“The only way to love France today is to hate it in its current form”- Pierre Drieu La Rochelle
The French cinematic Tiber has been foaming with much blood this week with Netflix’s release of the racially charged film Athena.
Dramatising the eruption of civil war type conditions in France arising out of the disputed murder of an Arab youth, the film has gleamed multiple awards at the Venice Film Festival where it premiered.
Pitting the jaded forces of the Fifth Republic against a commune of Arab and African militants in its 100 minute runtime, Athena offers much to mill over for viewers of the political right. Hardly singing praises for French nationalists, it nevertheless depicts the realities of ethnic warfare in the era of Instagram, at a time when France at large stumbles towards the socio-political abyss.
With a conscious air of antiquity we are introduced to the three brothers of deceased youth: Abdel, a community-minded moderate fresh out of the Army, Karim, a hoodlum leading the communards, and Moktar their drug-dealing half-brother anxiously trying to worm his way out of the warzone through dodgy police connections.
Kinetic from the get-go, we watch Athena wall itself off as riot police are forced to lay siege to the community all the while the very fabric of the French state comes undone. Hardly a form of speculative white nationalist fanfiction, I had to remind myself this high-budget dramatisation is the product of Netflix not Jean Raspail at multiple stages.
I expected a good deal more multicultural moralising when I sat down to watch Athena. Instead, I witnessed a fairly three-dimensional portrayal of what the breakdown of a modern Western state into anarchy would and may invariably look like. A loose coalition of gangsta rap-driven Maghrebis, drug dealers and Islamists combine to outmatch and subdue the forces of the state in a live-action French version of the Bogside.
Midway through and with the banlieues in flames across France we are informed that the revolt has spurred on a coup attempt by far-right with militants storming government buildings. It is not the only time the extrème droite is mentioned in the plotline with real-world warnings by senior members of the French military last year hanging eerily in my mind as events unfold.
With horse trading galore between various factions of police, communards and local drug gangs set amid the upheaval, the trajectory of Athena is unknown until the final credits roll.
As battalions of riot police engaged Arab communards in a visually stunning pitched battle it had me ruminating, would such a future breakdown and its aftermath finally put pay to the ideals of Voltaire and friends?
Would the Rights of Man matter much in a nation so ethnically and culturally estranged from its European Enlightenment roots and where tribal warfare sets the tempo of politics?
Could the republican ideals which toppled Catholic absolutism, propagated themselves through Napoleonic conquest and survived fascism and beyond fold permanently as France devolves into a Gallic Lebanon?
The vanity of the Republic brought about the delusion that Algeria could be integrated into the French family and now the pipedream that a similar aspiration could be replicated at home in our own century with the demographic transition.
Did the hoodlums of Athena do one better than the French peasants of Vendée and finally and for once and for all discredit Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity or will these ideals adapt to a new Yugoslavian reality France faces?
Halfway through the movie, we overhear TV pundits admitting to the reality that the rebels in Athena while in the French state are not part of actual French society. In crude terms here is the affirmation of Maurras’s notion of the métèque, or aliens within the French nation with the distinction essential to proper governance.
A son of 68er filmmakers, Romain Gavaras sits in the director’s chair with his previous work choreographing Jay-Z’s No Church in the Wild essentially a demo tape for what is served up in Athena.
Reminiscent at times of the Battle of Algiers, the Arabs of Athena don’t even have to bother cloaking their ethnic antagonism in revolutionary terminology anymore. Similarly and contra counterjihadists, Islam is only a side issue in the wider breakdown between Arabs and the nominally white French Republic on screen.
Not the first time such topics have been broached by French film, the 2009 prison pic A Prophet carries similar undertones in portraying the warfare between Corsican and Arab gangs behind bars. As an aside, HBO produced a comedic one-time TV movie about America collapsing into civil war over a mishandled refugee crisis headlined by James Earl Jones.
In an era where the viral video of George Floyd brought about a racialised colour revolution where the President of the United States briefly had to flee the Oval Office, Athena is very much a film of the post-2020 era.
Overall the cultural cordon sanitaire is a lot looser in the France Republic than in the anglophone world with Zemmour certifying demographic issues coming into the mainstream. It’s tough for French talking heads to dismiss notions of Le Grand Remplacement considering census figures and the daily reality of the banlieues.
Not fully living up to its potential though certainly more exhiliarity than any of Houellbecq’s depressive prose, Athena is well worth a pirated stream-though cynics may expect it to manifest itself on Parisian boulevards sooner rather than later.