“Fire” can be an oddly inappropriate verb for the act of ending a person’s employment: It implies a decision committed in heated fury, whereas frosty impersonality is so often closer to the mark. So it largely proves in “Corporate,” a smart, slow-simmering French workplace thriller that wades in deep, chilly waters of moral corruption and compromise. That blandly prosaic title — one can’t help suspecting freshman writer-director Nicolas Silhol would rather have titled it “Inhuman Resources” — and a clinical, slightly televisual aesthetic shouldn’t deter international distributors from a mostly engrossing what-would-you-do drama, headed by the ever-interesting Céline Sallette as a human resources manager whose professional sangfroid cracks in the wake of an employee’s suicide. Released in France in April, “Corporate” had its international premiere in Karlovy Vary; multi-platform release prospects are strong.
French cinema has a tradition of dramas in which the politics and vagaries of respectable employment are scrutinized with rare intensity. “Corporate” hasn’t the aching heart of Laurent Cantet’s “Human Resources” and “Time Out,” nor the dizzy thematic escalation of Nicolas Klotz’s “Heartbeat Detector,” but shares a lot of paperwork with them — while offering a relatively bracing perspective on the ways in which capable women continue to be exploited and scapegoated in the male-dominated white-collar realm. Silhol’s film is less interested in the most abject victims of cut-throat corporate culture than he is in those charged with the cutting: middle(wo)men who demonstrate both power and passivity in “just following orders.”
For Emilie (Sallette), a thirtysomething HR hotshot at a Paris-based multinational food company, her driven, confident manner in the office goes some way toward masking the marionette strings that bind her to department director Stephane, played in typically unruffled fashion by Lambert Wilson. A smooth operator in a range of semi-villainous polo-necks, Stephane has been grooming Emilie for her position since she graduated college, training her in the bloodless business of managing, manipulating and moving employees with as little candid human contact as possible. But their evasive, passive-aggressive strategies of getting unwanted staff out of the way without violating France’s strict labor laws — less about terminating contracts than cornering people into resignation — come under scrutiny when an efficient but undynamic finance drone, having learned he’s getting edged out, jumps to his death from an office balcony.
As the suicide prompts a critical investigation of corporate practice by principled work inspector Marie (Violaine Fumeau), Emilie finds herself targeted from above and below: Stephane distances himself from their increasingly exposed methodology, while lesser-ranking colleagues begin to rail bitterly against her brisk management style. (“Is my crying bothering anyone?” the dead man’s devastated deskmate says to her. “It’s not very proactive, I suppose.”) At home, meanwhile, Emilie gets only strained sympathy from her job-seeking British husband (Colin Hansen): Her style of people management, it seems, is about as remote at home as it in the office. Happily, Silhol and Nicolas Fleureau’s intelligent, unfussy script steers clear of simple condemnation, sharply outlining both the rock and the hard place between which Emilie — like many a career woman in her position — finds herself, and the differing ways in which society perceives business-minded ruthlessness in men and women.
With a smoky, critical regard that recalls the young Simone Signoret, Sallette (best known internationally for TV’s “The Returned”) is a coolly low-key performer who doesn’t court immediate sympathy, making her an ideal lead here. As Emilie’s conscience and career ambitions do battle, Sallette’s reserved poise gradually gives way to naked, anxious agitation. The film in turn swerves into a higher melodramatic register as forces close in on the protagonist — a somewhat conventional development that undoes some of the film’s cultivated moral ambiguity, but still proceeds in pleasingly open-ended fashion.
Technical contributions are on the beige end of the spectrum, though that’s hardly out of order for a film knowingly immersed in the soulless environs of corporation culture. At times, Nicolas Gaurin’s cinematography claustrophobically crams performers in the frame; at others, it strands them in sterile, hostile interior space. Production designer Sidney Dubois, meanwhile, deals in fifty shades of office carpeting: if the tones and textures of Emilie’s high-spec apartment are scarcely distinguishable from those of the company headquarters, that’s no accident.