March 1, 2001

Cornell Cinema: Human Resources

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The title of the film Human Resources plays on the term that so blatantly relegates individuals to being mere “resources,” like coal or pieces of property. It begs the audience to look beyond the superficial politics of business and to explore its ethics.

The film begins when Frank (Jalil Lespert) returns home from business school in Paris for a summer job at a factory in the French countryside. Frank has a particular connection with the factory since his father and sister are both laborers there. Yet unlike them, Frank is working in the office as a management trainee. Frank is assigned to work on the controversial issue of the 35-hour work week. The new work schedule would give workers more leisure time, but less pay and possibly fewer benefits. Frank is in favor of this plan and as an assignment creates a questionnaire to ask the workers their opinion of this option for change. Under the assumption that the factory is consulting the workers for their own good, Frank is blind to his boss’ plan to use the questionnaire as a way of eluding union negotiations and dismissing twelve workers. Caught between his private and public interests, Frank urges the workers to stage a strike.

Human Resources is a remarkable film because its themes are not forced upon the audience, but develop naturally through the plot. While it seems that the film is solely focused on the issue of management versus labor, the true emotional core of the film is the strained relationship between Frank and his father, Jean-Luc.

Frank hopes to be everything his father isn’t. Jean-Luc has worked in the factory on the same machine all day, every day for the past thirty years. Yet, when Jean-Luc is asked if he would change to the 35-hour work week to make his job less monotonous, he replies “no” because he has never been bored by his work. By contrast, Frank is a self-assured and presumptuous student who seems like a good candidate for the rat race, but turns out to have an idealistic business perspective.

It is the work situation at the factory that quickly unsettles Frank’s feelings about his family and his hometown. In many instances the audience can see how having been educated in cosmopolitan Paris and learning social graces has made Frank different from his old friends and family. In a public outburst at the factory, Frank berates his father for being a manual laborer. His father’s job is a perpetual source of shame for him and he tries to transfer this shame to his father.

The factory is a microcosm of the outside world that exacerbates the differences between workers, between workers and bosses, and in this case, between father and son. The writer and director, Laurent Cantent, developed this especially interesting scenario through some unusual processes. Excepting Jalil Lespert, none of the characters in the film are professional actors but actually unemployed workers. The scenes seem all the more truthful because of the honesty of the performances. The original screenplay was just a skeleton before meeting with these “actors.” Cantet then held improvisation sessions and conversations which were videotaped to be later added to the story. These choices made the film feel more like a documentary than a narrative film.

If there is a message that the film sends it is a cautionary one to wide-eyed business students. The workers all believe in the factory they work for because they have no other option. However, Frank is quick to believe in his bosses too, simply because they give him the respect and prestige he craves. Yet, Frank did not foresee being double-dealed by the factory and then having to face the repercussions within his family. The film reminds the audience that there is more than just a nice resume at stake with each of Frank’s decisions.

Archived article by Diana Lind