Human Resources
Ressources Humaines
review by Dan Lybarger, 15 September 2000

The saying "Things are tough all over" takes on a special resonance after seeing neophyte French director Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources. French workers may have an enviable 35-hour week, but downsizing is just as real a danger as it is on this side of the Atlantic.

Not surprisingly, the conflict over the implementation of that abbreviated work schedule drives the film. Young Frank (Jalil Lespert) returns from college in Paris for a coveted internship at the factory where his father (Jean-Claude Vallod) works in rural Normandy. Dad, who has a monotonous job assembling parts, is proud that 30 years of toil has enabled him to send his son on the executive gravy train. With his blue-collar roots and his confident, energetic manner, Frank seems ideal to help mediate some of the disputes with the local union.

Even though he looks at home in his suit, the company and his father’s co-workers trust him to help settle some of the issues the company has with the 35-hour week. The company has just returned to profitability after laying off over twenty workers. The initially cordial negotiations get nasty when the local boss (Lucien Longueville) refuses to grant job security. The uncompromising and abrasive union leader Mrs. Arnoux (Danielle Mélador) storms out, stalling the talks. In order to circumvent the union, Frank sends out a questionnaire about the new hours. Because it allows management some flexibility in assigning hours, both the suits and the rank-and-file happily comply.

Frank’s success makes him eager to join the company and get on the executive fast track. His attitude changes radically when he discovers that the management is secretly planning to drop 12 more workers, including Frank’s father. Human Resources is a little film that has a lot going for it, but plot developments like this one almost sink it. The characters are often too narrowly delineated. From our first encounter with him, Longeuville comes across as evasive and condescending, and most of the works appear long-suffering but noble. It takes a Herculean effort to sympathize with greedy CEO’s, but Cantet and his co-writer Gilles Marchand make the conflict too obvious. When revelations that are intended to startle fail to do so, it’s because the situation, while credible, still feels inert.

If Cantet outlines Human Resources like a Gallic Frank Capra movie, he ends the flick ambiguously, bolstering its credibility. Cantet also demonstrates a remarkable hand with his performers. Lespert has an appealing presence and shows some real range. He’s also the only professional thespian in the cast. All of the others on the screen are landed jobs on the film when Cantet scoured the unemployment lines looking for people who could fit the roles. Bosses play the bosses, and Mélador is really a union official. All of the people in the film look as if they belong in the factory, but they have enough poise in front of the camera to hold their own with Lespert.

Cantet also shot the movie on Digital Video. Although the technology shown here is inferior to film, it’s actually an asset. The grainy, dull colors make the factory and the town that surrounds it look even more bleak. If the workers don’t appear to be leaping for joy, one quick glance offers an explanation. The tasks are repetitive and often reduce the workers to components of the machines. With his eye for atmosphere and the people who inhabit it, Cantet can be forgiven for standing too long on his soapbox.

Directed by:
Laurent Cantet

Jalil Lespert
Jean-Claude Vallod
Chantal Barré
Véronique de Pandelaère
Michel Begnez
Lucien Longueville
Danielle Mélador
Pascal Sémard
Didier Emile-Woldemard
Françoise Boutigny
Félix Cantet
Marie Cantet
Sébastien Tauvel

Written by:
Laurent Cantet
Gilles Marchand




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