Workers' rights don't right film's wrongs

Movie review

September 15, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Human Resources" is a working-class drama that has its heart in the right place but undercuts itself by stacking the deck, letting its main character off too lightly and being overly impressed with its own profundity.

Frank (Jalil Lespert), newly graduated from business school, returns to his hometown. He's filled with new ideas and accepts an internship at the factory where his father (Jean-Claude Vallod) has spent 30 years on an assembly line.

After impressing his boss with ideas about how to cut labor costs, Frank is assigned to the plant's Human Resources department, where his job is to help with union negotiations aimed at implementing a 35-hour work week and other cost-cutting measures.

Although initially shunned by his working-class friends who suspect he's gone from being an "us" to a "them," Frank assures everyone he's not out to cost anyone his or her job.

So, when he drafts a questionnaire designed to find out how the employees feel about potential changes to their work schedules, the factory workers give him the benefit of the doubt - despite dire warnings by the workers' union, which suspects management will use Frank's research to justify more layoffs.

Which is exactly what happens. Soon, layoffs are announced - including Frank's father - and the naive intern is left to ponder what he's done and what he ought to do next.

Outside of Lespert, all of the actors in "Human Resources" are non-professionals, unemployed workers who once held the same types of jobs as their on-screen characters.

These non-actors serve director Laurent Cantet well, especially Vallod, as a man so conditioned to the mind-numbing regularity of the assembly line that he's scared to think for himself - and who can't understand why Frank puts such great stock in being his own man.

Cantet clearly sides with the workers and has been quoted as saying his film's title is meant ironically - there's little that's human about the way workers like these men and women are treated.

But by including Frank's father in the layoffs, Cantet overplays his hand, insisting the audience's sympathies lie where he wants them to lie.

His overriding concern, that people understand how wrong it is to treat people like cogs in the industrial machine, isn't new.

And Frank's ultimate fate, involving an ugly confrontation with his father and a train headed for Paris, hardly seems the proper penalty; such naivete, bordering on blind stupidity, should have greater consequences.

In fact, Frank gets off pretty lightly - certainly more so than the workers, who are left with their pride and solidarity, but precious little else.

`Human Resources'

Starring Jalil Lespert and Jean-Claude Vallod

Directed by Laurent Cantet

Released by Shooting Gallery

Running time 99 minutes

Unrated (adult themes); in French with English subtitles

Sun score:**1/2

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