HE COMES INTO the 60th birthday party of his sister Solange, like a violent bull in a proverbial China shop, armed with a gift everyone knows he could not afford. The guests fear and hate him. He has an aggressive almost non-verbal approach which prickles your empathy. This is Bernard Feu-du-Bois (Gerard Depardieu), and he strikes the tone for Lucas Belvaus’s extraordinarily fine film Homefront with a fragile directness that will haunt you. The film features on this year’s European Film Festival in South Africa. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the entire festival is available online and without cost from 12-22 November.
Reflecting on the colonialist war between 1954 and 1962, which eventually saw Algeria gain her independence from colonial rule, the tale told is a specific, yet universal one. It’s the kind of material that evokes the nub of films of the ilk of Michael Cimino’s 1978 film The Deerhunter or Alan Parker’s 1984 Birdy, as it does the heart of Granger Korff’s Angolan war memories 19 with a Bullet, published in 2009. Indeed, it gives grist to the literary mill first constructed by young men of the ilk of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon as they contemplated their youth as fodder to the war machine of the Great War in 1914-18.
Toss in a narrative of racism complicated by stereotypical understandings of where people fit into the scheme of things, an unrelenting religious vein peppered with the challenges of loss and trauma, and you get to understand the aggressive horror of Bernard from the inside out.
When first you see Yoann Zimmer, 20-year-old version of the Bernard character, however, you may feel amazed that such a beautiful young performer was cast in the young reflection of the curmudeonly, fat, old Depardieu, but as the work develops and Zimmer gets into his spiteful, complicated stride, so do you realise the brilliance of this gesture. There is an underpinning in this work of how exposure to horror bleeds into the complex reality of being a man with terrible secrets to carry in a heteronormative society which has its own expectations.
With images and elements that you will hold onto: a tortoise broken by conflict, a brother calling his sister a slut, as she dies in childbirth, an understanding of values that comes of terror, this is a beautiful film which is often difficult to look at in its reflection on cruelty. The horror of the French village of Orodour-sur-Glane which was destroyed to its foundations by Nazis in 1944 is a thread and a yardstick which runs though this work, premised on the context in which a young man learns to kill, maim and break, before he learns to love.
Homefront (Des Hommes) is directed by Lucas Belvaus and features a cast headed by Eve Arbez, Inès Baha, Naïm Baha, Charles Besnard, Alain Bouchet, Amelle Chahbi, Catherine Chevallier, Bertrand Constant, Eric Cuvelier, Yascine Dahmani, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Antoine de Foucauld, Brigitte De Villepoix, Gérard Depardieu, Lilian Dugois, Touria El Ataoui, François Feroleto, Michel Ferracci, Rim Fethi, Fleur Fitoussi, Catherine Frot, Kamal Haimoud, Mikaël Halimi, Ahmed Hammoud, Sylvain Hawawini, Mohamed Kafi, Safaa Khatami, Félix Kysyl, Farid Larbi, Félix Laudière, Jean-Baptiste Le Vaillant, Alexis Logie, Coréane Marchand, Léo Misset, Clotilde Mollet, Yannick Morzelle, Simon Parmentier, Sophie Pincemaille, Jérôme Robart, Julie Roux, François Saint Pol, Hatim Sadiki, Anthony Sonigo, Edouard Sulpice, Charlotte Talpaert, Gaïa Warnant, Yoann Zimmer. Written by Lucas Belvaus based on the novel by Laurent Mauvignier, it is produced by David Frenkel and Patrick Quinet and features creative input by Guillaume Deffontaines (cinematography), Ludo Troch (editing), Leila Fournier and Agathe Hassenforder (casting), Frédérique Belvaux (production design) and Dorothée Guiraud (costumes). In French with English subtitles, it is part of the 7th European Film Festival South Africa, screening online and without cost from 12-22 November 2020.