A film about how the excesses of modern capitalism impact those at the bottom of society most severely. No, not That one. We’ll get to that one when the cinemas are a bit less full.
This one is set in Northern France, the post-industrial hinterlands of Rassemblement National (the racist pack formerly known as Front National). But the community shown here is multi-cultural and in solidarity with each other. It also covers a diversity of ages rarely seen in a film with a largely female cast.
The focal point is a drop in centre for troubled women – most of whom are also homeless. The centre has a problem in that the women who go there are just a little too troubled. Only 4% end up living in any sort of security, which is not enough for the faceless bureaucrats upstairs who decided to close the centre for not meeting its targets.
If this isn’t bad enough, women must leave the centre at 6pm every day, but the tent city in which many of them are living has just been bulldozed to the ground. In case they think of using the local park benches, these have also been newly fitted with spikes.
Faced with an impossible situation, the four social workers who run the centre (again a group of multi-racial women) illegally set up a 24-hour centre where everyone can sleep, shower and take part in courses where they can learn new skills and indeed share their own skill sets. This has a dramatic impact on the lack of self-confidence which was holding them back.
Reading what I’ve just written, I know this all feels like a heavy-handed socialist realist tract about the evils of capitalism. And indeed no sympathy is spared for the indifferent elites who let all this happen. Yet the film remains authentic from beginning to end. This is in no small part to the actresses, many of whom had been homeless themselves.
One in particular is part of a running joke of serial job interviews where she impresses her potential employers with her skills at repairing things, before letting slip that she learned all these skills in prison, where she’d been sent for murdering her abusive husband. She feels no regrets, so why should she lie about it?
Another significant scene is when the social workers implore the women to try harder to go out and find a job. A woman who until now had been fairly placid shouts out: “I wear a headscarf. Do you know how difficult it is for people like me to find a job?” (or somesuch). Given the Islamophobia that seems to pervade middle class France, including its film makers, this is an astonishing scene.
But the film revolves around Audrey, one of the social workers, who sacrifices her social life for the women in her care. She offers them moral support and follows them to their interviews. Yet Audrey is riddled with self-doubt and is finding it hard to hold everything together. You feel that any minute she might crack, which would be tragic as everyone is depending on her to some extent.
The Invisibles doesn’t have a happy ending, which is right and proper for a film that is so grounded in realism. In an uncaring system there are no easy ways out, and it would have been irresponsible to have suggested anything otherwise. But it does end on a note of defiance with the women figuratively and in one case literally sticking up their middle finger at the people who have never met them who determine their fate.
In the end its a film where Hope and Despair are available in equal measures. It shows that individuals can make a difference without whitewashing a fully desperate situation. At one point, Audrey is vocally thankful of the very small victories. They may not be much but at least they are something.
I do have one quibble, and realise that this might just be me. For all its tragic scenes, The Invisibles is a comedy. And I get why – in order to preserve the dignity of the women it is important to show them as having agency and the ability to enjoy themselves. They are not just victims. And indeed, many of the scenes – which look highly improvised – of the non-professional actresses messing around are very effective.
Yet every so often in the cinema where I was there were bursts of laughter at scenes that didn’t really seem very funny. Now it is quite possible that I just missed an obvious joke – something I often do, especially when viewing French films which have been dubbed into German. But I had a nasty feeling that some people were laughing at the strange working-class women who aren’t pretty like “proper” actresses, rather than with them.
This is fairly incidental, and as said may well say more about me than the film, which is both righteous and compelling. How compelling? Would you believe me, when I say the soundtrack uses “Sisters are Doing It for Themselves” in a way that is neither corny nor bloody obvious? No, I wouldn’t either if I hadn’t witnessed it for myself.