Catherine Corsini previous film An Impossible Love snuck under the critical radar here to be one of the best of 2019. A tale of one woman’s relationship with a roguish man and the daughter born from it, it spanned decades and dealt with themes of class and social status in granular detail. In The Divide Corsini broadens her focus but compresses her timeline for a state of the nation farce set during one chaotic night at a hospital during the gilet jaunes protests in 2018. While lurching into polemic with a heavy-handed message and some stagey dialogue, this barrelling satire feels like an episode of Casualty directed by Darren Aronofsky, and no one will be disappointed on those terms.

The Divide principally follows four characters present at a crumbling Parisian hospital on a night where a nursing strike and a yellow vest protest that turns violent create a perfect apocalyptic storm. There’s bourgeois middle-aged couple Raf (Valeria Bruni Tadeschi) and Julie (Marina Foïs), whose relationship was already collapsing like the hospital before Raf trips and breaks her elbow (“It looks like a knee!”). The histrionic Raf, on an ill-advised cocktail of meds both provided by nurses and pilfered from Julie’s bag, clashes politically with Yann (Pio Marmaï), a trucker on a gig contract whose leg ends up a mangled mess during the protest when he’s struck by a flash grenade. Trying vainly to keep order is hyper-compassionate nurse Kim (Aïssatou Diallo Sagna) for whom this shift ends up more traumatic than even she is used to.

Bruni Tadeschi is the eye of this particular storm as Raf, giving her a doped-up loquaciousness that turns on a dime between wheedling and furious (and the fact she’s the sister-in-law of convicted former president Nicolas Sarkozy adds a little metatextual jouissance). It’s a performance of no little comic dexterity, perfect for the farcical tone. In contrast Marmaï’s yellow jacket feels more connected with recognisable reality. His motivations may be muddled, but his actions are pure, and the fact that he is likely to lose his job through exercising a right to protest makes him innately sympathetic. The real MVP however is Diallo Sagna as nurse Kim. She is a real stabilising force and, as tear gas from the nearby streets drift into the hospital along with bloody and disoriented protestors (in scenes weirdly reminiscent of the rampant mob in Halloween Kills), symbolic of the effect of turbulent political times on non-participatory subjects. Thankfully, she’s given depth and agency, and allowed to react and adjust to events in a more human way than that afforded her co-stars wielding the polemical foghorns.

At times, a glimpse beneath the broiling surface reveals that the clattering pace is a distraction from The Divide‘s political themes, which are as blunt as the trauma inflicted on Raf’s elbow. It all becomes too much at times, especially a third act so stuffed with credulity-straining drama that the hospital seems to be shaken to its foundations by sheer volume. Corsini actually shows herself as a formidable director to keep the many moving parts clanking along together, with the jittery handheld cinematography of Jeanne Lapoirie (of such disparate delights as Nikita, 8 Women, and 120 BPM) adding a documentary urgency that belies its heightened storytelling. Engrossing it certainly is, but it feels strangely contra to how seriously Corsini takes the shattered edifice of French politics.

What Catherine Corsini has undeniably achieved is a film that foregrounds politics but functions primarily as entertainment. And as a construction of one situation, anxiously and inexorably cranked to tipping point, The Divide is hugely impressive. But whether her analogy of France as barely-functional hospital is too blunt, or she tries to accommodate too much into a narrative form that inevitably favours plot over theme, the two elements at work never quite gel together as they should.

Screening as part of the French Film Festival 2021