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Falling into poverty is like a slow erosion, you never feel it until it's done ...
A middle-aged man washes his face in the toilet and looks at himself in the mirror, trying to put his spirit very high, "you'll get them, you're a killer, Michel" (the word 'killer' is used in English), and then another man, who seems to come from an aftershave ad, towers over him and without words, intimidates poor Michel Berthier. The subsequent job interview is a disaster "why did you quit your first job" "the company bankrupted" "couldn't you prevented it?" "yes, but they wouldn't listen", in this maze of fallacious and off-topic questions, the ill-fated Berthier loses both his nerves and the job. The killer is killed.
Although unemployed, Berthier tells his wife (Victoria Abril) that he was promoted, and loses his money buying expensive stuff, guided by an impulse as irrational as his denial. Ultimately, he loses the job, the money, and his family. "A Wonderful Era" chronicles the falling into poverty that could affect any decent and honest man like Berthier in the early 90's France. With a powerful combination of pathos and cynicism, the film is both enchanting like a fable and truthful like a documentary, in-between, Jugnot finds the right tone to depict the banality of poverty, without overdramatizing or sugarcoating it.
And if there's ever a message in this film, it is to never underestimate the odds of becoming poor, and if it ever happened, to think you will keep your dignity up and never beg for money or (worse) steal. In a nutshell, the film shows all the steps that turned decent men into hobos and their struggle to get their foot back to society. It also enlightens us on the pasts of these repellent people we meet every day, probably as respectable as ours. And there is a reason why the second Gérard of French cinema, after Depardieu, is such an endearing and popular actor in France.
Indeed, with his short stature, his bald head, his round traits and common look, Gérard Jugnot was born to play the average Frenchman. In this film, he incarnates all the vulnerability of regular taxpayers who took their life for granted before realizing that liberalism and competition would cause their downfall. And I suspect there's a deliberate correlation implied between looks and competence. Berthier doesn't exude this power and self-confidence, so we suspect these French big shots and these tall and beautiful executive women are Americanized enough not to see in this schmuck Golden Boy material. And Jugnot tackles his physical appearance, with a delightful Woody Allen's sense of self-derision.
Yet in France, they have what they call, System D. D like "débrouille" which means 'getting by with what is at hands', it's a characteristic of French people to be able to overcome adversity by being smart and cheating a little bit, Berthier will be formed by a trio of outcasts. Their leader and mentor is played by a colorful and larger-than-life Richard Bohringer, Toubib ("Doc") is his nickname due to his experience as a stretcher bearer. There is the late Ticky Holgado as Crayon, "Pen", Doc's follower since the day he healed his crushed leg, he's rude, funny, dirty but within the group, he's probably the most available and gentle of all. And there's Mimosa, a child-like force of nature, built like a rock and played by Chick Ortega.
There are some hints of George and Lenny from "Of Mice and Men" with Paris' Great Depression as a backdrop. And the voice of wisdom, "Doc" chants his love to life like a prophet of poverty and a poet of misery but never losing his pragmatism: they have to find a way to live from day to day, to stay clean, to eat with losing as little money as possible. Berthier had time to make his bones, to sleep on benches, phone booths, to ask for coins. The process of losing one's dignity working like slow erosion, we never feel when it happens, but once it's done, it's done and you're one of 'them'. And by sticking together, the group manages to survive, to live, to be friends, to be men.
This camaraderie is induced by these funny nicknames they give each other and if the fact that Berthier never gets one probably marks his status as the outsider, it also makes him a potential leader, as the closest to the 'other' world, the most likely to help them, after all, you can try anything when you have nothing to lose. "A Wonderful Era" is a powerful immersion within French marginality and resourcefulness, without being an exhilaration of some sort of freedom innate to poverty. There's no doubt that Berthier is a miserable man, and that he hates his situation, the film gets tragic at times, hilarious at others, but as we witness the downfall of Berthier, we better understand what makes poor people behave sometimes rudely.
Indeed, these are not goldhearted tramps, they're untrustworthy, they're cheaters and why shouldn't they? they played the game and lost. In his first night in the subway, Berthier is asked if he's a tramp, he says "no, it's temporary", you suspect many real tramps said the same thing once. From a denial of unemployment to a denial of poverty a poverty that is till nothing compared to the lows reached in the 2000's, that make the film almost optimistic with its depiction of a France not undermined yet by all the cultural conflicts and by the abundance of crimes, sex and prostitution, nothing compared to the benign thefts committed by our protagonists.
I guess the fact that I loved the film when I first saw it as a kid, when it came out in 1991 says a lot about its lightheartedness I remember laughing my ass out when Crayon started shouting on the upper class woman with the dog and when they drove over the female agent's foot, it took me some maturity to see the tragedy behind the laughs.
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