Smugglers’ Songs

Michael Kwass

Johns Hopkins University


Film director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche is known for his critically acclaimed trilogy (Wesh wesh, Bled Number One, and Dernier maquis) on immigration and identity in contemporary France.  With Les chants de Mandrin, he takes a new turn, plunging deep into French history to examine the spirited life of a band of smugglers in the eighteenth century. As might be expected, this is not your usual costume drama; there are no lingering shots of Versailles, no royals in lavish dress, no scheming aristocrats.  Instead, the action takes place far from the royal court in the rugged provinces of southeastern France where smugglers live fiercely independent lives on the margins of society.

In taking up the story of Louis Mandrin, the gun-toting outlaw who ended his days on a scaffold in Valence in 1755, Ameur-Zaïmeche puts his own stamp on the French national legend.  Like the stories that have grown up around Robin Hood or Jesse James, that legend has been told and retold for generations, inaugurated by the picaresque biographies of the Bibliothèque bleue, refashioned in serial crime novels during the Belle Époque, and projected onto the silver screen in the twentieth century. The genius of Ameur-Zaïmeche’s latest cinematic iteration is to commence the story after the smuggler’s execution and so liberate it from the tedious conventions of the biopic. More interested in exploring the construction and meaning of Mandrin’s legacy than in rehearsing his event-choked life, the film-maker slows the plot to contemplate the quotidian existence of Mandrin’s successors, the allure of underground markets, the defiance of popular revolt, and the political uses of print. Not bad for a film that could have been just another swashbuckling romp through a movie-set old regime.

The plot is simplicity itself. The distinguished marquis de Lévezin tracks down Mandrin’s former comrade, Bélissard, now head of the smuggling band in the former’s ghostly absence. After warning Bélissard about troop deployments at the border, the marquis asks for the “Testament politique” that Mandrin drafted before his execution and which the marquis is eager to publish.  Bélissard gives his assent, adding that he and his men have composed a poem of their own, “Les chants de Mandrin,” that they would like to see printed as well. The remainder of the film follows the unlikely collaborators’ efforts to disseminate the subversive texts while hawking contraband and battling soldiers sent to stop them.

This bare-bones plot provides the director ample space to paint a vivid portrait of the late old regime, depicted as a society in flux where traditional social and political authority was contested at every turn. Socially, the challenge to the old order is visible in the ambivalent relationship between the marquis de Lévezin and Jean Sératin, a common peddler he meets on a backcountry road. The marquis and the colporteur come from different worlds; the former can no more walk in the countryside without getting painful blisters than the latter can ride in a carriage without motion sickness. But Sératin is not content to play the role of deferential underling. Gently rubbing the marquis’ sore foot, he asks the nobleman if he treats his servants well. When the marquis hesitates, the peddler presses, “do you feel guilty?” When the marquis acknowledges that servants have dressed him since his childhood, Sératin resumes his interrogation, “don’t you have… a strange feeling of incompetence, monsieur le marquis?” To which Lévezin replies, “actually, at the moment, I’m becoming aware of many things.” Here is a man awakening to the injustice of the old regime, against which he proposes to publish Mandrin’s “Testament politique.”

As the marquis’ interest in the manuscript suggests, the main challenge to political authority in this old regime comes from the illicit economy, a shadowy world of mobile smugglers whose trafficking undermines the fiscal-territorial sovereignty of the crown. The outlaws evoked here are rough-hewn but decent, country folk who know how to snare game, apply herbal remedies, and handle a weapon. They shelter deserters, drink rot-gut, smoke whatever weed they don’t sell, and pair off with calico-clad maids when passing through villages. (The one woman in the band, Mandrin’s former lover, remains mournfully silent, only partially integrated into the pack.) Although the film romanticizes the traffickers as good-natured rustics with hearts of gold, it gracefully gestures to the everyday rural world in which they practiced their trade. When the smugglers do battle with soldiers, we understand that they are not merely protecting their merchandise but their whole way of life.

Bélissard has no intention of concealing that way of life from public view. On the contrary, if most smugglers cling to the shadows of the underground, he and his crew, like Mandrin before them, thrust contraband into the public domain by occupying towns and carving out open spaces in which to sell illegal goods. In the film’s most memorable scene, the smugglers march into a remote burg and announce to the beat of a drum that a contraband market will be held under their armed protection; all are welcome and none need worry about the authorities who, if they dare intercede, will undoubtedly be rebuffed. As if to illustrate how the parallel economy boosted consumption in the eighteenth century, townspeople flock to the market to buy an array of prohibited or heavily taxed merchandise, from exotic “oriental” cloth to tobacco and gunpowder to Protestant and philosophical books.[1] “Excellent choice,” a gang member assures a customer who opts for a work by Voltaire. Relishing these markets for their salty mix of political subversion, consumer exuberance, and plebeian conviviality, Bélissard beams as he chats with customers who admire his illicit treasures. Market festivity never crosses into the realm of the carnivalesque but, by flourishing outside the regulatory apparatus of state, it allows smugglers and consumers to enjoy the thrill of an alternative and, in this film, emancipatory mode of exchange.

The presence of banned books in these underground markets points to a particularly fascinating aspect of the film: its engagement with print culture.  The viewer learns early on that, as well as peddling excerpts from Les Bijoux indiscrets, Sératin has been hawking a biography of Mandrin that was promoted by the farmers-general (the infamous financiers who collected the king’s indirect taxes) to cast the smuggler as a villainous bandit. To counter the semi-official smear campaign and illuminate Mandrin’s true character, smugglers and marquis engage the services of a nearby printer who, sympathetic to the cause, agrees to publish their manuscripts. In a transparently pedagogic turn, the film takes us through the printer’s workshop to examine how eighteenth-century pamphlets were fabricated. We see a mill pounding pulp, sheets of paper hanging to dry, and an artisan setting moveable type. Just as the smugglers know their trade, the printer knows his craft, and the two forms of hands-on knowledge join to challenge the authority of the monarchy.

By having marquis, smugglers, and printer forge an alliance, the film deftly highlights three historical forces – elite liberalism, popular activism, and an expanding book trade — that loosened the grip of customary authority in the decades before the French Revolution. What the film fails to explore in depth, however, is what exactly these rebels are rebelling against. Is the target of their hostility the army, the farmers-general, the king, the institution of monarchy itself? At one point, the peddler advertises that Les chants de Mandrin provides a blueprint for a “republic,” but viewers get very little sense of the smugglers’ political imagination.

Indeed, the film misses a few golden opportunities to investigate how Mandrin and his allies politicized illicit trade. The first has to do with the intellectual content of the texts the marquis and the smugglers are seeking to diffuse.  Both Le Testament politique de Louis Mandrin and La Mandrinade: poème en quatre chants, en vers burlesques were in fact published after Mandrin was broken on the wheel. The former, which was written not by Mandrin but economist Ange Goudar, assailed the General Farm for ruining France and imposing “tyranny” on its people. Through the putative voice of Mandrin, Goudar begged Louis XV to abolish the Farm, amnesty smugglers, and assist those who, for lack of work, did not have the means to subsist. I fully understand why Ameur-Zaïmeche does not wish to reveal the book’s true author: Mandrin’s supposed authorship heightens the work’s mysterious aura within the context of this fiction film.  But why not use the text’s ideas to enrich the story? Why not show how the Farm became a lightning rod for popular activism and elite opposition at the end of the old regime? Widespread hostility to the company, which has been well documented by historians, might have been more effectively dramatized on screen.[2]

Second, despite several battle scenes, the violent struggle between Farm and smuggler is obscured by Bélissard’s repeated clashes with royal soldiers rather than Farm agents. This isn’t just a matter of “getting the facts right” but of making a meaningful argument about the past. To suggest that smugglers were regularly battling the royal army is to misrepresent an essential characteristic of eighteenth-century popular revolt, which was aimed overwhelmingly at the notorious Farm police. In the absence of any violent encounter with Farm officials or substantive explication of the texts that the marquis and the smugglers have printed, we can only guess at the deeper political significance of contraband rebellion. Greater nuance would have enhanced our appreciation of the complexity of popular politics in prerevolutionary France.

Finally, the film narrows our understanding of a politicized underground by attributing the outpouring of literature on Mandrin to the protagonists alone. Led to believe that Mandrin, the smugglers, and the marquis penned, respectively, Le Testament politique, Les Chants de Mandrin, and the “Complainte de Mandrin,” viewers get little sense of the explosion in popular media that followed Mandrin’s execution. This spontaneous eruption of engravings, songs, chapbooks, pamphlets, and Enlightenment treatises was not the work of a few smugglers and their close allies but a heterogeneous group of writers and artisans who sought to stimulate, shape, and profit from public interest in the affair. Certainly, we can make concessions to plotting. By narrowing the source of the media to the film’s protagonists, Ameur-Zaïmeche lends agency to his characters and deepens their story, but the trade-off is that he fails to convey how Mandrin’s legacy was constructed by a wide range of cultural producers who offered a kaleidoscope of conflicting representations of the kingpin and his exploits.

Still, this contemplative film does a wonderful job of capturing the lived experience of smugglers and the broader impact of the illicit economy on popular culture. Studded with allusions to a contemporary world still struggling with mobility, integration, and repression, the story engages a fresh dialogue between past and present. Is it any wonder that Ameur-Zaïmeche, whose first film Wesh wesh dealt with gangs, trafficking, and police in the Parisian banlieues, chose to retell the legend of Louis Mandrin? Represented anew by this innovative film-maker, the “Complainte de Mandrin,” chanted somberly by the marquis in the penultimate scene, takes on broader meaning, lamenting not only the fate of a smuggler who dared to defy the powers that be and paid for it with his life, but of all who suffer discrimination, exploitation, and the brutality of a draconian penal system. The smugglers evoked here represent all who have been treated as “outlaws in [their] own country.” Yet the film does not indulge in didacticism or pessimism.  With the lightest of touches, it suggests the possibility of resistance not only through militant confrontation but, more convincingly, by means of social solidarity and communicative arts – music, prose, poetry, and ultimately film itself.

A final word about teaching this movie, which I strongly recommend.  For those whose students read French, I would suggest pairing the film with Le Testament politique de Louis Mandrin or any number of texts associated with the Mandrin affair.[3] For more advanced students, one might also assign Jean Nicolas, La Rébellion française: Mouvements populaires et conscience sociale (1661-1789), which has an excellent chapter on contraband rebellion. Primary sources on Mandrin are not available in English translation, but students can read secondary works on popular revolt, such as Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel’s The Vanishing Children of Paris or William Beik’s recent article on crowd violence. A new study of Mandrin (by yours truly) is in press and will be available shortly.

Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, Director, Les chants de Mandrin [Smugglers’ Songs] (2011), Color, 97 min., France, Sarrazink Productions, Maharaja Films, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC)

  1. In reality, Mandrin and his associates restricted themselves to smuggling two commodities: tobacco (a blend of New World and European leaf) and indiennes (which were probably Swiss or Alsatian knock-offs of cotton cloth from India). The band was suspected of colluding with Protestants in Languedoc but there is no evidence that they smuggled Protestant literature or any other banned books.
  2. Jean Nicolas, La Rébellion française: Mouvements populaires et conscience sociale (1661-1789) (Paris, 2002), chaps. 1 and 2; Gilbert Shapiro and John Markoff, Revolutionary Demands: A Content Analysis of the Cahiers de Doléances of 1789 (Stanford, 1998), chap. 20; and Michael Kwass, “The Global Underground: Smuggling, Rebellion, and the Origins of the French Revolution,” in The French Revolution in Global Perspective, ed. Suzanne Desan, Lynn Hunt, and William Max Nelson (Ithaca, NY, 2013), pp. 15-32.
  3. Le Testament politique is available in two recent print editions and on-line at the BNF and in The Making of the Modern World database (Gale Digital Collections). Other documents, including La Mandrinade: poème en quatre chants, en vers burlesques, are located in H.J. Lüsebrink, ed., Histoires curieuses et véritables de Cartouche et de Mandrin (Paris, 1984); and Abrégé de la vie de Louis Mandrin (Paris, 1991).
  4. Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel, The Vanishing Children of Paris: Rumor and Politics before the French Revolution, trans. Claudia Miéville (Cambridge, Mass., 1991); William Beik, “The Violence of the French Crowd from Charivari to Revolution,” Past and Present 197 (Nov. 2007), 75-110.


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