2CV Assembly Line Recreated in the Film L’etabli

No 2CVs were harmed in the making of L’etabli, stresses Jean-Marc Tran Tan Ba, chief set decorator for the French film inspired by the story of Robert Linhart, an extreme left-wing activist, professor of philosophy and founder of the French Maoist movement, who was hired as a worker in the Citroën factory in Paris producing the 2CV.

A few months after the events of May 1968 when civil unrest lasting seven weeks occurred throughout France, punctuated by demonstrations, general strikes, and the occupation of universities and factories, Robert (the film’s main character played by Swann Arlaud), seeks to infiltrate the working world to continue the social movement.

Swann Arlaud poses beside the 2CV assembly line.

In creating the 2CV assembly line for the film, Jean-Marc was faced with the task that it had to appear realistic but with a visual poetry that perhaps wasn’t there at the time. He and his set design team watched documentaries, in particular “Humains, trop humain” (Humans, too human) – a 1974 cinéma vérité style documentary by Louis Malle and René Vautier, following the production of Citroën cars at the plant in Rennes, but it was more modern than the aging Levallois-Perret in Paris which was shut down in 1988. Jean-Marc and his team visited a number of closed factories in France finally settling on a storage building owned by Michelin in Clermont-Ferand to construct the movie set emulating the Levallois-Perret factory.

The construction and decoration team was comprised of about 25 people; carpenters, painters, assemblers, props — all needing to be funded, but without a blockbuster budget they had improvise. They succeeded in convincing a few collectors to rent their 2CVs, which they stripped down to look like they were being under construction on an assembly line. They also sourced in Belgium, spare doors, carcasses, wings and other parts that would be seen as “feeding” the assembly line. It was noble effort for a film with a limited budget.

Because 2CVs are generally well beaten in France, the fact that they looked a little ragged in the film’s assembly line can be forgiven. Of course, those of us with knowledge of them may have a hard time accepting the obvious mismatch of tires (some being non-Michelin), ratty cabin air-duct hosing, and rust around the air flap below the windshield, but hey — the overall character of the car takes the stage so we say; “well done!”

The film will be formally released on April 5, 2023.

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