Capturing the ups and downs of working-class lives on opposite ends of the Mediterranean, Northern Wind (Vent du nord) marks a promising feature debut for writer-director Walid Mattar. Set simultaneously in France and Tunisia, the film follows what happens when a factory closes in one country and then opens in the other, focusing on two families affected by economic and social transformations that are out of their control. Smartly scripted and backed by a solid cast, Wind deserves to be carried to select festivals and art houses overseas.
Written by Mattar, Leyla Bouzid and Claude Le Pape (Cesar-award winner Bloody Milk), the scenario begins with a setup we’ve seen in many a French movie: Herve (Philippe Rebbot), a longtime employee of a shoe manufacturer in northern France, finds himself holding onto a job that’s about to be outsourced abroad. Although he’s been working for several decades, he is not a union guy and refuses to strike. Yet, like everyone else on the assembly line, Herve gets the boot when the factory shuts down and is forced to find a new way to earn money.
What would normally be just another story of French industrial decline suddenly switches gears when, instead of sticking with Herve, the action follows the shoemaking machinery as it’s shipped across the Mediterranean Sea to a suburb of Tunis. There, a young man named Foued (Mohamed Amine Hamzaoui) finally lands gainful employment, doing a similar job as Herve but under less favorable conditions. He doesn’t seem to mind at first, though, because his beautiful friend Karima (Abir Bennani Zarouni) also works there, and this may be his chance to win her over.
Mattar keeps jumping back and forth between the two countries and plotlines, using goods sent from one location to another as a narrative device to show how humans are individually impacted by the companies and governments that rule their lives. What is one person’s loss may be another’s gain, although Wind gradually reveals that things are not so simple whether you’re living in the so-called first or third world.
In France, Herve decides to start a clandestine fishing operation — he’s a man of the seas who loves the open air — enlisting his son (Kacey Mottet Klein) to help out. But when the local administration catches wind of his newfound career, Herve realizes that turning his passion into a business comes at a major price. Meanwhile in Tunisia, Foued quickly grows tired of a repetitive blue-collar job with few prospects for growth, while facing up against his factory’s severe management. Sure, he’s finally earning a real living, but at what cost to his dignity and freedom?
Wind probes such questions with a rather light directorial touch, relying on flashes of humor and a strong sense of place. Rebbot, who’s mostly a comic actor, is terrific here as a family man whose worthy intentions are constantly crushed by the system. A late scene where the authorities come to seize his property is tragic yet never overplayed — it’s almost as if Herve can’t believe what’s happening to him, although his wife (Corinne Masiero) is fully aware of what a mess his life has become. Newcomer Hamzaoui is also good as a young guy hoping for a better future but resigned to limited choices: even when he gets the job he so coveted, it’s far from what he really wants.
Reminiscent in both plot and title to the Sandrine Bonnaire-starrer Catch the Wind, which followed a French seamstress who decides to work in Morocco when her factory relocates there, Mattar’s film is less heavy-handed and ultimately concentrates more on the bigger picture. In a simple yet effective way, it underscores how, no matter where you live, a job is a job, while people will always struggle to reconcile their dreams with reality.