Laurent Cantet's Human Resources arranges an elegant intertwining of the personal and the political.
Frank (Jalil Lespert) returns to his home town to take up a job in the Personnel division of a factory where his father, Jean-Claude (Jean-Claude Vallod), and sister, Sylvie (Veronique de Pandelaère), work. Frank is educated and has lived for years in Paris; Jean-Claude, like many a proud working-class parent, is intensely admiring of his son's upward mobility. Others – like his old friends, his brother-in-law and those jaded factory workers persuaded by the splendidly sarcastic and fiercely Communist union representative, Mrs Arnoux (Danielle Mélador) – are more cynical and suspicious of Frank's induction into the managerial sector.
It takes until exactly the movie's narrative mid point (yes, even French films have them) for Frank to share these doubts about the big boss, Mr Rouet (Lucien Longueville) – once his bright-eyed initiative, to elicit the worker's opinions through an 'informal' questionnaire, is used as a pretext to rearrange factory conditions and lay off a dozen men, Jean-Claude included. Now, as a strike brews and Arnoux gets busy organising the disaffected rank and file, the film moves into the pain of family relationships. Jean-Claude, by nature, is cautious and apolitical, not wanting to rock the boat. In a climactic confrontation at Jean-Claude's factory press, Frank blurts out that he was always ashamed of his working-class origins – and now he is ashamed of that shame, but finds his father more pathetic than ever. Jean-Claude – heavy set, slightly stooped, his eyes downcast – says nothing (which is only slightly less than he usually says); his son has destroyed him.
Cantet – whose previous feature was Les Sanguinaires (1997), from the 2000 vu par... series – structures Human Resources rigorously around Frank's point of view, although we always have a more complex and contextual perspective than he can ever grasp. If Cantet's 'realist' themes and attitude evoke (as has been often remarked) the cinema of Ken Loach, his style is a deft example of a very French style of naturalism that owes something to Tavernier's classicism and Téchiné's modernism alike. It is a style that quietly works through both subtraction – no music (except for a few minor diegetic blasts), no definite indication to as to which specific industry we are seeing in crisis – and gradual addition. Cantet holds his ace cards back in order to build to maximum effect once certain sights, details or formal moves are at last revealed: a lovely, grave shot of Frank trudging up a hill to the family home quite late in the film affords one of the few general, 'establishing' views of the unnamed town (actually, Gaillon); and the final image introduces the film's first 'obvious' camera movement, a simple track into and around the side of the desolate Frank which has enormous emotional impact.
Such fine-grain control and ordering of a film's elements is rare. Cantet applies the lesson to every detail of his découpage, the way he sets up and cuts around the most ordinary looking of scenes. At first glance, his mise en scène might seem to consist simply of mid-shot framings and shot-reverse shot volleys – the standard, functional language of television drama. But he rarely shows the whole of a scene at once. Eschewing establishing shots, Cantet likes to start on a detail: a face, usually Frank's. Then he sets up the alternating pattern between Frank and his interlocutor. This lays the ground for a surprise or two: suddenly a third character, who we didn't know was there or couldn't exactly place in the space, speaks up and commands the frame. And then possibly a fourth character – especially in group scenes such as the union meetings.
As a committed realist, Cantet works with the sights, sounds and places of the unsensational everyday: streets, cars, pubs, homes, workspaces. Sometimes he will use an aural 'shock cut' for dramatic purposes – like going from silence of home to the roar of the factory, or vice versa – but, more usually, he will unobtrusively and gently fade out the sound of a scene just before the image disappears. Cantet's style refuses the temptation to heighten at each moment the natural expressivity (or non-expressivity) of his ordinary settings via 'creative' camera angles or design schemes. But – like, each in their own very different ways, Victor Erice and Tsai Ming-liang – Cantet recognises the poetic force that comes from 'natural' repetition. To see the same person, in the same way, come to the same spot in the house, as part of a daily routine – and to always see that from the same angle – creates the sense of a ritual, and again prepares the ground for unexpected, dramatic deviations from the norm.
This is the pattern for the successive shots throughout the film of Frank hanging up his coat and entering through the frosted glass door to the home's living room; the meetings between Frank and his immediate superior at work; and the beautiful scenes of Frank working wordlessly with his father in the domestic wood shed. Cantet's style finely distinguishes the various postures and gestures of his characters: Rouet's slickly manipulative chumminess; Arnoux's sharp, no-nonsense interventions; Frank's tense, uneasy, complicit smiles.
Are all political dramas – or melodramas – about the 'coming to consciousness' of a previously blind protagonist, a person who eventually realises that he or she is a patsy of an oppressive force (government, industry, family)? One thinks of films as otherwise different as Mapantsula (Oliver Schmitz, 1988) and Schindler's List (Spielberg, 1993). Such stories generally trace the progression from conservatism (or at least acquiescence, or apathy) to radicalism, and they culminate in a decisive, public, physical moment of ethical conversion and commitment to a just cause – in an effort, no doubt, to win around, through character identification, the typical, 'middle of the road' moviegoer. Human Resources essentially follows this model of 'mainstream' political cinema – especially evident in the slightly forced and schematic thread joining Frank and a black worker, Alain (Didier-Emile Woldemard) in solidarity – but it doesn't make things easy, in the end, for its hero.
The film closes on an agonising suspension: converted but not reconciled (to his father, community or class), Frank sits apart from his family. He has been propelled from life's easy seat, and he has forced a difficult issue with those who love him most, but now he's condemned to wander. His bitter question to Alain – "where's your place?" – is really a question to himself.
© Adrian Martin October 2000