BERLINALE17 REVIEW: Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau [Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves] [2017]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 183 minutes | Release Date: 2017 (Canada)
Studio: A.A. Studios
Director(s): Mathieu Denis & Simon Lavoie
Writer(s): Mathieu Denis & Simon Lavoie

“People do not yet see they are miserable. We will show them!”

There’s universality to Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie‘s Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau [Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves] even if it is very much a Québécois film. Marking their second collaboration together (after 2011’s Laurentie), the two were desperate to tell a tale about young radicals on the cusp of disillusionment after the failed Maple Spring protests (an infamous series of student demonstrations and strikes fighting back against the government’s proposed tuition hike for universities). Here was a generation emboldened to be confrontational and show their conviction to the world only to find the war fizzling out after one hundred days—the new term seeing students go back to class. What of those who relented? What of those who would never give up?

These are the upstarts threatening revolution that countries around the globe hope to spark when injustice rears its head. To band together for a common cause and see results is a wonderful thing, but the journey isn’t to be diminished regardless of the outcome. They showed their strength and pride much like thousands have across America to display their feelings about President Trump and an administration willing to push through laws that may or may not violate civil liberties in hopes the nation will tire of its opposition. At a certain point the very action of making sure your voice is heard proves a success. Whatever it is you’re fighting may come to pass anyway, but you fought it anyway. You refused to simply take it lying down.

Denis and Lavoie have created a quartet of just such activists: four twenty-somethings who refuse to rest when others have because they are “awakened” to the tyranny and complacency turning their country into a land of inequality and disrepair. They seek to expose the masses to this truth, to trigger their humanity and drive to work towards something other than the capitalist machine. It may start with vandalism and pranks, but that kind of radical thinking will always escalate further into terrorism. Think “Mr. Robot” or Anonymous as tech-world counterparts, groups taking it upon themselves to “free” the sheep from chains they’ve come to believe are requisite to life. They form The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Quebec, write manifestos, and look to throw a wrench in society’s gears.

Their path is a three-hour operatic epic of philosophical musings and evolving horrors. It opens with a five-minute overture set against black, includes an intermission of instruments screaming, and becomes marked by quotations superimposed above rusty hole-riddled metal walls or the actors themselves. Each vignette holds a message to contemplate, actions to admire or vilify depending on your own politics or stomach for brazen anarchy. Sometimes the characters (Emmanuelle Lussier-Martinez‘s Ordinne Nuovo, Laurent Bélanger‘s Tumulto, Gabrielle Tremblay‘s Klas Batalo, and Charlotte Aubin‘s Giutizia) appear to be speaking directly to us, naked and impassioned with incendiary rhetoric and crazy ideas pushing them to the brink of morality either through indifference, ignorance, or pure sociopathic rage. And their inspiration is shown via archival footage to get the blood flowing.

No stranger to the subject matter, Denis follows up his historical fiction of the Quebec Liberation Front in Corbo with a more abstractly poetic journey of emotion. We still follow characters becoming radicalized, but the progress is less linear and concrete. Whereas Corbo supplied something to watch, Revolution provides a conceptual experience uninterested in generic plot structure. He and Lavoie take us behind the curtain to see the communal notions of this rebellion transcending gender, finances, and cultural norms. We see glimpses of their brashness (Lussier-Martinez flipping the middle finger to everyone she comes across through an affected yet determined scowl), creativity (Aubin painting gigantic murals with aggression), futility (Tremblay earning money as a “masseuse”), and fidelity (Bélanger’s self-punishment in response to letting individual desire risk group salvation).

The filmmakers use multiple aspect ratios with no discerning pattern that I could see (the ultra wide first appearing for location shots, the regular for acting, and square for archives, but is inconsistent afterwards). The cast is naked for a good third of the film—inhibitions erased when inside their apartment (and sometimes out) both physically and psychologically. They do what they must for the mission: stabbing fathers, forsaking mothers, and prostituting themselves for the money to survive such “selfless” existences. And each actor lends a ferociousness to match his/her vulnerability. They’ll punch someone in the face as quickly as shed tears when letting down their “brothers in arms.” We therefore simultaneously respect their principled confidence and loathe the hubristic ego that lets them do what they do.

In a wonderful bit of authenticity, however, Denis and Lavoie let the latter turn into a self-loathing on the part the characters in Act Two. Suddenly their actions come at a cost that they may not be ready to pay. This began as a vociferous war against bureaucratic greed and transformed into something bigger that no one but these four truly seem to care about. When activism becomes terrorism—heroes becoming villains—you must question your motives. Can you live with the collateral damage? Is it bearable when the victims are faceless but not when they’re bound to you by blood? When does the steely façade of strength reveal itself to be a mask hiding the fear of growing up and joining that which you hate, if ever?

These lofty questions are what make Revolution an important and contemplative work of art. They deliver a framework for which this communal exercise of passion and rage can springboard from. Everything from speech, destruction, violence, and sex (Tremblay earned a Canadian Screen Award nomination for her role, the first for a transgender actor) is shown without filter, taboos usurped for a stark realism many people won’t be ready or willing to experience. The film is destined to be divisive due to its content, politics, and structure, but that is what makes it a crucial document for the present. I couldn’t tell you what any of the Quebec news footage was (save a Justin Trudeau campaign video), but I understood the emotions. Scenes of police brutality don’t need context.

So even if the impetus behind the piece is foreign to me, the goal to make an “engaged, radical, and no-compromise film” in today’s climate isn’t. Watching this group forces us to acknowledge our own viewpoints on the issues at-hand and discover what we are willing to do in the battles to come. We are reaching a period of unrest where it’s impossible to ignore politics out of privilege. We see Ordinne Nuovo, Tumulto, and Giutizia reject their support systems (sometimes very rich ones) to do what’s “right.” But is what they do in the name of the under-represented? Is it truly to expose the world’s ugliness? Or are they ignorantly acting half-cocked, drowning in rhetoric that one archival interview reveals to be outdated by its own author?

courtesy of Berlinale. photos © Eva-Maude T-Champoux

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