Pertinent and discomfiting, this sober, well-cast drama remains quietly riveting.

A chemical firm’s in-house psychologist is progressively destabilized by discoveries about his superiors and himself in “Heartbeat Detector,” a portrait of captains of industry and their subordinates careening through the 21st century as the crimes of the 20th refuse to stay buried. Melding the messy repercussions of history with the crushing sterility of the modern workplace, pic has a structure that inexorably hints at unspeakable acts. Both pertinent and discomfiting, this sober, well-cast drama remains quietly riveting, despite its 140-minute running time. Fest dates seem de rigueur.

In v.o., preternaturally self-assured Simon (Mathieu Amalric) explains how, for seven years, he did hiring and firing assessments and ran motivational workshops in the large Paris-region branch of venerable German firm SC Farb. Simon seems to have been born wearing a suit. His shrewd, dispassionate pronouncements sound like the language of classy promotional brochures, and if he’s ever made a wrong move, there probably weren’t witnesses.

The company’s assistant director, Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), assigns Simon to surreptitiously assess the mental health of the firm’s director, Mathias Just (Michael Lonsdale, supremely convincing). There have been reports of erratic behavior and the brass in Germany are worried.

Simon decides his cover will be the idea of establishing a factory orchestra comprised of personnel who play instruments. Just played violin in the disbanded Farb Quartet.

But via company archives and anonymous letters, a simple (if sneaky) psychological assessment develops tentacles reaching back to WWII. There’s nothing wrong with being devoted to and fastidious in one’s work — or is there?

Amalric plays Simon like a cross between Gordon Gekko and Sam Spade — if Spade had gone to rave parties. Lonsdale is superb, and the well-played femme characters joust and parry as best they can in a man’s world.

Music and sound design, from Schubert to techno, by way of nerve-abrading industrial rumblings, is a crucial component of the evolving drama. Just finds listening to certain classical recordings so painful you could swear the sound waves were parsed with razor blades. Correspondingly, when the insistent counterpoint of history hits Simon’s ears, it’s a melody he can’t get out of his head.

Chilly, precise lensing maintains the pressure to excellent cumulative effect.

Heartbeat Detector

France

Production

A Sophie Dulac Distribution release of a Sophie Dulac Prods. production, in association with CNC and CineCinema, with participation of Region Ile-de-France, Region des Pays de la Loire, Conseil General du Val de Marne, Conseil General de la Sarthe. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Sophie Dulac, Michel Zana. Directed by Nicolas Klotz. Screenplay, Elisabeth Perceval, based on the book by Francois Emmanuel.

Crew

Camera (color), Josee Deshaies; editor, Rose Marie Lausson; music, Syd Matters; production designer, Antoine Platteau; costume designer, Dorothee Guiraud; sound (Dolby), Cyril Holtz, Brigitte Taillandier; assistant director, Emile Louis. Reviewed at Arlequin, Paris, May 10, 2007. (In Cannes Film Festival -- Directors' Fortnight). Running time: 140 MIN.

With

Mathieu Amalric, Michael Lonsdale, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Lou Castel, Laetitia Spigarelli, Valerie Dreville, Delphine Chuillot, Edith Scob, Remy Carpentier, Nicolas Maury, Erwan Ribard.

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