In the Name of the Land: tragic personal drama capturing the plight of farmers squeezed by neoliberal capitalist ideology

Edouard Bergeon, “In the Name of the Land / Au Nom de la Terre” (2020)

A deeply personal family drama, based on his own experiences growing up on a farm, “In the Name of the Land” is photojournalist Edouard Bergeon’s first directorial effort. As much as it is fictionalised auto-biography, the film also captures the plight of farmers caught in the grip of neoliberal economic ideology in which the market dominates and “decides” everything, even if this means farmers and their families must suffer. In an economic context in which the EU micro-manages member nations’ agriculture and decrees what farmers can produce, how they are to produce it and what prices they can sell their produce at, corporations (often benefiting from EU policies made in Brussels or Strasbourg, that the corporations themselves propose and push through their lobbyists) can exploit farmers’ need to earn money to pay off bank loans they took out to invest in farm buildings, equipment and machines, just to keep up with fellow farmers and corporate-owned and run farms, by offering them franchise-type deals to produce more – and which require further investment to be made by the farmers themselves. Farmers readily agree to take on such additional work but eventually discover these food corporations are hard taskmasters that demand a great deal but give little in return. Bergeon dedicates his film, based on his own family’s experiences, to his mother and sister.

Pierre Jarjeau (Guillaume Canet in a career-defining performance) returns from the United States in 1979 where he has been working as a ranch hand in Wyoming to marry his sweetheart Claire (Veerle Baetens) and to take over running his father Jacques’s farm Les Grands Bois. Pierre has grand ideas about improving the farm by mechanising its operations and engaging in large-scale rearing of goats and sheep. Jacques (Rufus) passes on the farm by leasing it out to Pierre who then spends the next several years expanding its operations and modernising its processes. Claire manages the farm’s accounts and raises their two children Thomas and Emma (Alex Bajon and Yona Kervern). Initially everything seems to be going well – but then during the late 1990s there is a downturn in the economy, goat meat consumption is slumping and the Jarjeaus find they have taken too many loans and are in arrears in paying off loans on farm buildings and equipment. Pierre decides to add poultry-raising to an already full schedule of goat-raising and wheat-growing and enters into a deal with a corporation to raise chicks. To this end he has to build a new barn outfitted to the corporation’s specifications with special machinery that feeds the chickens and provides them with water. Even the chickens’ feed is dictated by the corporation.

Everything seems to go well but the machinery feeding and watering the chickens breaks down and the Jarjeaus and their employee Mehid (Sam Guesmi) must feed the chickens by hand. Before long Pierre is suffering from burnout and his health goes downhill. On top of his physical health issues, his relationship with his father Jacques takes a turn for the worse when they disagree over how the farm should be run, and then one night the buildings housing the chickens and goats burn down and the Jarjeaus are forced to declare bankruptcy.

From here on, the film becomes a mawkish and stereotyped character study of depression and how it affects an entire family and the relations within it. The downhill slide is very quick – in real life, it would be much more drawn-out and there would be moments where the depressed person temporarily regains happiness and normality before something the depression starts again – and viewers can see a mile away how this narrative will end. A hysterical scene in which Pierre threatens the family with a knife is completely out of kilter with the film’s generally low-key approach. Unfortunately the state of French agriculture in the 1990s, squeezed by corporate and economic demands and unsympathetic politicians within and outside France, forcing farmers into a race to the bottom by producing more but earning less, along with long-simmering personal family issues and a greedy father, all eventually combine to destroy Pierre.

The cinematography is excellent, showing the changing French landscape, alternating between grey winter mist and bright hot summers, as a significant character in its own right. Lead actors Canet and Baetens do great work as the beleaguered couple trying to keep the farm going in spite of debt pressures, competition from other farmers, a curmudgeonly father and the micro-management policies of the corporation for which they must supply chicken meat. The child actors and other minor actors provide solid support and viewers see something of the traditional routines of family-run farms engaged in a wide range of activities as well as the pressures of farming on a family. As the stony-faced curmudgeonly Jacques, disdaining his son’s decisions and schemes yet benefiting very well financially as his landlord (when he could have just passed ownership of the farm to Pierre), Rufus does well with a very minimalist style of acting.

While the film is very good at portraying the stoic resilience of the Jarjeaus in maintaining their farm under the pressures they face, I consider the film could have done more to underline how increasingly governments and private corporations dictate farming practice to farmers, many of whom come from families that have long histories of farming over generations, and how this combines with neo-capitalist ideology to reduce farmers to poverty, forcing them to sell farms to agribusinesses and destroying valuable knowledge and skills that have been nurtured and handed down through families for hundreds of years. More background story to how Pierre’s father Jacques was able to run the farm in his own conservative fashion, in the early days of EU agricultural policy when government subsidies were more generous, farms were sheltered from outside competition and corporations were not as large and rapacious, is needed. Viewers do not see how unsympathetic the Jarjeaus’ bank manager or government bureaucrats might be towards the family. The film’s subplots revolving around Thomas, his transformation into a serious young man, and his future ambitions – will he pursue farming or take up mountain-bike riding professionally? – are under-developed. On top of the sub-plots that go nowhere, the film’s ending is abrupt and what happens to Claire and the children and the farm once Pierre is gone is unknown.

In spite of the beautiful visuals and the hard work put in by the actors to flesh out their characters, I did feel the narrative as it is does not quite do them justice. Once the setbacks start for Pierre, the story so carefully established quickly starts falling apart and descends into cliche and stereotyping. This is unfortunate as the story behind the making of the film is tragic and full of pain.