“Anarchy has rarely seemed a more sedate business than it does in The Anarchists, a handsomely mounted, even more handsomely cast costumer for which a few anachronistic song choices rep the full extent of its radicalism,” begins Variety‘s Guy Lodge. “Effectively a formulaic undercover cop thriller dressed up—and gorgeously so—in fin-de-siecle garb, Elie Wajeman’s polished sophomore feature stars Tahar Rahim as a sensitive police brigadier tapped to infiltrate the individualist anarchist community in 1899 Paris. With Adèle Exarchopoulos cast opposite him as a passionate, persuasive young member of the movement, it’s clear from the outset that Wajeman’s lean narrative will not be rebelling against conformity.”
At Cineuropa, Bénédicte Prot reminds us that, by 1899, “the Lois scélérates (lit. ‘villainous laws’) have been passed by the Third Republic introducing certain ‘measures’ to crack down on anarchist activity, and the dawn of the 20th century, which will see the the birth of Jaurès socialist party, but also the Bonnot Gang, is just around the corner. The gang that Jean [Rahim] joins includes Élisée the idealistic ringleader (Swann Arlaud), Eugène the fierce (Guillaume Gouix), Biscuit the soft-hearted boy of the people (Karim Leklou), Marie-Louise the middle-class dame who welcomes the gang into the luxury of her family home (Sarah Le Picard)—as after all, don’t the educated middle classes make the fiercest revolutionaries?—and finally Judith, a sweet and determined girl who dreams of being a schoolteacher (Adèle Exarchopoulos).” For all that, The Anarchists, “in spite of its spirited title, has a rather lackluster appearance.”
“As the group’s activities mount in scope and risk, Wajeman’s film runs through the traditional cruxes,” writes the Guardian‘s Andrew Pulver. “Should Jean get blood on his hands in the service of a greater good? Is emotion more important than loyalty? When does activism cross over into criminality? Well, The Anarchists doesn’t come up with any particularly original thoughts on the matter, but that’s not its strength. Instead, it cooks up real heat between Rahim and Exarchopoulos, while at the same time reconstructing the turn-of-the-20th-century era in loving detail. It gets the Critics Week off to a very good start.”
Wajeman’s second feature “takes place more than a century earlier than his breakout debut, Aliyah, but never brings the same level of tension, even if the narrative treads in a similar moral gray zone where individual ambitions are compromised by social norms,” writes Jordan Mintzer in the Hollywood Reporter. “The finale is filled with more ambiguity than in your typical thriller, and we’re left with the idea that the political and personal rarely intertwine in productive ways, while revolutions of the heart are perhaps those that count most. But it’s a case of too little, too late, in a film that could have used a few more sticks of dynamite to really set the screen on fire.”
“The growing disaffection with Parliamentary democracy and establishment political parties in the West makes the arrival of The Anarchists particularly timely for audiences, while the group’s chatty exploration of personal growth and gender equality feels similarly resonant,” suggests Charles Gant in Screen. “And when Elisée’s band targets a private bank to liberate funds for the cause, modern audience sympathies can be taken for granted.” Still, “sense of real jeopardy is rarely urgently felt.”
Update, 5/15: “How do you say ‘awards-bait’ in French?” asks Ryland Aldrich at Twitch. “Take two of the hottest young stars in France, team them up with a rising star director, and then give them a period topic with obvious shades of hot button current events…. All things considered, the film lives up to its billing—but that includes trading what might have been a tightly wound plot for a very French sense of character.”
Update, 5/19: For the Playlist‘s Jessica Kiang, this is “a film that could have used some of the passion, conviction, and fire in its belly of its protagonists.”
Update, 5/20: Hannah Benayoun interviews Rahim for the festival.
Update, 5/23: Richard Porton talks with Exarchopoulos for the Daily Beast.