The Brigade (Les hommes du feu)

France (2017) Dir. Pierre Jolivet

The brigade in question is the fire service, a multi-tasking group called upon to do more than spray water on raging flames, including, but not limited to the cliché of rescuing cats stuck up trees. Not but everyone respects these brave public servants however, which makes up the framework for this tidy French drama.

Philippe (Roschdy Zem) is the captain of a fire station of volunteer fire fighters in rural southern France, who welcome their first female team member, Bénédicte (Émilie Dequenne). Bénédicte’s first call in charge doesn’t go so well and an inquiry into the situation causes Xavier (Michael Abiteboul) to worry Bénédicte’s mishap will see their station shut down.

While Bénédicte has to deal with Xavier’s sexism and her own self-esteem following this and the others have their own personal issue to occupy them, the team face the ongoing problem of nearby bush fires that they suspect have been deliberately been started, which Philippe is keen to quash before things get out of hand.

For those of us on this side of the channel and of a certain age will remember a popular 90’s TV show London’s Burning about a team of fire fighters serving our capital. I’m tempted to suggest The Brigade is a Gallic version of said show but that would be a very reductive summary, although certain plot beats and tropes are present, but that might simply be a by-product of the central premise.

In other words, a group of men risking their lives together creates a tight camaraderie that begets a certain arcane bent to their jocularity is a shared aspect in the depictions of this thankless task, as is the rush of adrenaline and military precision of their public duty. Where the comparisons end is in how London’s Burning had an hour a week for 14 years to flesh out the personal dramas of the cast.

Pierre Jolivet has only given himself 93 minutes to do something similar as well as cover the nagging mystery of the apparent pyromaniac threatening the countryside whilst giving us a firsthand view of the far-reaching service they provide. If they not playing human barbecue fodder they are also acting as paramedics and midwives too – never a dull moment in the fire brigade.

The film’s French title translates to Men Of Fire, which is either a caustic comment on the overwhelming male dominance of the ranks of the fire fighter or an egregious oversight giving Bénédicte’s arc is central to the plot. As you might expect, her arrival is not quite a cat among the pigeons scenario but as the first female at this station, her changing quarters are a small makeshift adjunct to the man’s spacious locker area.

Xavier’s initial bonhomie is tinged with a laddish mindset he finds hard to break around Bénédicte, more so as she is ranked higher than him. On the fateful first call under Bénédicte’s command, they attend to a car accident but they miss one passenger who was thrown 30 meters from the crash. Later found but in a coma, this mistake weighs heavy on Bénédicte’s mind as the complaint by his family leads to an official inquiry.

As an ongoing concern, this only surfaces every now and then, mostly to allow Xavier to persecute Bénédicte over it, eventually resolving itself in an abrupt way in the third act. This applies to the saga of the deliberately lit fires, another thread that comes to a halt in a bathetic manner that otherwise would have been a few weeks worth of story for TV drama.

The harmony of the team’s personal lives is unsurprisingly affected by this hazardous and unsociable vocation, and Jolivet shares enough of for us to appreciate the strains it puts on the loved ones as well as the fire-fighters themselves. However time restraints means they are rather succinct at best but the general gist is successfully relayed, the spouse usually the more aggressive and unyielding in their stance.

Presentation wise, this feels like two films in one – the personal drama scenes are akin to something lifted from a TV melodrama, nicely shot, framed and stylishly presented; the reality based call outs see a switch to a more cinema vérité mode of filming, intimate camerawork on the move with less edits and a distinct lack of glossy veneer for that added sense of grittiness.

Where the film earns its merit is in the scenes featuring the call outs, in which the cast are put through their paces in performing like real fire fighters. From freeing trapped victims of a car crash to saving a man who has fallen into a vat in a distillery and even delivering twins to an African woman who speaks no French, a varied skill set is on display but by far, the actual fire fighting is the most impressive.

Bolstered by the presence of real fire-fighting volunteers as additional team mates, the technical proficiency is no less admirable as the physical dexterity of their roles, both of which must have been challenging for the actors with their comparably limited training but the level of danger they face with each call is never once trivialised for the sake of the narrative.

Joliet has assembled a strong cast for his fire fighters, able to look and behave naturally and not like actors playing the parts yet able to bring the requisite nuance to their personalities. Émilie Dequenne blends in well with the men to rise above the “token woman” position which the other women occupy, sparring capably with Michael Abiteboul and Roschdy Zem.

As a vehicle to show appreciation for fire-fighters, The Brigade achieves this better than any SFX heavy disaster flick, but the thinly spread drama serves more than a distraction between the action scenes than a substantial or incisive comment on the issues it wants to address. But as a way to spend 90 minutes without being burdened by artistic or intellectual pretension, this is just the ticket