In the Name of the Land

3 Stars

M, 103 minutes

Review by © Jane Freebury

French farmers sure know how to stage a media event. In recent times, they have let sheep loose at the Louvre, dumped tonnes of pumpkins and manure at the doors of government buildings. A recent demo saw a battalion of tractors from around the country descend on Paris to protest about falling prices and the EU common agricultural policy.

The French agricultural community seems to be able to make its voice heard, however In the Name of the Land is the story of an individual farmer who kept his worries to himself.

a proud and self-reliant individual who felt driven to battle on alone

It’s the heartfelt story of Pierre Jarjeau (played by the popular Guillaume Canet) a devoted husband and father of two, who loved the land but the farming life got the better of him. Canet, not instantly recognisable in a wig with a bald patch, has rarely been better in the role of a proud and self-reliant individual who felt driven to battle on alone.

In the Name of the Land is written and directed by Edouard Bergeon, the son and grandson of farmers. He quit the land to become a photojournalist, though he has in a sense returned with a feature film that is based on the story of his own father and his travails with the family farm.

In the late 1970s, Pierre had recently returned from several years in the US. Spending his time among cattle ranchers who ran herds of 10,000 head in the wide open, sparsely populated spaces of Wyoming.

Pierre reclaims his sweetheart, Claire (Veerle Baetens), and takes over the family farm, Grands Bois, undertaking to buy it from his father, Jacques (Rufus), a steely-eyed, implacable old autocrat, as hard as his son was gentle and loving. When Pierre was signing on the dotted line committing to the purchase, why was I having a sense of déjà vu?

French rural dramas sometimes speak of quiet desperation and read like Greek tragedy

Ah yes. It took me back to a film in 2011, another devastating portrait of rural life, You Will Be My Son. That film was about a winemaker (Niels Arestrup in the role) who also made his son’s life hell and selected the son of his steward to take over the business.

From time to time, a gothic strain emerges in French rural dramas, like the recent Bloody Milk, that speaks of quiet desperation and reads like Greek tragedy.

With its big country canvas and optimistic opening mood, In the Name of the Land starts out rather like a Western. Whether riding his BMW motorbike or striding through the rich earth of his fields, Pierre seems like a man with a future.

The confidence is offset by a slight but growing sense of dread. Whether it is the risk of injury through careless use of machinery, or the chance that Pierre’s teenage son Thomas (Anthony Bajon) has an accident while tearing through the countryside on his new mountain bike. When disaster does arrive, it seems inevitable from the start.

Despite his innate cockiness, it seems Pierre is in over his head, heavily invested in yet another new scheme to pull him through. Whether it’s goats or chickens, each bold new business plan seems to fall short of the objective.

As Pierre becomes a chain-smoker with blood pressure going through the roof, and impossible for his family to deal with, a palpable sense of impending disaster is taking hold of the narrative.

When Pierre pays his father a visit, a rare event since the old man became a widower, Jacques never thinks to suspend loan repayments or offer support. All he can say is ‘work is the only cure’.

Jacques was farming in the early days of the EU common agricultural policy, when there was less competition, and less regulation. His son was a dedicated and competent farmer like him, but more inclined to be entrepreneurial and accept more risk.

What exactly made for different career outcomes for the two men is never entirely clear. More backstory would have helped this intimate, sad tale.

In the Name of the Land did big business at the French box office last year, but with audiences outside the cities. It suggests that empathy for the rural sector among city folk in France may still have a way to go.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 November 2020