Claude Berri's film of the misery in the northern mining community of Denain near Lille in the 19th century stars Gerard Depardieu, the singer Renaud in his first cinema role and Miou-Miou as the strong-willed, long-suffering La Maheude who runs a household on the breadline while three of her children die of sickness or pit accidents and her husband (Depardieu) is shot dead by troops sent to break a strike.
The 1885 novel by Zola, part of his mammoth work on the social strains of his times, struck such a chord with the miners in the north that when Zola - the author of J'Accuse, taxing the establishment with anti-Semitism in the Dreyfus affair - died in 1902, miners walked behind his coffin chanting the title of the novel.
Renaud is a socially angry Lillois singer who deeply upset the Sun a decade ago with none-too-sympathetic lyrics about Margaret Thatcher. His casting as the strike-organising Lantier seems remarkably apt. The 19th-century militant's talk in the film is close to the outdated left-wing cant that Renaud affects in real life.
Long before Germinal opened on Wednesday, it had been billed as the cultural event of the French year. Berri first captured the imagination by using unemployed miners, laid off when pits closed two decades ago, among the 8,000 extras playing the role of their ancestors who faced unemployment and starvation a century earlier. For one pre-release showing, miners, who have stressed how authentic they consider the pit scenes to be, set up a cinema inside a mine.
But it is as a symbol of France's state-supported cultural difference that the film has aroused most comment. Coming four weeks before the French release of Stephen Spielberg's Jurassic Park, Germinal cost 160m francs (pounds 18.6m) to make, and Berri said he could not have done it without government subsidies. It will recover costs only after 5 million people have seen it.
France is fighting to keep culture out of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations (Gatt) which are bogged down over French objections to provisions on farm exports. Worried about an invasion of US soap operas and films, France has asked for the cinema and television to be kept out of Gatt. 'If culture cannot be treated as an exception in Gatt negotiations, Europe's cultural identity will die,' Berri said.
The film, made with the co-operation of the local authorities, has aroused some negative passions, however. Jacques Bonduelle, the head of the Lille employers' federation and the chief executive of France's biggest vegetable distribution network, complained that the film underlined the drab image of a region which hopes to benefit from the opening of the Channel Tunnel next year.
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