Reviews Short Narrative

Les Fossoyeurs [Gravediggers] (2019) – 3.5 stars

Director: Alexis Caro

Writers: Alexis Caro

Cast: Franck Metais, Bruno Noury

Running time: 24mins

As thousands of people continue to die of Covid-19 across the world, April 2020 saw the Financial Times’ editorial board casually trot out the following paragraph:

The Black Death is often credited with transforming labour relations in Europe. Peasants, now scarce, could bargain for better terms and conditions; wages started to rise as feudal lords competed for workers. Thankfully, a much lower mortality rate means such a transformation is unlikely to follow coronavirus.

That’s right, one of the great mercies of this crisis is apparently not that few people are dying, but rather that this means you and I will not be able to call for better pay and conditions from our boss when this is ‘over.’ Indeed, the recession which Covid-19 has caused is likely to be weaponised by governments and businesses to reduce our lot in life by some distance – with states using it to excuse privatisation of public services, and bosses making ‘hard decisions’ to finance this year’s bonus by slashing wages, and laying off any worker who makes a fuss.

With the collective strength of the working class at its lowest point in a century, it is hard not to imagine the 2020s being a re-run of the 2010s in this way. But as International Workers’ Day arrives this year, it is worth noting that there is still a raw anger, and a hunger for change, present in millions of people across the globe, just in need of a way to manifest itself. Alexis Caro’s technically accomplished short Les Fossoyeurs addresses that in a particularly timely fashion.

The film takes place in France, in the weeks following Alex’s (Franck Metais) dismissal from an unspecified job labouring for François (Bruno Noury). Alex has been left with nothing, and feeling he has no other way to fight back, stuffs his former boss into the trunk of his car before driving deep into the French countryside. He makes overtures to “making an example” of François’ for all he has done – while the increasingly distressed businessman pleads for his life.

The first issue with this is that this plot has been more than a little over-done over the last 40-odd years – and it isn’t especially helpful in terms of holding the powerful to account. With the decline of trade union power leaving workers with an apparent lack of ways to resist their exploitation, films have increasingly focused on their melodramatic acts of individual rebellion; as they are driven to kidnap, threaten or actually kill their boss. This is arguably a more engaging plot for a film than the arduous process of forming a union, striking and possibly losing, but it is also a lot more impotent.

As François argues against his murder, the fact that this set-up is not particularly original is emphasised by the fact his statements feel like they’ve been lifted from a wikiHow page for bosses looking to cover their own backsides. “I create jobs,” “Without me to make the economy work the world goes hungry,” and so on.

One interesting thing he does note is that even if he is killed, he will likely be replaced “by much worse,” which is of course true. Without systemic change, which can only be delivered by mass action, there will always be another turncoat willing to step up into middle management, if only to most brutal aspects of capital’s exploitation. Unfortunately, the critique of Alexis’ plan is not fleshed out to that degree, so the argument more or less peters out at this point – leaving us to think, “Oh wow, maybe there really is nothing to be done then.”

At the same time, once we start thinking this way, the film more or less runs out of places to go. As with Marco Antonio Robledo’s La Mano Invisible [The Invisible Hand], having backed itself into a logical corner, any outcome for this scenario now seems futile – kill the boss, or make him behave more compassionately and he is replaced by the shareholders, let him go and normal service is resumed. With that being said, on an artistic level, there is plenty on offer to at least set this film apart from the wider array of content in this vein.

For example, a film which hinges entirely on the chemistry of two people leaves them with nowhere to hide regarding their performances. Thankfully in this case, Metais and Noury both give top-notch performances in their allotted roles. Metais in particular gives a fabulously jowly performance – his skin almost hanging from his skull in the tradition of French actors like Jean Reno or Denis Ménochet.

It is a remarkable, reserved performance, which conveys a variety of emotion spanning grief, fury and resignation – all of which a lesser performer would have resorted to pantomime over-acting to convey. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for expressionistic acting – but without Metais’ mournful and almost subdued demeanour, the film would have been bereft of authenticity.

As it is, François comes across as a man who genuinely has lost everything – and without any kind of mechanism for him to change that, he is aware that whatever he does now, the sun is setting on his story. This brings us neatly to the cinematography of Les Fossoyeurs. Sumptuous, sublime in its simplicity, the work of ‘Head Operator’ Charles-Hubert Morin and his camera-team should stand as an example of the importance of patience to independent filmmakers looking to perfect their craft – in particular that sunset, which manages to capture the turmoil spread across Alex’s face and emphasise it, both practically and thematically.

While having the right tools is a big part of image construction, it is not the be-all and end-all by any means. Time and again, I have seen filmmakers get hold of state-of-the-art equipment, only to fritter it away on botched projects they charged through merely to get on to the next one. This might be partly connected to France’s willingness to fund short-film as an artistic end in itself, whereas British and US companies tend to view it as a testing ground part of the wider production chain for mainstream features – but it also comes down to the discipline and dedication of the filmmakers – something Morin and co. clearly have in spades.

On top of these aspects, Les Fossoyeurs completes its holy trinity of raw materials with its absorbing sound design and score. Rudy Blas, Nicolas Bourgois, Erwan Dubois, Romain Le Palud do not set a foot wrong in terms of their churning synth-driven score. It creates a marvellously foreboding backdrop to the film’s arresting visuals and stellar performances, without ever being overbearing or trying to heavy-handedly shunt viewers into feeling a certain way about the unfolding action.

As seems to be the case with the very best scores reviewed by Indy Film Library, it blends almost utterly into the piece, becoming almost organic in spite of its ominous electronic hum. In this manner, it is able to pay subtle tribute to the buzzing soundtracks of the underground, grindhouse, exploitation and horror films of the 70s and 80s, while nudging our subconscious to recall those films which have previously set our hearts racing as the plot moves along, helping to ratchet up the tension.

Unfortunately for Les Fossoyeur, the tension which is so magnificently build up by its material components dissipates rather quickly thanks to a number of notable scripting oversights. For the sake of expediting the story, Writer-Director Caro allows his characters to get away with a number of bizarre errors which will sadly wrench viewers from the cinematic-cocoon they have been wrapped in by the film’s opening sequence.

First, Alex – having put down his shotgun – decides to let François sit in the passenger seat of his car while driving to the location, it is assumed, where he will execute him. Faced with such a fate, most people would probably try to crash that vehicle – and only François’ wrists are bound together, so this would be quite easy. Upon arrival, Alex repeatedly turns his back on François, or turns his shot-gun away from him while at close range – not only making it obvious his victim will escape, but making it bizarre that he only tries to after having a lengthy conversation with his would-be killer. Once François does flee, Alex chases him through the woods, firing two shots from his double-barrel weapon – which he then points at his quarry without reloading, as if there were a third round to discharge.

These common-sense misfires mean a sizeable amount of the film’s tension is squandered – and since Caro’s film was already re-treading a heavily used narrative arc, we are left feeling slightly as if we are going through the motions when the film reaches its climax. With constituent elements as rich and immersive as they are, Caro’s ultimate failure to craft them into something more air-tight and well-planned is almost unforgivable.

If this conclusion sounds like I did not like Les Fossoyeurs, let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. There are so many enjoyable elements which Caro and his crew have served up in the film that it is undeniably worth seeking out, in spite of its foibles. The thing that irritates me is that I am having to make the case for it ‘in spite’ of anything – as better management of the film’s plot details, or indeed a more innovative narrative arc in general, could have seen these filmmakers produce something almost flawless.

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