If you have endless curiosity about the techniques and conditions of 19th-century coal mining in France, then at long last, here's a movie for you. Based on Emile Zola's novel of the same name and reportedly the most expensive French movie ever made (at a cost of $30 million), Germinal is moviemaking on an epic scale. Which is not to praise it. Like so many epics (Gandhi, The Ten Commandments, Heaven's Gate), somewhere amid the sweeping vistas, thousands of extras and general sense of elevated purpose, the actual characters are lost.
Too many scenes in this movie, which tells the story of a miners' strike gone tragically awry, feature coal-dusted characters crouching underground. As director Claude Berri ploddingly moves the action along, you find yourself spending more time wondering how the actors scrubbed clean every night than in caring about workers' rights, mine safety, the indifference of the upper classes and all the other big stuff the movie is supposedly about. Only late in the film, when a senile old miner dispassionately strangles a wealthy young woman delivering a care package, does the movie engage the emotions.
Depardieu, bulkier than ever (and showing the extra beefcake in two nude scenes), plays a stalwart mining leader stalwartly. The lovely Miou-Miou, in the Mother Courage role, has her moments, while Renaud, a French singer making his screen debut as a sensitive stranger in town, is just wimpy. Warning for the squeamish: Hide your eyes during the scene where an enraged woman Bobbitizes the corpse of a money-gouging shopkeeper and then holds her bloody trophy aloft. (R)