Starting work in a new coal pit, a young miner, Etienne (Renaud), falls in love with a colleague's daughter (Judith Henry) before inciting a strike of epic proportions over the poor working conditions in the mines. All the other workers join in the rally but the outcome is not what they expected.
Sweeping over the channel on a wave of Gallic enthusiasm Germinal was not only the most expensive French film ever it was also one of the most successful this is one of those truly great examples of European filmmaking, a monumental statement of a movie about the fundamental struggles for life, love, freedom and the pursuit of even the most fragile happinesses.
Based on Emile Zola's classic novel of the same name, Germinal is set in and around the coal-mines of Northern France during the Second Napoleonic Empire, a Dante-esque landscape of flaming pit-heads, forbidding skies and soot-smeared workers. Into this hell comes Etienne Lantier (Renaud, suitably passionate), an unemployed machinist drawn to the heat and toil of the local Voreux mine to work alongside Maheu (Depardieu, suitably wondrous), woo his daughter (Judith Henry) and enrage his wife (Miou Miou, suitably fiery), until the dire pay and conditions incense Lantier to start a long, drawn-out pit strike, with the most terrible consequences for all concerned.
So vividly is Zola's tale evoked the stink of the coal-mines positively oozes from the screen it seems almost sacrilegious to criticise. Yet having seen it all before elsewhere the skinny pit ponies, the weeping orphans, the aristos feasting on fowl while the revolting peasants starve it soon becomes difficult to take, however masterly the execution. Indeed, three hours is a very long time to endure the weeping and wailing as yet another of Miou Miou's endless brood of children goes up in a puff of coal dust, and without the necessary appreciation of French history for context one suspects that moviegoers hoping for another Jean De Florette/Manon Des Sources will be severely disappointed. Brilliant but long-winded.
The only real problem with this epic tale of French history is the length, but at the same time if it was condensed to Hollywood's standard 90 minutes, it would lose much of its charm as well as its story. Berri direction offers a striking vision of France, while the actors give passionate and resonant performances.