Les Brigades du Tigre (2006)

“This dump looks like an anarchist hangout.”

I’ve become used to the overwhelmingly negative and inaccurate portrayals of anarchists in film and books, but Les Brigades du Tigre (The Tiger Brigades) is a first–well a first for me at least. This French film directed by Jerome and Francois Cornuau is ostensibly about the first motorised police force, and it portrays anarchist Jules Bonnot in a favorable but still wildly inaccurate light.

Somehow after reading Richard Parry’s account of The Bonnot Gang  I can’t help but think that if Bonnot could see this cinematic version of part of his life, he’d be really annoyed. But then again perhaps he’d have a good laugh. Well whatever Bonnot’s reaction would be to this glossy portrayal of the French Illegalist as some sort of latter day Robin Hood, the film still ignores the reality of what Bonnot and his fellow anarchists were all about.

Here’s the plot:

Jules Bonnot (Jacques Gamblin) and a group of fellow anarchists knock off a bank delivery showering money in the streets while they make off with a secret coded ledger. This ledger assumes vast importance, and while the first mobile police brigade searches for Bonnot, something just doesn’t add up for Commissaire Valentin (Clovis Cornillac). Valentin has a soft spot for anarchists noting that they “aren’t like crooks. They’re quiet, sober, don’t beat women.” Valentin and a handful of other policemen become involved in the hunt for Bonnot, and they soon become aware that there’s skullduggery afoot.

The film uses the real-life character of Bonnot and some of his actions and then spins the facts sending the truth off the deep end. For example, scenes depict the police surrounding Bonnot in a farmhouse at Choisy-le-Roi. While this much is true, the film depicts Bonnot as killed when the police dynamite and storm the building. In reality, he was still barely alive but shot in the head by police at the scene. The film also depicts Bonnot’s body being carried out with honour–ceremonial style, shoulder high when the reality was that the mob gathered at the site wanted to lynch Bonnot.

With Bonnot out of the picture (literally) the film concentrates on the policemen, and they become the heroes of the piece. There are a few real names here: Octave Garnier (Marc Robert) and Raymond Callemin (Pierre Berriau) and Jaures (Andre Marcon). Thrown into the blend is a Russian anarchist who shoots up with narcotics, and a Russian princess (Diane Kruger) who’s an anarchist on the side and Bonnot’s lover whenever she gets a chance.

Of course, it’s all extremely fanciful with its swordplay, crazed Russians, acid-throwing and torture thrown in for good measure. I had a good laugh at the way anarchists fold and yield information to Valentin whenever he asks a question. But overall I was puzzled more than anything else by the film’s portrayal of Bonnot. Author Richard Parry makes the point that given the social conditions of the times many of the French working class identified with Bonnot and his Illegalist decision to seize what he wanted. But the film seems to feel very comfortable creating degrees of French heroes as opposed to the Russian Nasties. Perhaps this explains why Bonnot is depicted as someone who wants to ‘right’ society by exposing corruption. Ultimately, however, the Russians are the villains of the piece with the French bureaucrats and bankers right next to them.

This action film is an adaptation of a popular French television series that aired in the 70s.

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