Of course, most of us don't go to the movies for realism. If we wanted realism we could stay home and stare at each other. This eventually gets a little boring, and yet so do the endless streams of cartoon cutouts posing as characters in big-box office American movies.
Of late, even American audiences are starting to eschew the two-dimensional action heroes of the '80s and '90s for something a little more diverting, and films like American Beauty have actually made some waves at the box office. But that film was hardly meant to be a realistic portrayal of lives and events; it was more an anti-idealized version of suburbia, and even indulged in such stereotyped characters as the shrewish housewife and the pouty, rebellious teen.
First-time writer/director (and all-around French guy) Laurent Cantet thought he might try a different approach with Human Resources, something so naturalistic that it would often be uncomfortable to watch. That the film manages to be intense is especially impressive when you know that much of it is dedicated to having characters debate the pros and cons of the 35-hour work week.
Human Resources tells the story of Franck (Jalil Lespert), who has just returned from business school in Paris to spend the summer with his family in the south of France. Franck gets a management internship working at the factory where his father has spent the last 30 years attaching widgets to doohickeys.
What makes Franck so compelling is that he's polite. He comes to the factory to work on the mechanics of instituting a 35-hour work week, and finds that both the managers and the workers resist the idea. They're so resistant that they immediately start arguing with him. Whereas an American movie hero would respond with attitude, or maybe with humor, Franck tends to calmly discuss things. He says things like, "Yes, but," or "I hope I haven't offended you." Franck is not a milquetoast; he doesn't back down from his opinions, but he states them while being respectful of the opinions of others. This sounds fairly mundane, but it's actually shocking to see it on film. He behaves like a lot of real people behave, but in a way that is almost never represented cinematically.
Because of the extreme naturalism of the script, the movie is able to sustain interest through what would, in the real world, be some fairly dull moments. There's something about taking a very ordinary moment and placing it on screen without enhancing it with music or exaggerated emotion or intrusive camera work that makes the reality of the moment more real, the subtle tensions more tense. It's partly because there is no music to tell you how to feel, no extreme close-ups to alert you to the intensity of the scene. Viewers are forced in this situation to decide for themselves how to respond, and, for moviegoers used to a more manipulative style, that can be a lot of responsibility.
In keeping with this naturalistic, anti-movie mode, director Cantet's cast includes a number of actual factory workers. In spite of their nonprofessional status, these actors sustain the extreme realism of the story.
Franck's father, played by non-actor Jean-Claude Vallod, is particularly harrowing to watch. He has a blankness of expression that's indicative of the numbing nature of his work. This is particularly effective when he comes into conflict, as his normal mode--as a factory worker in constant fear of losing his job--is to be as non-confrontational as possible.
His refusal to take sides becomes impossible during the final third of the film, when the workers at the factory go on strike. This section is not as successful, partly because the film has so far been sustained by its avoidance of obvious dramatic tension. However, Vallod gives this final act a great deal of pathos as he tries to maintain his lack of opinion, and winds up standing mute before a crowd of jeering unionists in a scene that is made all the more unnerving because of the extremely human nature of Vallod's character.
He is neither good nor evil nor morally ambiguous; he's just a guy trying to keep his job and not offend anyone. Because he's not larger than life or subtly evil or in any way exceptional, he acquires an everyman quality. Anyone can relate to his situation, or find sympathy for him, despite the fact that he's not an endangered child held captive by psychotic Babylonian terrorists or a spunky mother of four who got more than she bargained for when she stumbled upon a gang of international drug smugglers who were stealing nuclear secrets for the Cappadocian government.
Human Resources, in spite of being different, subtle and intense, is actually a film that most will find engaging. That Cantet can pull this off without recourse to the standard trappings of movie melodrama is pretty amazing. He may have made the first intellectual film that's accessible to anyone who's just smart enough to read subtitles.