The Anarchists (Les Anarchistes)

France (2015) Dir. Elie Wajeman

“Love made me become an anarchist”

As good a reason as any I suppose, but it turns out love was the downfall for the titular anarchists in this second feature from up-and-coming French director Elie Wajeman – that and a pedestrian script for what could have been a taut and involving thriller.

Paris, 1899 and rank-and-file police constable Jean Albertini (Tahar Rahim) is picked by his superior Gaspard (Cédric Kahn) to undertake a special mission – infiltrating a gang of young anarchists gaining momentum in support among the disillusioned lower classes. Jean takes a low paying job at a factory where he befriends two of the group, Biscuit (Karim Leklou) and leader Elisee (Swann Arlaud). 

Quickly gaining their confidence, Jean is invited to one of their meetings, encountering Elisee’s artist girlfriend Judith (Adèle Exarchopoulos) for the first time. Jean is eventually accepted into the fold, taking a room at their communal apartment run by writer Marie-Louise (Sarah Le Picard), where he and Judith begin a torrid affair. When the group’s campaign is taken to the next level, Jean finds his loyalties fiercely compromised.

With the undercover cop premise usually reserved for high-octane thrillers, especially in Asia where the genre arguably peaked with Infernal Affairs, it requires a lot of ingenuity and creativity to put a fresh spin on it. Unfortunately for The Anarchists the 19th century French period setting is really the only thing that makes this stand out from the rest of the pack.

Elie Wajeman and co-writer Gaëlle Macé’s adhering to the basic template for the story proves frustrating for viewers who have seen this scenario unfold many times before. At the risk of seeming churlish, there are points where one finds themselves waiting for certain developments to occur simply because you know they will – and they do.

The exquisite reproduction of the period, which the French always achieve magnificently, is one way to distract us from this – a world of dark musty rooms and grey skies hanging over the less privileged, and the smartly attired cast carrying themselves with typical Gallic élan. The other is teaming of two of French cinema’s hottest young properties in the hope they create a frisson on both sides of the screen.

It’s a gamble that doesn’t always pay off as the script falters where it matter most, rushing through the key developments and forgetting to add the drama. It starts of appearing to be building to something huge but ends up petering out like a damp squib. The 96-minute runtime looks brisk on paper but is slightly plodding in reality, a by-product of the prevalent dusky atmosphere.

Jean is chosen for this job through being an orphan, the one time his lack of family ties is to his benefit, and for his high intelligence and erudition (he was tutored by none other than Victor Hugo, the little namedropper). However, Gaspard reveals that Jean’s father’s police record shown he was a communard (insert your own Jimmy Somerville – Richard Coles joke here).

This however affords Jean the ability to improvise and create a fantasy background when quizzed by his new anarchist friends which they have no way of checking, whilst Jean sends written reports detailing everything about the group’s movements to Gaspard, in return for a hand delivered weekly remuneration. This becomes more difficult once Jean moves into the main house, not in the least due to his secret trysts with Judith.  

No real explanation for this illicit romance is offered at all, with the catalyst apparently being Jean saying Judith was “beautiful” during a word association game, either suggesting Judith is easily flattered or Wajeman couldn’t be bothered with the foreplay and went straight to the fornication. Equally unsatisfying is why Elisee doesn’t seem to notice this happening under his nose and is absent for too long as the group leader.

As anarchists, they are a bit like our current Government over Brexit – they talk a lot what they want to do but don’t actually do anything, at least not of any value. Aside from writing letters and poetry denouncing the words and actions of politicians and the gluttony of the upper classes, affirmative action is quite low on their “To Do” list, leaving the first half of the film to be taken up with drinking smoking and flaccid discussions on political beliefs.

It’s not always so riveting either, but in the second half the group finally get off their derrieres and start robbing the rich of their money. The tide turns when Elisee teams up with a gang from Austria to execute the ultimate hit – robbing a bank. Jean is keen to use this moment to end the mission but Gaspard refuses. Has Jean been left out to dry by the police force and justice system he dutifully serves and believes in?

By the end, chances are you might not care because the story just isn’t engaging enough to create any genuine interest in doing so. The characters are all so cold and empty, and any conflict Jean might have felt isn’t shared to the level required for something so intrinsic to the central drama. The anarchists talk a big game in creating an equal society but little is proffered to explain their motives beyond what amounts to envy.

Lacking in development their characters might be, the cast put maximum effort into making them as vivid and compelling as possible. Tahar Rahim adds another satisfying turn as the corrupt nice guy to his overcrowded CV of similar roles, whilst Adèle Exarchopoulos, only 22 when filming, looks a bit young for this role yet carries herself with maturity and poise beyond her years, but both deserve better.

The Anarchists could, and should, have been a good film but its incendiary subject failed to translate to the script, leaving many narrative gaps unfulfilled and the action too little too late. Johnny Rotten would kill himself just to roll in his grave at this.