At its most provocative, Lucas Belvaux’s This Is Our Land captures the intimate details of how far-right political parties—or, less euphemistically, white supremacists—rebrand themselves for the 21st century. Modeled after the National Front of France, the film’s Patriotic Block claims to be neither left nor right—a common bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu that flatters a disenfranchised voter’s senses of independence and hopefulness. Supporters of the Patriotic Block are encouraged not to utter racist sentiments, but, just as importantly, not to condemn others for voicing them. In other words, the modern Patriotic Block is to be the party of innuendo, though, if Donald Trump has proved anything, innuendo isn’t a quality that the far right requires. At one point in the film, someone likens Arabs to raccoons, and subsequently accuses an offended partygoer of closemindedness for refusing to hear his “side of the argument.” This has proven to be a winning strategy for conservative firebrands all over the world: attack and then feign indignity as if attacked.
Tellingly set around Pas-de-Calais in northern France, which is shown to be rife with empty storefronts, a nest of ghost towns born of economic hardship, Belvaux’s film follows Pauline (Émilie Dequenne)—a home nurse who works with immigrants and is a daughter of a staunchly pro-union communist, Jacques (Patrick Descamps)—as she’s seduced by the Patriotic Block into running for mayor of her town. Pauline is meant to serve as a puppet for Agnès Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob), who’s a very thinly veiled fictionalization of Marine Le Pen. Like Le Pen, Agnès was born into fascist politics and has a name to live both up and down to if she’s to become president of France. And so Agnès attempts to woo younger liberal voters with candidates like Pauline while sating her conservative base with vigorous promises to purge France of outsiders, which will restore the country’s economy for reasons that conveniently aren’t specified. (Last year, Le Pen’s strategy fell short.)
This Is Our Land asks how someone like Pauline, an ostensible humanist personally acquainted with harassed immigrants, can make a turn toward a party that’s powered by bitterness, hatred, and ignorance. For both better and worse, Belvaux never answers this question. On the one hand, the ease and inexplicability of Pauline’s political conversion is chilling, suggesting the almost narcotic persuasiveness of stature. In essence, Pauline is given what conservative voters, from supporters of Le Pen to Trump, are promised: newfound respect. Lonely, as well as abused and taken for granted by her patients, Pauline feels that she can exert more control as a flattered politician, even if she appears to hold absolutely no convictions of her own. On the other hand, Pauline is such a cipher that her transformation lacks the lurid power of, say, the protagonists’ embrace of Nazism in American History X, which was rooted in fury that was so palpable as to be biblical.
Pauline is a cipher because Belvaux’s theme and narrative require her to be, as this film is less a melodrama than a tedious op-ed procedural. Astonishingly naïve even for a political novice, Pauline claims with a straight face that her private life has nothing to do with politics. She dates a neo-Nazi, Stanko (Guillaume Gouix), and is oblivious to his fascist tattoo and penchant for taking her son on terrorist training excursions. Most gallingly, Pauline is shocked when her immigrant friends and patients spurn her in light of her embrace of the Patriotic Block. Her ignorance bolsters Belvaux’s assertion that far-right voters live in a fantasy land, willingly oblivious to the effects of their beliefs, but this contrivance robs the film of stature or ambiguity.
Belvaux sidelines the emotional textures that might complicate all his sermonizing. Jacques, who’s dying from exposure to asbestos due to a lifetime spent in metalwork, is This Is Our Land’s most poignant character, and his rejection of Pauline is its most powerful scene. But he’s forgotten for large portions of the narrative, his reconciliation with Pauline occurring off screen. Stanko, an ex, is a significant influence in Pauline’s flirtation with fascism, yet the rekindling of their relationship is also almost entirely elided—taken for granted merely as a necessary variable in Belvaux’s equation.
Characters in the film rarely discuss politics with any degree of specificity, and so we’re never allowed to psychologically grasp how Pauline separates the Patriotic Block from the violence it encourages, and how she’s able to morally condone herself for such behavior. How can she condemn Stanko’s terrorism with earnest self-righteousness, given that she aids his superiors? This Is Our Land is driven by Belvaux’s desperation to understand how the far-right lives with itself, and is shackled by his inability to dramatize it.