It’s hard to imagine drier-sounding material for a narrative feature than the plot of “Human Resources”: Young Frenchman returns from the city to his working-class industrial hometown armed with a top-flight college education, taking a position in the personnel department of the factory in which his father has toiled for 30 years to act as a strategic liaison between workers, union and management during the transition to a shorter workweek. The achievement of writer-director Laurent Cantet, then, is all the more remarkable in mixing politics and pathos to create such a cogent human drama, which could carve a small but significant arthouse career in the hands of enterprising specialist distribs.
Originally made for French cultural web Arte but now poised for theatrical detours at home and abroad, “Human Resources” world-premiered in San Sebastian, where it won the fest’s $160,000 New Directors award for best first or second feature in the competition or Open Zone sections.
The film marks a challenging, highly disciplined feature debut for Cantet, who previously made the 1997 medium-length “Les sanguinaires” as part of the millennium-themed series “2000 Seen by … ”
Recalling the early work of Ken Loach in the purity of its themes and naturalism of its approach, this emotionally wrenching film adopts a simple, direct style bordering on documentary. The script, written by Cantet with Gilles Marchand, is equally perceptive in its observation of working-class life, union agitation, labor relations and office politics, gently pointing up the difficulty of establishing equilibrium on both sides of the industrial battle.
Even more impressive, however, is the drama’s richly nuanced emotional canvas, which deals intelligently and truthfully with father-son, worker-employer and class conflicts.
Franck (Jalil Lespert) lands an internship in the metalwork plant that has overshadowed his entire life: Franck’s father (Jean-Claude Vallod) has uncomplainingly operated the same machine in the plant for all of his adult life.
Business college grad Franck settles into his office with the blessing of management, who see him as a malleable middleman in their negotiations for the changeover to a 35-hour week. He is given a less warm welcome by members of the workers’ union, led by pugnacious Madame Arnoux (Danielle Melador), who dismiss him as an upstart corporate flunky.
Franck gives his boss (Lucien Longueville) cause for concern when he draws up a referendum to canvass worker opinion during the negotiations. This first inkling that he might stand out rather than blend into the conservative executive ranks causes the glowing pride Franck’s father feels for his son to be tinged with nervous embarrassment; he appears more impervious to the friction his son’s intervention sparks in his co-workers and union representatives.
When Franck discovers that his findings have been manipulated by the management to serve its needs and that a number of workers, including his father, will be fired as a result, he resorts to administrative sabotage, crossing over to the other camp.
Refraining from pumped-up dramatics, the series of confrontations that follow intensify in poignancy until a shattering exchange in which Franck is made to admit the shame he feels over his background, while his father is forced to examine his blind loyalty to an uncaring company prepared to discard him.
While most filmmakers would feel the need to provide some kind of relief from the densely developed labor drama — perhaps in the form of a tender hometown-sweetheart romance to be rekindled by Franck — Cantet’s unobtrusive direction shows unwavering focus and authority, which fires the film’s sustained, gut-level impact. There’s not an ounce of flab here, not one extraneous line of dialogue or shot that doesn’t convey something essential, and editor Robin Campillo never lets scenes linger a moment too long.
This same economy carries through to the unforced work of the cast (all of whom are non-professional actors, with the exception of Lespert). He skillfully guides Franck through the morally debilitating experience of his return home after years in Paris, initially projecting diplomatic neutrality, at times seeming harsh and almost superior and finally showing increasing sensitivity to the events that transpire, leaving him irrevocably changed.
As Franck’s parents, Vallod and Chantal Barre are especially good, embodying the irreversible class stigmas that Franck has studied and worked to leave behind him. One scene in particular, in which his folks whisper over a newspaper so as not to distract Franck from his paperwork, is quietly heartbreaking.
This awed respect the parents display for their academically advanced son, coupled with their fear that he will jeopardize his future, contributes to the drama’s potent sense of sadness, as does Franck’s inability to comprehend his father’s satisfaction with his monotonous job.
Minor characters such as Franck’s sister (Veronique de Pandelaere), who also works in the factory, and her husband (Michel Begnez) bring further texture and acuity to the portrait of family relations and to the contrasting perspectives formed by their different ages and mentalities.
Melador’s irascible union delegate is perhaps the drama’s most vivid character, providing some understated humor in her aggressive outbursts, while Didier Emile-Woldermard has some beautifully gauged scenes as a machine-worker who gives Franck the key to seeing his father in a new light.