“Human Resources,” Laurent Cantet’s first theatrical feature, is a present-day look at class struggle in a provincial French town. The realistic dialogue is enhanced by the use of nonprofessional actors, many of them factory workers cast to fit their fictional counterparts.
Fresh out of college, Franck (Jalil Lespert) returns to his family and boyhood home. His train ride into town through the gray skies and bare trees of Northern France provide the backdrop for a young man whose own emotions become as muddled as the landscape. Franck finds himself caught between three loyalties: his new job as a factory management trainee; the workers, many of whom are grade school friends; and his family.
The father/son relationship becomes Franck’s most difficult internal struggle. His father, an assembly line worker for thirty years, has sacrificed so that his son might ascend to a higher class. Franck is in a Catch-22; his family has put him through business school to become an executive, but his executive position clashes with the working-class lifestyle of his family. Furthermore, his close associations with the executives pits him against his childhood friends, the union workers who view him now as just another greedy suit. Franck becomes isolated from the people who at first greet him with open arms.
Franck’s initial reasons for signing on with the factory are based on the best of intentions. His nostalgic memories as a child in a working-class family are tied to the factory-hosted picnics and weekends. He hopes to become a force of positive change for the workers from within the executive echelons. His first assignment is to review worker responses to a proposed 35-hour workweek. But when Franck’s superiors use his research to justify more layoffs, he soon finds the politicking and deception plied by his fellow executives not to his moral taste.
Disgusted with the actions of his superiors, Franck hopes to make amends by helping the union secure the positions of the workers singled out for the pink slip. Franck’s critical flaw is his arrogant idealism in the face of real problems. His attitude is in direct conflict with the pragmatism and honesty of his father’s assembly line job, leading to a confrontation with his father on the factory floor.
Though the themes of the film seem familiar, the carefully structured plot will never come across as old hat. The story starts off a bit slow, with a hero’s welcome for Franck, the golden boy home from college, and his courtship of the management. But this only adds to the juxtaposition of Franck’s allegiance to his burgeoning career, his family and his inability to solve a problem with no good solution. From the point of view of a college student, Franck is an interesting and pitiable character, whose situation is understandably tragic. This is an emotional film with a great deal to say about the relationships we embrace and those that seek us out when we exit the classroom and enter the boardroom.
“Human Resources” screens Sunday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m. in Campbell Hall. $5 students; $6 general.