HUMAN RESOURCES (Laurent Cantet, 1999)

Laurent Cantet’s Ressources humaines, which he wrote with Gilles Marchand, suffers from an enormous disadvantage here in the States, where its appearance has been nearly simultaneous with that of another film about factory workers and their workplace, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000). To be sure, while Cantet’s first feature homes in on the factory milieu, its politics, and the degree to which family life functions as an extension of the workplace, von Trier’s film, a vaster work, places its factory scenes—the most disturbingly suasive ones of crunchingly monotonous and deadly dangerous labor I have seen on film—in a much broader psychological, moral and cultural context, arriving at a breathtakingly complete portrait of the U.S. in the early ’60s. Cantet’s relatively modest piece possesses nothing like the density, the specific gravity, the sociopolitical depth of the von Trier film, which far more resembles the achievement of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, one of the two or three greatest American novels of the twentieth century, than either of the films ostensibly based on the book (Josef von Sternberg’s 1931 version, George Stevens’s 1951 A Place in the Sun). But Cantet’s smaller range should at least ensure a sharper focus on its own thematic material.

The results are mixed. The film, early on, is terrific; but the plot suddenly turns on the most gaping of several contrivances, and private conversations are sometimes taken over by speeches, exiling the naturalism, the sense of pure reality, that the film persuasively established. Pity.

The basic plot outline is certainly novelistic. A boy graduated from a Parisian business school returns during the summer to his provincial town in order to complete an internship as management trainee at the metal factory where his father, five years short of retirement, has worked for thirty years. This boy, Franck Verdeau, impresses the general manager, inspiring jealousy in his young immediate supervisor in the firm’s human resources department. But Franck is determined to succeed, devising, against the backdrop of a proposed 35-hour work week, a questionnaire for workers intended to smooth the rough waters between labor and management. Thus Verdeau, whose efforts shortcircuit the authority of the union representing the workers, steps into a hornet’s nest of labor-management politics; and indeed management has designs of its own for the referendum, which becomes the groundwork for a second round of massive layoffs linked to plans to automate welding: replacing people with machines. Euphoric on the day that he administers the questionnaire, Franck helps himself to his supervisor’s computer against the protests of the secretary (this is the film’s rupturing contrivance), whereupon he learns of downsizing plans and the list of employees about to be let go. His father’s name is on the list. Instantly radicalized, the boy joins forces with his scourge and nemesis, the trade unionist leader, and a general strike ensues which his father refuses to join—until, that is, the boy gives him one helluva lambasting. Summer ends, and it’s back to the city for the boy whose future, once seemingly assured, now is uncertain.

Early on, the film is remarkably alert. When M. Verdeau tries to show his son around the factory on the day that Franck will meet the general manager, the normal sense of pride and authority one might expect this to give him is casually taken away from him; he is barred from showing Franck the factory floor, which management itself does later on as if to rub in the undermining of M. Verdeau’s paternal authority, and M. Verdeau is scolded for (perhaps) falling behind in his production results. (The film was shot in a Renault factory at a time when workers were frantically attempting to meet production quotas—Chaplin’s Modern Times without the laughs; M. Verdeau’s first name is never divulged, giving him in effect the same kind of namelessness that in Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” is emblematic of a child’s total lack of power or capacity for self-determination.) The actors playing Verdeau father and son appear as miracles of sensitivity during these early moments of ordeal, one registering the personal shame in himself overtaking pride in his son, the other registering a will to succeed, and a quota of self-pride, overtaking a son’s familial mandate to bend to a parent’s authority. (Prior to their going to the factory together, M. Verdeau’s authoritative instruction to Franck that he, the boy, will have to get used to giving him, his father, orders at work predicts perfectly the spillover from work to family that (deleteriously) redefines family as an extension of work.) As in Jean-Luc Godard’s Numéro Deux/Essai Titres (1974), we witness (as Godard would have it) ‘The Factory’ messing up normal family prerogatives and imperatives. The initial manifestation of this both Marchand and Cantet compound when the factory’s general manager takes the boy under his wing, assuming vis-à-vis him the role of a surrogate father, thereby further eroding the elder Verdeau’s authoritative role vis-à-vis the younger Verdeau, an emotional tables-turning that reaches a point of brilliant excess when Franck, by the uses to which management puts his referendum, becomes the unwitting instrument for taking away his father’s job. This aspect of the film simply could not be improved upon.

But the contrivance by which the boy discovers the downsizing plot, besides ill-advisedly revising the genre of the film into paranoid political thriller, breaks faith with the audience, replacing nuanced attention to emotional detail with bold improbabilities. The fault lies with Cantet; I believe that his co-scenarist, Marchand, may have had something quite different in mind. From the start Franck is shown straddling the fence between blue-collar and white-collar worlds, between family feeling and pride in himself, between one social class and another, between the absence of post-secondary education and his own business education, between old friends and new business acquaintances. The script could not have more plainly posited an ambivalence in the boy, a dividedness, from which a certain suspiciousness towards management might easily have arisen at the high point of his own sense of authority and success, which he reaches through the administration of the referendum, thus making him guiltily ripe, from the blue-collar side of his dividedness, to ferret out management’s possibly hidden agenda. It would make sense then that Franck broke into his superior’s computer. But Cantet could not have availed himself of this logic because he had opted from the start to portray Franck as a total naïf, a Jefferson Smith, an innocent. Boxed into a corner of his own direction and devising, Cantet may have thus found himself, for consistency’s sake, unable to fulfill the script’s motivation for Franck’s pivotal act, leaving it instead unmotivated, hence contrived, hence the creator of a gaping hole at the center of the film’s action.

Nor is this the end of the problem, for, once created, the (w)hole tears wider. Franck becomes instantly radicalized by what he learns off his supervisor’s computer. Instant radicalization admits a perfect pedigree in cinema: the masterpieces of Vsevolod Pudovkin, Mother (1926) and—a particular model for Cantet’s film, I believe—The End of St. Petersburg (1927). Indeed, instant radicalization has proven the best method in cinema to express the moral imperative involved in correcting one’s own prior course of political (mis)behavior. To say the least, I have no problem with instant radicalization per se. But when this event follows as the consequence of a contrivance, it cannot help but compound the contrivance; so, in the context that Cantet has himself devised, he undoes his own film by adding one character improbability to another. Had Cantet’s direction followed the guidance of his own and Marchand’s script, however, the perfect sense of the computer-stored discovery would have convincingly led to the instant radicalization of a boy who had found that his fence-straddling was now impossible to sustain, impelling him (guiltily) to break with the side he had toyed with embracing and forming an allegiance, properly, with the other side, the side of the workers, the side of humanity. The resultant film would have been as whole as the current one is split apart.

In short, the revision of Franck’s knowing ambivalence, and perhaps even self-serving manipulation of one side of his dividedness against the other, into a total and intransigent innocence, a gross simplification probably promoted to shore up the character’s likeability, damage Human Resources. Moreover, something else damages it, leaving its material oddly unresolved: a question of just how deep Franck’s radicalization really is and therefore how long it will last. A five-year-later or ten-year-later coda would have helped in this regard. As it is, the film ends with an exchange of lines between Franck and a befriended worker (Alain—a wonderful character) that, possible only as lines in a script rather than as human conversation, ends the film with the kind of studied speechifying that intrudes a great deal into the dialogue in the second half of the film, reaching its extreme in the public lambasting with which Franck assails his father—a tirade where the boy makes M. Verdeau responsible for imparting to him since childhood a sense of shame about manual labor.

All that said, Human Resources is a film with a whole lot to commend it. It presents a powerful portrait of what workers, including factory workers, endure, from the monotonous nature of their work, from the inhuman production requirements imposed on their work, to the spirit-crushing, humiliating treatment they receive from management, a mix of smug superiority and indecent insensitivity thrown out at them like a whip across a slave’s back. Cantet’s film captures the whole culture of this sickening daily oppressiveness, suggesting the cruelty at its base and the depth of capitalistic concerns and rationalizations cloaking it. The factory, which employs nearly every age-eligible worker in town, governs their lives and determines their lives, at work and away from work, to an alarming, often calculated degree. No one should have to live and work the way that this film suggests multitudes daily live and work, and if the balance shifts ever so slightly from the plight of workers to the machinations of management this all the better underscores the film’s analysis of the powers arrayed against ordinary people.

Too, the film presents a view of unionism surprisingly detailed in the nuts and bolts of union concerns and activism, and the film is particularly adept at exposing the way that management so often negotiates with labor in bad faith, devising whatever schemes it can to undermine a union’s authority, to pry workers away from those representing their interests, and to create for the public an image of recalcitrant, unreasonable unionism. Cantet has done an outstanding job of showing how livelihoods—people’s lives—are jeopardized as management, at times cloaked in an obscene kind of amiability, a feigned concern for workers, pursues its selfish prerogatives of greed and power. Cantet is not so subtle as he might be; but his ride over the top takes Human Resources into a territory of political truth that has been dishearteningly abandoned by cinema of late. Certainly one of the most vibrant purposes of cinema, with its stunning immediacy as an art form, is to champion the cause of people and to expose and analyze the social and political forces and structures arrayed against that cause. The nation that gave the world Victor Hugo’s Les misérables is a fitting space from which such a film as Cantet’s should arrive.

Cantet’s passion is irresistible. In an interview he has said: “ . . . we use this expression ‘human resources’ without even thinking about what we are saying. It’s just an administrative expression. In fact, it’s quite cynical because [we] are talking about human beings in the same inanimate way that you could talk about money or energy.”

For his cast, Cantet hasn’t gone to ‘human resources’ but to humanity. With one exception, this cast consists of nonprofessionals, ordinary people, sometimes recruited from unemployment lines, sometimes matching the roles they have been given to play. For example, Danielle Mélador, who plays Mme. Arnoux, the strike leader, was herself a trade unionist; her acting is vigorous and delightful. Delivering the best performance, though, is Jean-Claude Vallod, who plays Franck’s father, a metal factory worker himself; we watch him in the film perform the same work he has been performing since he was 14. The emotionally complex scenes between M. Verdeau and Franck Verdeau suggest that Vallod is a great natural actor. But, really, one performance after another is expert: Chantal Barré as Franck’s mother, Lucien Longueville as the general manager, Didier Emile-Woldemard as Alain, a worker intelligent enough to be rightly suspicious of the uses to which Franck’s questionnaire will be put but lacking the education to much improve his lot in life—perhaps the most poignant role in the film.

The one professional member of the cast is Jalil Lespert, who plays Franck. Lespert perfectly captures the demeanor of an absolute dullard who is burning to shine and eager to please. But, before long, perhaps to stand out alongside the totally natural performances artlessly surrounding him, he becomes overemphatic. Cantet would have done better to go to humanity rather than central casting for this role as well; no one who has seen the lead performances in Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and Pickpocket (1959) can doubt it.

Human Resources comes to us laden with prizes. Among these are ones for its screenplay (Thessaloniki Film Festival), for its direction (San Sebastián International Film Festival, where, to be precise, the film won in the category of best new director), and for the film itself (Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema). At the European Film Awards, Cantet, I presume, or possibly the film was declared “European Discovery of the Year”—whatever that means.

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