1979, somewhere in the French countryside. A man on a motorbike drives through the winding roads until he reaches a farmhouse. A woman inside the house is washing the dishes. It takes a while, but he calls her and she finally notices him. He approaches her and pulls her up onto the sink. The camera pulls away for reasons of discretion.
Pierre has returned to France after a while learning the trade on a ranch in Wyoming. But now he’s going to take on the family farm. His father is getting old, but isn’t giving the farm away for free. Pierre still has to pay for it, and then listen to the old man moaning on about him not being able to do the job properly with all his new-fangled ideas.
Still, Pierre marries Claire who also does his accounting, and when money gets tight, she takes on a second job in town. Suddenly we have moved 17 years forward, and Pierre has lost most of his hair. He and Claire have also produced a pair of teenage children, a boy and a girl. Pierre sees expanding the farm as a way out of their financial problems. Can you see where we are heading?
Pierre buys a large barn, and, sure enough, it soon burns to the ground. He spends endless phone time talking to the insurance, but they don’t seem interested in delivering him anything of any substance. Slowly, without anyone noticing at first, he sinks into a depression. He becomes listless, can’t sleep and gives up washing. Claire eventually confronts him, saying that he stinks.
It gets worse. One day, Claire and the kids have dressed up to go to a wedding. Pierre offers to come along, but he’s in no state to go out in public. When they set for the door without him, he takes out a bread knife, threatening first to kill them, then himself. It is at this point that Claire reluctantly decides to section him. Although he is later released from hospital, he has not recovered.
There is plenty here to make an interesting film, but somehow Das Land meines Vaters failed to engage me. The story is tragic, but I couldn’t feel too much sympathy for Pierre. The film doesn’t build him up enough as someone you can relate to – not for me, at least. This means that when he does start his downward spiral, it’s like this is nothing real, just something that’s happening to a fictional character.
Some time in the film Thomas, Pierre’s son, who is an obvious stand-in for director Edouard Bergeon tells a doctor: “you just don’t understand life on a farm”. I guess this was also my problem. I just couldn’t understand the ambition to build your own farmstead, the desire to emulate your father, the petit bourgeois desire for success. It’s something that characters in books and films do – maybe some real people feel this as well – but it’s nothing that I can feel personally.
I just found it difficult to feel the scale of Pierre’s problems. The farm is huge, so there must be people working for him, mustn’t there? Or maybe he is doing it on his own – but if that’s the case, why would anyone put themselves through this? There are probably good answers to these questions, but they’re all so far outside my purview that I can’t address them.
The end credits dedicate the film, first to Bergeon’s father, then to his mother and sister. This is followed by the statistic that every two days, a farmer kills himself. This is a truly tragic figure. But I left the film feeling that the story should have been told by someone who is more dispassionate. For better or worse, I felt that Bergeon must have had a terrible childhood, but my brain was unable to generalise from this.
The problem is that the intention of the film is to show how big business is crippling the livelihood of small farmers. I fully endorse this statement. Industrialisation, the thirst for profit, the thrust for quantity over quality are all not just destroying the livelihoods of many honest men (they’re usually men), but driving them to take their own lives.
And yet, unless I read the notes, this all seems to be the problem of haunted individuals. I see Pierre being unable to cope, I see him being slightly blamed for having psychological problems. Everything is seen as being somehow inevitable. The problem is not agribusiness but just the fact that life is shit. It’s a point of view, and one for which you can find plenty of evidence, but it’s not really inspiring.
Summary: Das Land meines Vaters is a film that I think you probably should see. I’m just not that sure whether it’s actually worth seeing.