Cannes 2015: The Anarchists review - heady politics, merciless beatings, free love

Tahar Rahim and Adèle Exarchopoulos give standout performances in a thriller about a young policeman going undercover in radical circles in fin-de-siècle Paris

Cannes’ Critics Week sidebar opens with a film that couldn’t be any more French if it tried. Heady ideological discussion accompanied by swirling fogs of cigarette smoke; merciless beatings handed out by “the pigs”; pouting 22-year-olds who equate political freedom with, you know, other kinds of freedom ... if this film didn’t exist, someone would be working on it right now. Not that the above is any kind of criticism, director and co-writer Elie Wajeman has come up with a vastly entertaining police-infiltration thriller that uses fin-de-siècle radicalism as a exqusitely atmospheric backdrop – though anyone looking for trenchant insights into the pyschopolitics of propaganda by the deed won’t find much here.

Tahar Rahim, of A Prophet and Grand Central, plays a blank-slate foot copper called Jean who takes on the task of penetrating a small anarchist cell operating in a nail factory; he appears to espouse no particular political beliefs at the outset, though later on the film suggests he may not have been entirely honest. Jean cosies up to radical firebrand Elisée, the charismatic leader of the group, and through Elisée he gets even cosier with Judith, the pouting 22-year-old mentioned above. Judith is played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, the actor who shared in the Palme d’Or last year for Blue Is the Warmest Colour, and Exarchopoulos is very good here, in a role with somewhat limited scope; though denied much chance to participate in the group’s actions, she does a good line in frustrated passions that are Jean’s signal to worm his way into the heart of things.

Rahim is good too: most of the time he affects a smiling, good-natured persona – though one that is not convincing enough to deflect the suspicions of another of the group’s key players, Eugene (Guillaume Gioux). The façade cracks briefly when he runs into an old girlfriend he had callously dumped at the start of the film; he doesn’t hesitate to quietly mutter dire threats in her direction to prevent his deep cover being exposed. Jean’s moral position is consequently evasive, hard to pin down; even his (presumably genuine) passion for Judith doesn’t seem to necessarily sway him one way or the other.

As the group’s activities mount in scope and risk, Wajeman’s film runs through the traditional cruxes. Should Jean get blood on his hands in the service of a greater good? Is emotion more important than loyalty? When does activism cross over into criminality? Well, The Anarchists doesn’t come up with any particularly original thoughts on the matter, but that’s not its strength. Instead, it cooks up real heat between Rahim and Exarchopoulos, while at the same time reconstructing the turn-of-the-20th-century era in loving detail. It gets the Critics Week off to a very good start.


Andrew Pulver

The GuardianTramp

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