Although at heart, The Anarchists is the type of thriller where the protagonist goes undercover in a tight-knit community a la Point Break or Donnie Brasco or the upcoming The Infiltrator, it feels classier. This is to do with the time in which it takes place: Paris in 1899. Its story may be simple but The Anarchists’ period setting, gorgeously recreated by D.O.P David Chizallet (Mustang) with the help of some ace set and costume design, goes a long way to helping the film stand out from the pack of similarly plotted movies.
The story centres upon Jean (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim), a former orphan, now working as a Parisian policeman. Due to his lack of family and supposed lack of political leanings, he is chosen to infiltrate a gang of anarchists. After a staged raid by police, Jean saves Elisee (Swann Arlaud), a high-ranking member of the group. Immediately taken under the wing of Elisee, despite doubts by other members (Guillaume Gouix), he becomes involved in the gang’s illegal activities – mainly robberies of graves, homes and banks in order to fund their lifestyle. However, when Jean begins an affair with Elisee’s girlfriend, Judith (Palme d’Or winner Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Colour), it threatens both his mission and his ties to the anarchists.
As mentioned in my opening paragraph the film looks terrific. Sunlight beams through the high windows of lavish French apartments and libraries, only illuminating parts of the rooms, creating an atmosphere of gloominess, mirroring Jean’s mental state.
However, while its look and setting may be the only aspect of The Anarchists that separates it from other police-infiltration thrillers, that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing worth recommending. Director and co-writer Elie Wajeman (along with Gaelle Mace) recreate the story beats of these types of movies with great aplomb. There are numerous tense set-pieces such as when Jean’s cover is almost blown by a former girlfriend or when a letter proving Jean’s involvement with the police is almost discovered by the gang.
The film is impeccably cast. Jean’s boss tells him early on he was selected because he “inspires trust”. Tahar Rahim is perfect for the role because his entire career thus far (A Prophet, Grand Central, The Last Panthers) has been characters, trapped in tough situations, who are instantly likeable. He radiates warmth without having to say a lot. That’s not to say his Jean is a one-note hero, however. When Jean has to shift his emotions to keep up his cover, Rahim is well up to the task, as evident by the scene in which he threatens his ex.
Adele Exarchopoulos is equally brilliant, doing a lot with her character torn by conflicting passions. Judith is a stronger and better written love interest than the norm in movies such as this. Unlike a typical gangster’s moll, she is actively involved in the anarchist’s dealings, giving impassioned speeches at secret rallies and breaking into lavish homes. Because we like the character so much, the love affair plot, traditionally the weakest in movies of this kind, is actually the most interesting. When her and Rahim are on-screen together, they add a real spark and flair to proceedings.
While it doesn’t subvert many of the tropes of the police-infiltration thriller, The Anarchists improves on the formula of the genre through its exquisite recreation of fin-de-siecle Paris, its great central performances and its strong characters.