2000, NR, 100 min. Directed by Laurent Cantet. Starring Chantal Barre, Jean-Claude Vallod, Jalil Lespert.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 6, 2000
How you respond to Human Resources will have much to do with how fascinating you find the intricate ballet between workers and management. Set in a small, French, industrial town during that country's recent downshift to a 35-hour work week, Cantet's film details the brutal, numbing power struggles between workers and bosses, unions and workers, and father and son. At the heart of the story is Franck (Lespert), a young man just returned from business school, who takes an internship in the company his father (Vallod) has toiled at for the past 30 years. Ostensibly part of the suit-and-tie management team, Franck is at first held up as a model of what a clever young fast-tracker should be. His first assignment, creating a questionnaire for the factory floor-workers to complete, is heralded as a master stroke by his tubby, autocratic boss. And while Franck sets himself to the task with gusto, he wrongly assumes that his management team will use the information gleaned to improve conditions at the plant and ensure no employees are squeezed out during the move to the shorter work week. In fact, just the opposite happens, with management using Franck's form as a way to bypass the union and sever 12 workers from the force, including Franck's father. Cantet's tone is nimbly balanced between the father's hope that his son will grab the management's brass ring and run with it, and the slow, awful knowledge that, in the end, the firm does not have its workers' best interests at heart. As always, the business of business is making money, and the workers are forever expendable. All this may sound like a terribly dry film and, with Cantet's backdrop of dingy gray skies and clattering machines, at times it is. But Lespert, Vallod, and the other cast members supersede the presumably tedious business of the day-to-day rut by focusing on the well-worn relationship between father and son, and between worker and management. This isn't Norma Rae by a long shot. Human Resources -- which gets my vote for most sarcastic title of the year -- isn't a stand up and cheer kind of film. Although the film offers a glimmer of hope for the embattled working man, its outlook, like the chilly sky above, remains manifestly cloudy. Probably the most amazing thing about Cantet's film is that, with the exception of Lespert, all the actors are nonprofessionals and were recruited by Cantet while standing in line at the unemployment offices. Vallod, as the father, works hunched over his riveting machine like a seasoned vet. “I can make 700 rivets an hour if I work fast,” he enthuses to his son, who aspires to make the workers' conditions less arduous. They're working at cross purposes, and neither one fully understands the other. Vallod, sleepy-eyed and beaten, is a perfect foil for his son, and the film, shot in a Renault plant outside of Paris, grinds along like the punch presses that clatter in the background. What Human Resources has to say about labor versus management is distressing, but for a film that's basically one lengthy shouting match, with a message somewhere to the left of “don't quit your day job -- they're going to fire you anyway,” it's also surprisingly resonant.