There Is Power in a Union


Restrained, tough, and subtle enough to be as engrossing on the second viewing as it was on the first, Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources is a film that both Godard and Ken Loach might envy. It combines an eternally alluring subject—the father-son relationship—with one that’s a more difficult sell: blue-collar work and the conflict between labor and management.

Human Resources is set in a French factory town where the changeover to the 35-hour week (the real-life current event to which the film is hitched) has the kind of life-or-death urgency that Hollywood screenwriters are paid millions to invent. Frank (Jalil Lespert), an eager-beaver business school student majoring in “human resources,” returns home for a management internship at the factory where his father has worked on the assembly line all his adult life. Frank sees himself as the embodiment of enlightened capitalism. He believes that workers and bosses can cooperate toward their mutual benefit, and that, as a worker’s son, he’s an ideal mediator. But when his pet project—a questionnaire about the 35-hour week—is used as a justification for laying off the oldest workers, his father among them, he burns his bridges with his boss by providing the feisty, unflappable union rep (Danielle Mélador) with enough evidence of management’s duplicity to fuel a strike.

Caught between his ambition and his desire to save his father, Frank discovers a working-class consciousness he didn’t know he possessed. His father, however, is far from pleased at his son’s transformation. Totally identified with his job (he boasts with Stakhanovist pride that he can turn out 700 parts in an hour) and with the working-man ethos, the father nevertheless wants his son to have a better life. Seeing him lunching with the managers is both revenge and a vindication for a lifetime of swallowing shit—although he’d never admit as much to himself. And his own loss of livelihood troubles him less than the possibility that Frank has thrown away his career.

The father is played with remarkable nuance and vulnerability by Jean-Claude Vallod, a bulky but worn middle-aged man with stubborn eyes and a slightly pouting lower lip just discernible beneath his bushy mustache. Like all the actors in the film, with the exception of Lespert, he’s a nonprofessional. Cantet filled his cast with workers whom he found in the unemployment office. Using a method similar to Mike Leigh’s, he rehearsed with them for about a year before writing a final script based on the characters they developed through improvisation. Across the board, the actors perform with an intelligence and conviction that grows out of their real-life experience. It’s an adage that acting is reacting; the most difficult thing for an actor is to react with mixed emotions and contrary desires. Cantet bases his editing scheme on reaction shots, and they draw us into the film by conveying much of what is left unsaid about the power structure that defines life in the factory and in the family.

Just as compelling and tangled as the connection between father and son is the friendship Frank forms with a black worker, Alain (Didier Emile-Woldemard), who’s equally alienated but has more insight into the situation. Alain’s able to make the case for Frank’s father and the pride he takes in his job, so we’re able to see him as more than a toady. And it’s through him also that Frank comes to an understanding of his own outsider position.

Human Resources was shot on location in a Renault factory, and the actors operate the heavy machinery as only those who’ve done it for a living can. Like the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta and La Promesse (which also couples oedipal with class struggle) and Olivier Assayas’s recent Cannes entry Les Destinées Sentimentales, Human Resources is part of a growing trend in French-language films to make work and the workplace a central concern.

A distinctly American vision of the fragile ties among men, Ed Radtke’s The Dream Catcher provides a fresh perspective on that old standby, two boys on the road. Freddy (Maurice Compte) and Albert (Paddy Conner) meet while hitchhiking west. Although they claim to be looking for family members (Albert for his mother; Freddy for, first, his uncle, then his ex-con father), they both know deep down that the adults who abandoned them are not waiting with open arms. They’re not so much moving toward someone or somewhere as fleeing situations that are too painful to bear. Albert, who’s about 15, has escaped from some kind of juvenile detention; Freddy, who’s about five years older, has a pregnant girlfriend and is terrified of becoming a father when he’s still hungering for the dad he hardly knew.

Compte and Conner may resemble Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, but they are less glamorous and less easy to love. Compte’s Freddy is locked up inside himself, but he can lash out violently when he’s angered or trapped. Conner’s Albert, the more fragile of the two, is part bereft child clowning for attention and part budding sociopath, who steals from anyone and everyone. Albert isn’t capable of bonding, but Freddy is, and through his attempts to protect Albert, he finds the father in himself.

A highly talented filmmaker, Radtke draws intense, focused performances from these two inexperienced young actors. The supporting cast, however, is less credible. Radtke brings to the film a firsthand knowledge of life on the road, infusing it with small surprises from beginning to end. He also has a great feel for the look of the land, although occasionally he strains for effect. Not even John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart could have gone mano a mano against the vast expanse of the Utah salt flats without looking slightly silly.

Another update on genre but of a more noirish variety, Jon Shear’s Urbania, adapted from Daniel Reitz’s play, traffics almost exclusively in a single psychological state: anxiety. Shear wants to evoke that dreadful moment when, struggling to awake from a bad dream, you remember that your real life is more of a nightmare.

On another level, it’s a film about storytelling, about the stories you tell yourself and everyone else to avoid dealing with what’s really eating you up inside. The stories that preoccupy Charlie (Dan Futterman), the film’s protagonist, are all urban legends: the dog exploding in the microwave; the prostitute who slips you a mickey in order to steal your kidney. Relayed through fantasy, dream, and flashback sequences, the stories camouflage the terrible event that has irrevocably changed Charlie’s life, until, at a point that will differ for each viewer, it becomes clear that Charlie is gay and that he’s lost his lover and that somehow violence is part of the picture.

Ambitious, if overly theatrical in its structure, the film puts a twist in noir by excavating the castration anxiety and homoeroticism that usually remain buried in the subtext. Shear suggests the hallucinatory quality of Charlie’s experience by combining film and video in a way that heightens color contrast and destabilizes space. Striking cameos by Alan Cumming, Barbara Sukowa, and half a dozen others lift the burden of carrying the film from Futterman, whose lack of affect is not, I suspect, entirely attributable to playing a character suffering from post-traumatic stress. Urbania derails toward the end, becoming platitudinous, not to mention kitschy, but, given the Cheerios wholesomeness of most gay indies, its grief-stricken delirium is a welcome relief.