Given a minimum of competence, there's virtually no way that a film of Emile Zola's novel Germinal could be a complete failure. The subject matter is too inherently powerful and Zola's dramatizing of it too inherently skillful and impassioned. The trouble is, whatever the level of competence, there's also little chance of Germinal's making a great film. A director with the gifts to fully capture the feel of Zola's work on film would probably have too distinctive a sensibility to sublimate it to that of another artist.
In any case, Claude Berri, who directed the current version, isn't such a fellow. Berri has a big reputation that rests, for audiences in this country, almost entirely on Jean de Florette, his fine adaptation of half of a Marcel Pagnol tale (his film of the other half, Manon of the Spring, was embarrassingly inferior). But while Berri can work capably on a large scale, his is not an epic imagination.
Sadly, he tries for an epic tone, anyway. What's frustrating about this is that not only is he not up to it, it wouldn't be the best approach for this material, anyway. The book, the 13th of the 20 in Zola's Rougan-Macquart cycle, was based on actual events. It has the bite and angry immediacy of fine, muckraking journalism, and is surely one of the least dated of 19th-century novels. But Berri's Germinal feels like old-fashioned historical drama--second-rate David Lean or sixth-rate Eisenstein.
There's no sweep or momentum to the workers' riots, which are, of necessity, the central images of the narrative. Riots are among those few human events which are as dramatic in real life as the movies make them look, but Berri's depictions of a violent coal-mining strike in northern France in the 1880s are aimless and ambling, and inspire neither the terror nor the exhilaration that they should.
Not that Berri manages the story's more intimate side all that much better. He hobbles one of the key performances, that of Renaud, a socialist folk musician who makes his film debut as Etienne, the strike organizer. Renaud looks the part, and has some good gloomy moments, but Berri's leapfrogging structure keeps us from seeing what turns this guy, who at the beginning is just a transient grateful for a job, into a far-sighted revolutionary leader.
Since we aren't shown the process by which he's pushed into action, Renaud's Etienne almost becomes an example of the mine owner's bitter stereotype of the ungrateful working slob: give a guy a job, put a few sous in his pocket, and the next thing you know, he's stabbed you in the back. This is clearly unintentional, however, since Berri tidies up Etienne by omitting Zola's shrewd, unrosy portrait of the power trip his status among the workers affords him.
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But Berri's lack of inspiration here cannot fully dam up the flood that is Germinal. It's still a portrait of one of the industrial revolution's ugliest skirmishes between management and labor, and of how such conflicts often destroy not only the combatants but the bystanders. The scenes may not add up to a dramatic whole, but on an individual level, many of them still cannot fail to be gripping.
These are still coal miners, scrabbling through the belly of the Earth like insects, wrecking their health and their sanity and risking life and limb, all for below-subsistence wages. These are still mine barons and their families, living like Renaissance royalty on the miners' labors, and rationalizing it to themselves with the same line of shit rich people use today--about how the poor deserve what they get, because they insist on drinking up their wages. Whatever the film's flaws, some of Zola's deeply sane, illusion-free rage about all of this comes across.
And some of the performances triumph. That great Gallic ape Grard Depardieu may have never been more touchingly likable than he is as Maheu, the mining father--though he looks as if he's been hitting the vin ordinaire a little heavily for the impoverished state he's supposed to be in--and Laurent Terzieff is Mephistophelean as Souvarine, the affably cynical anarchist. The lovely Anny Duperey is memorable as the mine manager's adulterous wife.
But the film's quiet powerhouse is Miou-Miou. As Maheude, the miner's wife, she must play the grief of losing four members of her family in the course of the story without allowing the repetition to leave the audience in stitches by the final death. She pulls it off with some of the most cruelly precise underplaying you've ever seen--at one unforgettable point, her sobs take the form of a harsh, tearless barking, as if she'd had the wind knocked out of her. It's the sort of role that separates the real actresses from the lightweights, and Miou-Miou comes out on the high end of the former category.