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Film review: Germinal

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 4 1994 12:00 a.m. MDT

Big and impressive in its epic scope, "Germinal" nevertheless suffers from uneven acting, over-the-top histrionics and a constant dark and dour tone.

Fans of foreign cinema in general - and of Gerard Depardieu in particular - will find some worthwhile material but may ultimately be disappointed.

Especially since the movie is a sluggish 2 hours and 40 minutes in length!

A period piece set in the late 19th century, the film is an ensemble drama about the lives of coal miners and their families in northern France, where workers are exploited and live in poverty. Meanwhile, just a few miles away, their bosses live like pampered kings.

The nominal central character is Lantier (Renaud), who comes into this mining community looking for work after he is fired from the railroad. The first person he meets is an old man who has been working in the mines for more than 50 years - "since before I was 8," he explains. And he punctuates his conversation by coughing up a black liquid. "Is that blood?" asks Lantier. No, the old man explains - it is the coal that fills his lungs.

Lantier is befriended by Maheu (Gerard Depardieu), and eventually moves in with his family - already 10 people strong and living in a hovel provided by the mining company.

As he observes the state of these gentle folks who have taken him in, he watches their spirits slowly die and eventually decides to try and do something about it. First, he organizes a workers' fund. Then, when the mining organization lowers the workers' wages, he helps them strike (though the miners stop short of joining an international union). Ultimately, he leads the starving, frustrated employees in violence, as they attack scabs and destroy mining property.

Meanwhile, there are subplots about Maheu's wife (Miou-Miou), who struggles to care for their children - some of whom are already working in the mine; their daughter Catherine (Judith Henry), too weak for the workload she carries and in the midst of an unhappy affair with the brutal and villainous Chaval (Jean-Roger Milo); a wicked shopkeeper who offers bread to the starving villagers in exchange for sexual favors (he eventually gets the Lorena Bobbitt treatment after falling to his death in the town square, a needlessly graphic sequence); the frivolous wife of the mine-owner, who is having an affair with her husband's nephew; and various other soap opera machinations.

Some of these stories work better than others, but there's no question that a few could have been eliminated to better shape the film and trim its unwieldy length.

Based on a novel by Emile Zola about the deplorable working and living conditions of coal miners in northern France during the 1880s, and adapted and directed by Claude Berri ("Jean de Florette," "Manon of the Spring"), the film is obviously sincere and heartfelt. But there are places where the players are so overwrought that they become caricatures. And the film's dark sense of gloom and doom is simply unrelenting.

The best performances are by the brooding Renaud and the ever reliable and vibrant Depardieu. I was also moved by Judith Henry. But Miou-Miou is wasted, spending all of her time screaming and grieving. And even worse is Jean-Roger Milo, who, at times, seems to think he's in a broad silent melodrama.

Nevertheless, this is a huge film, with many crowd scenes that seem bigger than anything since the old Hollywood days of epic moviemaking, and the horrifying mining sequences are unquestionably the film's most effective element.

"Germinal" is rated R for violence, mutilation, sex, nudity, profanity and vulgarity.