. His second feature, Our Struggles (Nos batailles), is again a film about fatherhood, though the paterfamilias in question is now an adult with two children who’s suddenly abandoned by his wife and has to try and keep the household going by himself. Again a serious drama that’s both intense and life-like, this is another solid work from Senez, even if the film never quite packs the same punch as his knockout debut did. With a major French-language star in the lead in Romain Duris, recently seen as the kidnapper of Getty junior in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, this Cannes Critics’ Week special screening should not only see plenty of festival bookings but also a chance at success in Francophile arthouses, at least on the old continent.
Much like the protagonist of Keeper, Struggles’ Olivier (Duris) is a decent man who’s thrown more than a few curveballs. He’s a team leader at a packaging warehouse of an Amazon-like company and when he hears Jean-Luc (Jeupeu), an older member of his team, will be fired because the work has become too physically draining for him, he tries to convince the stone-faced people of management to not let him go. It’s almost a cruel joke that Jean-Luc is nonetheless fired and then commits suicide, like he said he would, which leaves the well intentioned Olivier with a massive amount of guilt for something he very likely couldn’t prevent.
A solid sophomore effort.
And life isn’t done playing cruel jokes either, as not much later the blue collar worker’s wife, Laura (Lucie Debay), simply disappears from the lives of Olivier and their children, eight-year-old Elliot (Basile Grunberger) and his little sister, Rose (Lena Girard Voss). There’s no explanation, though the fact that perhaps she was responsible for an accident that caused the burn wounds on Elliot’s chest might have something to do with it. These twin tragedies of sorts, which caused both Jean-Luc and Laura to refuse to face their problems head-on, form the backdrop against which Olivier then has to face his own struggles as a single father, with a demanding job in an increasingly dehumanized environment and with two small kids at home.
Thankfully, Olivier’s sister Betty (Laetitia Dosch), a theater actress, has some time to come and help out and occasionally their mother, Joelle (Dominique Valadie), lends a hand as well. Senez’ tone remains quite realistic and while his protagonist is again a well meaning but in-over-his-head father, his women are no fantasy characters either. Joelle insists on her son getting a babysitter or at least some kind of help — though how will he pay for it? — and later shockingly confesses there was a time in her own marriage-with-kids that she thought of leaving too. “But you didn’t!” Olivier insists, clearly wondering for a split second if there’s an unpredictable monster lurking in every woman in his life.
But that’s of course not true and especially sister Betty’s stay is initially a joy. In one of the film’s best scenes, she guesses, correctly, that Olivier just hooked up with an ex from work (Laure Calamy) and thus had sex for the first time since Laura’s departure. The moment creates a wonderful moment of sibling complicity that feels real. “You also have the right to a good time,” Betty tells him, and hearing those words out loud are clearly both a necessity and a relief for Olivier. That said, they don’t see eye-to-eye on everything and her departure, when she needs to leave for rehearsals in another city, is something of a tragedy for Olivier and the kids, with Rose actually refusing to talk anymore and starting to wet her bed again.
The well named Our Struggles portrays a daily grind that will be familiar to almost everyone who has had to try to simultaneously keep afloat professionally and privately. (This is obviously at least a little easier for most couples with kids than for single parents; though fellow Critics’ Week title One Day shows that even for individuals that are part of a couple this can be near-impossible.) Exactly because of the universality of the struggle, the film never quite becomes a specific character study of Olivier, with Duris playing him as a kind of everyman who might have a few specific tics — like talking a lot and not listening when he gets worried or angry — but who’s first and foremost a quite universal and very relatable father figure and employee, who wants what’s best for his colleagues and for his kids.
Simultaneously, the feature outlines the tenderly humanistic worldview of Senez, whose characters aren’t bad people and whose cinema doesn’t judge but observes and lets audiences make up their own minds about the state of the world we live in, both inside our homes and outside.
Production companies: Iota Production, Les Films Pelleas, Savage Film
Cast: Romain Duris, Laure Calamy, Laetitia Dosch, Lucie Debay, Basile Grunberger, Lena Girard Voss, Dominique Valadie, Sarah Le Picard, Cedric Vieira, Jeupeu
Director: Guillaume Senez
Screenplay: Guillaume Senez, Raphaelle Desplechin
Producers: Isabelle Truc, David Thion, Philippe Martin
Director of photography: Elin Kirschfink
Production designer: Florin Dima
Costume designer: Julie Lebrun
Editor: Julie Brenta
Casting: Laure Cochener, Sebastian Moradiellos
Sales: Be for Films
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
No rating, 98 minutes