|A scene from Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources (1999).|
Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources (in French: Ressources humaines) is one of the few movies I can think of that truly delves into issues of labor and class. It’s set in France at the turn of the millennium, where the 35-hour work week is a hotly debated topic, in an auto factory in the provinces. This is the town where the movie’s protagonist, Franck Verdeau (Jalil Lespert), grew up; his father, Jean-Claude (Jean-Claude Vallod), has spent his whole adult life working at the same machine. But it’s Jean-Claude’s pride that he’s educated his son beyond his own station. Now, a year away from a graduate business degree, Franck returns home to intern in the factory on the management side, and it’s his father who emphasizes the importance of keeping his distance from the workers – of eating lunch, not with his dad and the men he’s known since he was a child, but with the boss, M. Rouet (Lucien Longueville), who has taken a liking to Franck and has hinted at the possibility of hiring him in a management position when he gets his degree. When Franck, drawing on what he’s learned in his university classes, comes up with the idea of asking the works to fill out a questionnaire about their feelings on the 35-hour work week, Rouet encourages him. The union has stated its opposition to the proposed change, but Franck – operating out of scholarly curiosity, not out of a political position – suspects that the questionnaire might indicate that the union is out of touch with the point of view of its members. What he’s too naïve to see is that Rouet is seizing on his questionnaire to further his own agenda: to create a wedge between the workers and their union and to make it possible for him to lay off employees, including, as it happens, Jean-Claude.
Low-key and absent the patina of most fiction filmmaking (I didn’t recognize a single actor) – but not, heaven knows, the virtues of craft – Human Resources is a brutal coming-of-age story. Cantet and his co-screenwriter Gilles Marchand don’t gloss over the ugly truths of working life for the working class or the irreconcilable tensions between classes. The strongest scene I can think of in any movie that addresses the split between management and labor is in the great 1971 Québecois film Mon Oncle Antoine by Claude Jutra, which is set in a small mining town in northern Quebec in the 1940s. The English mine owner, who has denied Christmas bonuses to his French workers, drives past their homes on Christmas Eve, scattering trinkets for the children, while their parents stand behind their doors, not wanting to accept this token from an employer they despise but not wanting to deny their children either. Cantet doesn’t have Jutra’s lyricism, but he’s similarly unrelenting in the scene where Jean-Claude learns that he’s being laid off and just stands at his machine, so devastated he can’t move away from it but too proud to break down or say what he’s feeling. Jean-Claude is an old-school employee: he supports the company, he doesn’t question the boss’ decisions, and, unschooled, thinking himself unsophisticated, he refuses to voice an opinion of his own. (He’s reluctant to fill out Franck’s questionnaire; he doesn’t think it’s his place to say what a factory boss should do or not do.) So he doesn’t even have the fallback of long-term bitterness when he finds he’s being forced to retire – a quality the outspoken union delegate, Danielle Arnoux (Danielle Mélador), has in spades. By the time Cantet takes us inside a meeting between management and labor, the union battles have been going on for so long that the relationship of the two sides has grown rancid and it takes little for them to turn incendiary. Danielle is an unlikable character, and her patronizing, know-it-all attitude toward Franck sets our teeth on edge. But she isn’t wrong about Rouet: he’s every bit the snake she’s always said he is. She’s far closer to the truth about him than Jean-Claude, whom we do like and of whom we feel protective.
Human Resources is a terrific movie, and though it doesn’t have the breadth or sensibility of a tragedy – it’s more like one of the “case studies” the early naturalists, like Zola and the Goncourt Brothers, favored – it’s acute and extremely unsettling. When Franck realizes how Rouet is using his questionnaire as an excuse to justify the firing of his own father (he reads a memo he isn’t supposed to see), he bands with Danielle and the other workers – including Alain (Didier Émile-Woldemard), a young, introspective black man who toils alongside Jean-Claude and whom Franck has grown to like and respect – to publicize what the boss is up to. He becomes a renegade, but this new set of actions, just like his questionnaire, reminds us just how wet behind the ears he still is. And when the workers go on strike, his father continues to show up for work, and it’s Franck who confronts him, turning off his machine and berating him – not just for refusing to take a stand against the company that Franck now feels has no right to his loyalty, but for lifting Franck out of the class he was born into and leaving him, in a sense, without social roots, without a place to belong. It’s a powerful scene, unstinting enough to make you gasp, and then, perhaps, painful enough to make you want to cry for the gap between father and son that nothing will close ever again.