Widely tagged as a Ken Loach-style social drama, Louis-Julien Petit’s Discount is a hard-hitting look at the day-to-day reality in France for millions of ordinary people, as far removed from the image of the country as the last word in fine living as it’s possiblle to get. All credit to Petit who has opted with his first feature length film to tackle a style of film not often seen in France – a social drama which uses comedy to push the message home. The combination of blue-collar heroes and working class solidarity makes for rousing stuff and is a timely reminder of grim reality of the current economic crisis.
A branch of a chain of low-cost supermarkets, known as hard-discount in France, is about to replace its cashiers with automated cash-tills. The change will drastically reduce the workforce in a region where jobs are already thin on the ground. Five employees – Christiane (Corinne Masiero), Emma (Sarah Suco), Gilles (Olivier Barthelemy), Momo (M’Barek Belkouk) and Alfred (Pascal Demolon) decide to fight the system by creating their own low-cost supermarket. They secretly take goods from the shelves and recuperate other out-of-date products destined to be thrown away and set up shop in Christiane’s disused garage. The alternative supermarket is a success with the locals who often struggle to make ends meet. But their scheme is put at risk when another employee wants a share of the spoils.
Petit paints a dismal picture of work conditions for the employees of these increasingly popular, low-cost supermarkets by drawing a distinct parallel with those found in a prison. Employees are searched at the end of a shift, security cameras are everywhere. And in one scene, a worker who is accused of stealing is frogmarched by a security guard to a locked room to await the arrival of the police. Whether this is a true reflection or not of working conditions in these supermarkets, Discount makes it all seem highly plausible. And Petit carefully demonstrates the dehumanising work conditions operate from the top down. Supermarket manager Sofia Benhaoui – in a beautifully nuanced performance from Zabou Breitman – is as badly treated by her superiors as those lower down the food chain.
By using a dry, understated form of humour, Petit makes his point. There are a couple of wry, running gags. In one, Discount takes a swipe at US-style management techniques as workers are constantly reminded to offer a welcoming smille to customers – the same customers who repeatedly barge them out of the way as they lunge for the best bargains. And while each of the main characters is flawed, they are fundamentally decent, generous people forced by circumstances to walk a fine line between what is legally and what is morally correct.
Discount is an uplifting, inspirational film well worthy of the Prix du Public at last year’s Angouleme film festival.