The First Man is based on an unfinished autobiographic novel by French author Albert Camus (The Stranger). The film follows his alter-ego Jean Cornery (Jacques Gamblin – The Names of Love), a famous writer who returns to Algiers on the eve of the Algerian war. As he wanders through the streets of the city, he not only remembers his childhood but is also confronted to the reality of a colonial world on the verge of collapse.
With the attachment to his mother symbolizing the strong link he has to this city and country, the film successfully intertwines family and political narratives, impartially showing a world in mutation from both French and the Algerian perspectives.
It’s no secret that Mr. Camus was a proponent of individual freedom and when he gives a federating speech at the university and gets booed, he shares with us that his desire of freedom and peace might be a utopia that nobody wants; And this feeling shouldn’t be surprising as Mr. Conery’s philosophical position is both noble and flawed at the same time. It is noble because the images of his happy childhood show us how he grew up genuinely loving the Algerian land, which makes him thinks he belongs there. As a result, he is an advocate of a Free Algeria where both the French and Algerians could live happily together. His vision is however flawed because both sides want war and most importantly because he doesn’t realize that the French have no business being there in the first place.
What makes his point of view somewhat respectable though is that his family lived in poverty, thus not belonging to the classes that were taking advantage of the land and locals. Of course you might argue that it is a simplistic excuse but Mr. Camus is too smart to not be aware of this: because The First Man, was his last and autobiographic novel, he was most likely reflecting on how he felt at the time where Algeria was about to take its independence from France.
What is interesting is that while his mother might be embodying his Algerian roots (even in an older age, she refuses to leave the country to back to France), his authoritarian grandma however represents France’s old values, which places him at the intersection between these two worlds. A teacher – symbolizing Republican values – acts as a surrogate father while his simpleton brother might incarnate the credulity of colonialist dream.
Would the movie have just been a philosophical pamphlet, it probably would have been harder to digest; dividing the narrative between a difficult present and a happy past ends up both charming you and instructing you at the same time. Contrasting with the severe tone of present sequences, the flashback scenes are lighthearted, melancholic and poetic, reminding you of 60’s Italian films and Marcel Pagnol’s Provence sagas (My Father’s Glory & My Mother’s Castle).
Supported by some nuanced acting, The First Man is a subtle and careful work that was designed to reach both your mind and your heart, successfully delivering the portrait of a complex world facing inexorable changes.
Director: Gianni Amelio – Actors: Jacques Gamblin, Catherine Sola – Running Time: 1:40 – Year: 2011 – Country: France