In May of 1968, France came to a standstill. The economy ceased to function the president fled the country and a huge percentage of the population went on strike. It was a student-led protest against capitalism. There were numerous mass protests and intense riots in the streets.
Among those who rose up were intellectuals such as Jaques Derrida and Michelle Foucault who were part of the poststructuralist movement as well as a group of artists and activists who called themselves Situationists or collectively The Situationist International. At the center of the, the Situationists were Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem. They used a Marxist critique of capitalism to fuel their fight but felt that Marx needed to be updated. His summary of capitalism was correct, but his solution was flawed. For Debord and Vaneigem the spontaneous beauty and exhilaration of human life needed to be rescued from the clutches of consumerism and the state. They saw humanity as alienated not just by labor but by products that were meant to substitute for experience. We were made to replace our thoughts and behaviors with the consumption of products like new cars, automatic can-openers, and self-propelled lawnmowers.
The movie Thermroc was released in 1973 just 5 years after the uprising. It was made by French filmmaker Claude Faraldo. Thermroc is Feraldo’s contribution to the cause. The film is like a brick thrown into the fray. Like a brick, It is more about force than ideology. Its a display like Khrushchev pounding his shoe at the U.N.
In one fell swoop, Thermroc dismisses everything that comes out of our mouths as pointless gibberish. There is no intelligible speech in the film. People talk and argue and tell each other off but its all meaningless babble. Thermroc, our blue color protagonist, is even less articulate still. He can only roar and grunt with brutal intensity.
The film’s premise is simple. Thermroc is fed up with the rat race and so goes home to completely disown society. He plasters himself in his room, breaks through the outer wall with a sledgehammer, and begins throwing everything he owns down into the street. It is clearly a gesture of liberation. With each piece of furniture that plummets to the sidewalk, Thermroc is filled with satisfaction and glee. The dust clouds and cacophonous crashes are a joy. He is reclaiming his life by severing ties with society’s products.
When the police arrive they are pelted with lamps, bricks, books, and desks. This appears to be a reference to the enormous barricades that the people of the 1968 riots erected. There were enormous piles of junk constructed like beaver dams in the streets of Paris. The detritus of consumerism became a weapon in the war against capitalism.
Fighting the police with consumerist objects creates an ironic image. In a capitalist society, the primary function of the police is to protect private property. Crime is caused by inequality and the police must maintain that inequality by protecting the rich from the poor.
The Situationists saw consumer products as fetish objects meant to replace our natural desires and healthy interactions with a lifeless exchange of labor for materialism. In juxtaposition to Thermroc’s giddy protest, there is a young man down in the street below with a small rag and a bottle of polish delicately rubbing his bright blue sports car inch by inch.
Thermroc is joined in his urban cave by his sister. They become lovers and live like Tarzan and Jane defending their turf. Eventually, Thermroc’s neighbors join in. Other people on his street start busting out their walls. Its a bit like the famous “I’m mad as hell” scene from Network except the impotence of yelling into the void is replaced with brute force and destruction.
The city sends masons to fix the walls and the primitive inhabitants of the building poke at the interlopers as if the occupants were monkeys and the masons were curiosities. There is a wonderful scene where Thermoc sticks his finger in some freshly laid mortar and the mason smooths it over only to have Thermroc stick his finger in again. They repeat this back and forth until the mason decides to join Thermroc in the cave.
Others are not so lucky. Thermroc goes hunting at night and brings home two policemen which the tribe roasts on a spit and eats with great relish and celebration.
The depiction of women in the film is problematic. They are not given the same agency as the men. In Claude Faraldo’s world of primal simplicity, women are objects of desire that assist in expressing male virility. The women participate but are clearly secondary. It’s disappointing that in this outburst of spontaneous passion women are not given equal opportunity to throw off convention.
Near the end of the film, the whole group of cave people indulges in an orgy and their animal cries of orgasm drive the city crazy. Suddenly the man who has been polishing his sports car takes a sledgehammer to it. The call of the wild echoes through the streets like a wolf’s howl that causes other wolves to instinctively respond. Jack London for humans.
The Situationists did not advocate for Luddite anarchism or some kind of “primitivism” but they did engage in what Derrida coined deconstruction. Thermroc dramatizes the intellectual practice of deconstruction but it also satirizes it. Thermroc is not simply a call to action or agitprop. Its satire extends to itself. As a film, it is an outburst like someone yelling out in an otherwise well-behaved classroom or theater. The actual outburst matters more than the specific words that are said.
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