Returning to Reims


Laying bare the social inequalities and the violence of exploitation by going back in time from the memory and the everyday of his own family, in order to decrypt the general political evolutions of the workers’ society – it’s to this task that sociologist and philosopher Didier Eribon dedicated himself with his autobiographical essay Returning to Reims. Published in 2009, the book was bound to draw the attention of committed documentarian Jean-Gabriel Périot (appreciated for A German Youth and Our Defeats), whose work feeds on social dives into the past and very personal rereadings of official History in order to illuminate and question the present. The director (and exceptional editor) develops this approach in Returning to Reims, unveiled at the 53rd Directors’ Fortnight (during the 74th Cannes Film Festival), exclusively through archival images (both real and fictional) very judiciously chosen and smartly positioned on a text read by Adèle Haenel.

Constructed in two movements, the film weaves itself from the 1930s around the figure of the Eribon great-grandmother, teenage mother at 17, kicked out of her house and who will have four children all placed in a charity hospice when their mother leaves for Germany for compulsory labor (Service du Travail Obligatoire) (she will also be shaved at the Liberation for having slept with the occupier). Having just obtained her study certificate, the writer’s grandmother started working at 14 as a maid, suffering sexual harassment from her employers (silence or lose your job). Because “the laws of social endogamy are linked to school reproduction:” the children of workers were very quickly kicked out of primary school towards the workplace while those from the bourgeoisie continued their studies in high school. Worse yet, the former would psychologically eliminate themselves, contributing to reinforcing the tightness of social frontiers.

This separation, amplified by segregation in housing (“civil barracks”), by an extreme poverty of the working-class and by the physically inhuman universe of the assembly line in the factory, was experienced even more harshly by women, forced to have illegal abortions and under the control of their men (a masculine mentality shared across the entire society). Nevertheless, there was then a workers’ solidarity, a community united by popular balls and by the support of the Communist Party. This feeling of belonging will fade (that’s the second movement of the film) towards the end of the 20th century, with the Communist Party adhering to an anti-immigrant rhetoric, the rise to power of an extreme right riding on the defense of popular classes and the birth of the concept of social pact atomizing individuals and numbing the polarization of the struggles.

A fascinating oeuvre of memorial reflection and a virtuoso film in its assembling of very diverse illustrating archives (news, documentaries, fiction) that are always relevant, Returning to Reims is particularly effective in its more intimate first movement. The second half (the political repercussions on the contemporary situation) is just as excellent, but will be less surprising in terms of analysis, with the color of the determined commitment of Jean-Gabriel Périot no longer needing to be demonstrated, which is all to his credit.


Fabien Lemercier
11 July 2021