Human Resources (1999)

The price of being upwardly mobile

In Jan 2000, the French government mandated a 35-hour work week for companies employing over 20 people. Those companies with less than 20 employees had to make the change to a 35-hour work week by 2002. The French film Human Resources focuses on a fictional factory about to make the work week switch.

Franck (Jalil Lespert) returns home from university in Paris to a small industrial town. He’s employed as a summer intern at the same factory where his father (Jean-Claude Vallod) has toiled for the past 30 years. Franck returns full of great ideas. He’s about to make a step into middle class life, and his parents, who’ve clearly made tremendous sacrifices for Franck, are very proud. Franck’s father, however, has difficulties expressing his feelings, and he tends to resort to terse lectures and dire warnings. Perhaps he can see troubles ahead …

Franck’s father proudly shows off the machine he’s stooped over for the past 30 years. His job, basically, is to load the machine, endlessly, with parts. The monotony of such mind-numbingly boring work is devastating, and yet the factory workers express the common thought that they were all appalled by the daunting aspect of spending their lives like this, but now they’re used to it. With foremen barking orders to the workers to keep up speed and productivity, the workers are reduced to drones–human machines–without personality, and no one seems more of a machine in human form than Franck’s father.

The dilemma at the factory is to negotiate terms for the 35-hour work week. Union officials–particularly Danielle Arnoux–sense that management will use the policy shift to shaft the workers. There’s clearly no love lost between Arnoux and management, and when all involved parties sit around a table to discuss how to implement changes, insults fly.

Franck, eager to show his skills, suggests passing out a questionnaire to the employees to gauge their opinions and to help craft the changes. Union organizers are vehemently opposed to this move as they sniff it’s a way for management to undermine union authority. Franck draws up his questionnaire, and rapidly is caught in the crossfire between the workers and management.

Human Resources is an excellent, thought provoking French film. While the story is fairly low-key, the consequences of Franck’s presence in the factory are dramatic, and emotionally devastating for the family. As part of management, Franck’s loyalties are torn, and the film explores the class dilemma he struggles with. Rejected by local young men his own age, Franck no longer belongs. He’s in a moral no-man’s land. Ultimately the film’s strongest statements condemn a work system that saps the life and fight out of people, and once there’s a hollow, spiritless shell left, the system spits them out for younger, cheaper employees. From director Laurent Cantent.

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