Cannes, France: Two years after shaking France to the core with their protests, the “Yellow Vests” were back in the spotlight Saturday, this time in a film by one of its most innovative directors.
“The Divide” by Catherine Corsini describes events at a Paris hospital during violent clashes between demonstrators and police that turned the capital’s chic neighborhoods into virtual war zones throughout 2018 and 2019.
Using handheld shots and rapid edits to capture the chaos as doctors and nurses struggle to cope, the film depicts a country in deep conflict during the presidency of former investment banker Emmanuel Macron, the main target of the angry protests.
Sparked by a petrol tax hike, the Yellow Vest movement quickly broadened to reflect widespread outrage over the plight of ordinary people and the indifference of Parisian elites.
“It was hugely important for me to talk about what is going on in France today,” Corsini told AFP in an interview.
“Our society has become more and more violent, and social misery has become a permanent state of affairs,” she said.
‘Must take a stand’
Corsini — who freely acknowledges being part of the progressive, educated, and fashionable urbanites knew as “Les Bobos” — said she came to realize “that my films must take a stand and become more political”.
Riot police in the film are depicted as violent and uncaring, while injured demonstrators overrun the hospital in a desperate bid to escape police brutality.
Corsini said she made nothing up media widely reported yellow vest protesters losing their eyes when they were hit by police projectiles. One had his hand ripped off picking up a police flash-ball grenade.
The film’s main male character, Yann, is shot in the leg by police, but worries more about losing his precarious job as a truck driver than about his injury.
In the hospital, he meets a same-sex couple going through a relationship crisis.
At first, the encounter between the provincial “prole” and the artistic Parisian couple — which is inspired by Corsini’s own relationship — is testy.
But then it morphs into a degree of mutual understanding, something Corsini said France, too, could use more of.
“Our country is full of extremes,” Corsini said. “We want both social protection, and we also want to be liberal.
“There are so many contradictions, but they have made us who we are. Opposition and rebellion hold us together,” she said, before adding: “We need to find ways to live together.”
‘Full of extremes’
France’s hospital workers are the real heros of the film.
Proud to be working for a health system that, says one, “was still free of charge when I last looked”, they are overworked, underpaid, and exasperated, but also full of humanity and humor.
They also feel deep sympathy for the yellow vest protesters and won’t denounce them to police, despite their boss’s order to do so.
“The Divide” was shot before the Covid-19 pandemic which pushed France’s hospitals and health workers to a new breaking point.
The coronavirus also put an end to the yellow vest demos, although there have been some attempts at a comeback.
In her three decades of filmmaking, the 65-year-old Corsini has made her mark primarily as a discreet but powerful voice for women’s freedom, exploring themes of homosexuality, patriarchy, and gender equality.
“The Divide” is among 24 films competing for the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or.