Toronto 2015: 'French Blood' review

★★★★☆
As the name would suggest, Toronto's Platform strand offers up-and-coming filmmakers a springboard from which to showcase their work on the world stage. The singularly named writer-director Diastème brings his devastating second feature French Blood (2015) to the festival from his native France, a country he considers overwhelmed by hatred and violence. A self-proclaimed humanist, his unflinching and at times brutally violent, depiction of skinheads and neo-Nazism is far from comfortable viewing. However, its shock value is superseded by a message of redemption, embodied by protagonist Marco (Alban Lenoir) whose beliefs are probed by the magnifying glass of Diastème's camera.

Through his experiences we witness the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front from its thuggish beginnings to so-called legitimacy as a major force in French politics, perennially divisive and divided. Marco eventually jumps ship, acknowledging the errors of his youthful misdemeanours. Eschewing the monochrome of films like La Haine (1995) or American History X (1998) - to which comparisons can certainly be made - Diastème shoots muted colours in 40/50mm that acts as a seeing eye, following Marco intently throughout. Repeated long takes and close-ups don't shy away from the shocking subject matter, offering an immediacy and doc-style realism to his character arc.

The stylistic choices reinforce the incendiary content and Diastème is worthy of high praise, especially in avoiding a eureka moment in marking the transformation of the lead; it's fiercely slow-burning and that is to the credit of his patient direction. The violence of the film's first act is the most shocking, culminating in a bar scene where a black vagrant is forced to swallow drain cleaner by 'Grand Guy' (Paul Hamy) - one of the most dangerously braindead of Marco's racist peers. Its inclusion here was obligatory and at no point does it feel gratuitous, its impact serving a legitimate purpose. A series of parallel scenes add a reflective balance to early and latter stages but the film does amble a little between its middle and final act. This could well be a reflection of Marco's increasing aimlessness, the liberalisation of his ideological stance and his desperate longing for a daughter that he does not have the right to see; the painful irony being that the mother of his child moves in the opposite direction to him - seen at a recent anti same-sex marriage rally. Plus ça change.

The acute injustice of this admirably communicated by Lenoir whose performance is powerfully understated. Not that Diastème's insistent camera will allow it, but you won't want to take your eyes off him for a second. Like 12 Years a Slave (2013), French Blood will enter a canon of films to shine light on a diabolical element of a nation's past - and, sadly in this case, its present. Le Pen - who infamously relegated the Holocaust to a mere "point of history" - has handed the reins of his party to equally firebrand daughter, Marine. That preliminary screenings of the film en France are said to have been targeted by present-day members of the Front National is testament to an accurate portrayal of their despicable ways. French Blood is a kick in the guts but it is essential viewing.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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