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Le Grand Retournement, A Modern Morality Play

07/03/2013 12:58 GMT | Updated 06/05/2013 10:12 BST

Le Grand Retournement is a film version of a play that dramatizes the economic crisis of 2008-9 as it played out in French financial and political circles.

The 77-minute production resembles a 16th-century morality play more than a feature film. Most of it is shot on one minimalistic set, an abandoned factory building where the leading men squabble and declaim to the décor of rusty chain link fences, rusty old pipes, rusty staircases, everything industrial and discarded and covered in rust. The characters have no names, only "Le conseilleur," "Le premier ministre," "Le chef de la banque nationale." Some of them are thinly veiled parodies of real people, especially "Le président," a Sarkozy lookalike who preens in front of mirrors, trying on suits and leather jackets while his advisers prod him desperately for decisions. The rest are merely archetypes: the decrepit banking chief who lets his business go to pot, his greedy colleagues who scheme to convince the state to bail them out and protect them from judicial responsibility, the firebrand adviser who demands the banks be nationalized in exchange for government funds, promptly sacked and replaced with a more conniving, adroit version who seems to put fear into the eyes of the stuffed-up fat cats, a fear clearly meant for us to relish.

This crowd of self-serving caricatures comes together in the gloatingly symbolic setting of industrial decay to get what they can out of the crisis: the president wants to appear decisive and in control, the private bankers want the dough without the lawsuits, the advisers want real change, and the prime minister just wants to be left alone. There is a brilliance to the dialogue, a Dantesque tone that is part sombre investigation into the actions and motivations of the powers that be and part spiteful prosecution and conviction. That said, there are few specific instances mentioned, no real names, no real events, and certainly no citations. It is a dramatization, after all, not a documentary. The characters play out their intrigues like the petty, nasty demons of the Inferno, their scheming and conniving laid bare for us to sneer at in disgust. The generality of the production, the extent to which it deals in stereotypes and maudlin parody, makes its purpose equally as vague. What are we to gain from Le Grand Retournement? A sense of outrage? Directed at whom? The state; no, the contemporary government; no, those damn greedy bankers; no, the inept heads of commerce.

The film was well made. It is a skillful and artistic copy and paste of a popular narrative that rests the blame neatly on the shoulders of a few big names and some abstract organizations and associations that ostensibly screwed us all over. Le Grand Retournement is sure to be popular for the very reason that its criticism is so broad: it lets us vent and it lets us make some sense of something that from our end was an unforeseeable calamity out of our control, without the intervening complexity of dates, figures, names, testimony, and facts. By themselves these things are nothing, up to our interpretation and our own attempts to understand, which may not even reach fruition. Even with limitless information and tremendous expertise and experience on our part we may not ever understand. Le Grand Retournement wraps it all up for us in a nice narrative arc that explains exactly which kind of faceless robber barons deprived us of our savings and how.

The creators would likely respond that the intent of the film, being a dramatization, is merely to present an artistic representation of the French view of the 2009 crisis. But how sequestered is the niche the production hides itself in? If it's just art we're seeing, just a fanciful interpretation of psychology and current events, why does Retournement try so very hard to get our goat? In essence, why not a moral agenda? If you want to spread the blame, then name some names! State some facts! Hold people accountable! If you want to produce a piece of propaganda, then for God's sake, at least make it an effective one.

I watched Le Grand Retournement at the Cinéma Comœdia on Avenue Berthelot, a great theater that plays everything from European arthouse to the latest Hollywood blockbusters. The interior, thanks to a 2006 renovation, is a cross between 60s record studio and nuclear submarine. There is a café, as well a restaurant and wine bar. By far the best aspect of the Comœdia, though, are the seats in each projection room. They are enormous, covered in some kind of magical soft blue felt that is incredibly supple and comfortable. They cushion your head, so you don't even have to slouch. These seats are comfortable enough that I fell asleep for a good five minutes during a late afternoon showing. Films play cheap all week: €8.60 full price, €6.70 reduced, and €4.80 for matinee showings.