A company training program disguised as swanky soiree turns into a battlefield in Mathias Gokalp’s “Nothing Personal.” When the attending employees start suspecting their jobs may be at stake that very evening, the lines between the planned role-playing games and everyone’s survival tactics become increasingly blurred. Though somewhat dry — especially early on, when information is hidden through selective editing — Gokalp’s first feature gradually finds its footing. Top-tier French cast and the topicality of big-business brutality should interest upscale auds in Gaul and fests looking for smarter fare.
On a wintry evening, the Muller pharmaceutical company has invited its employees to a champagne-and-canape-laden training session in a handsomely designed museum that displays flayed bodies. Most attendees are at first unaware that they are in for a battle of survival of the fittest themselves, and so is the audience: “Nothing Personal’s” short first section, titled “The Newcomer,” consists almost exclusively of the characters during their role-playing bits.
The view broadens in the second part, “Married Life,” which replays some of the events of part one but adds context and missing scenes to make it clear that the games — mimicking real-life business situations — are part of the training program.
Icy brunette Natacha (Melanie Doutey) and her legal-expert husband Damien (Dimitri Storoge) both work for Muller. Natacha’s partner during the first session is the apparently awkward Bruno (Jean-Pierre Darroussin).
Emcee of the evening is Christine (Zabou Breitman), who has brought along her loutish hubby, Pierrick (Bouli Lanners). Gokalp and co-screenwriter Nadine Lamari make a point of comparing good marriages to healthy professional relationships, but clearly, none of the relationships here — marital or otherwise — seems to work.
When the rumor spreads that Muller may be the object of a buyout that will require layoffs, panic slowly takes over — with a lot more anarchic results than in the Spanish dramedy “The Gronholm Method,” which mined similar territory.
One of the first to crack is Bruno, who crushes his champagne flute with his hand after having spoken to Gilles (Denis Podalydes), a union representative. The latter looks on in horror as Bruno puts the shards in his mouth.
The big picture only becomes clear in the third and final part, “All Together,” which takes up about half the film and again reshuffles and elaborates on what has come before — which, by now, has started to feel a little gimmicky.
Still, the last section is the strongest, finally allowing the characters to function independently of the coy editing, while a clearer vein of pitch-black humor also breaks the surface. The film’s (not exactly revolutionary) musings on greedy corporate behavior and unhealthy workplace relationships finally crystallize. And the screenplay still has several late-minute twists in store.
Respecting the Aristotelian unities of time and place but not of action, Gokalp gives free reign to his strong ensemble to construct the characters in relationship to their respective jobs and each other. Lensing is functional, often opting for two-shots that keep the countless extras in the background. Score nicely underlines the shift from mystery to socio-realist drama.