Political Film Society - Newsletter #83 - October 1, 2000

October 1, 2000


Human ResourcesTension between the imperatives of business and the dispensability of workers in the current era of economic globalization is featured in Human Resources, a French film (Ressources humaines) directed by Laurent Cantet. Frank (played by Jalil Lespert), a business school student in Paris, returns home for the summer to the industrial town of Gaillon in Normandy. His father (played by Jean-Claude Vallod), who works in the local sheetmetal factory of the Group TGT conglomerate, is proud that he has placed small parts into a welding machine for thirty years, turning out 700 units per hour, but he is clearly a beaten man. With the money he saved, he sent his son to the university; proud that Frank is to begin as an executive trainee at the same factory, he urges his son the night before he begins work at the plant to show proper respect to the management, a bit of advice that has the autobiographical subtext of long subservience to authority. Assigned to the Human Resources Division, Frank soon learns that the chief executive officer fired about 25 workers the previous year and now is eager to reduce the work week to 35 hours. The Communist tradeunion, led by Danielle Arnoux (played by Danielle Mélador, an actual union leader), is adamantly opposed to the reduction of hours of work, which amounts to a cut in pay and benefits. At the end of his first day on the job, the boss (played by Lucien Longueville) tries to pick Frank’s brain for a way to sell the 35-hour week to the workers. Based on a case study in a class at the university, Frank proposes to ascertain worker opinion through a questionnaire, naïvely believing that the conflict will be resolved thereby. The boss approves of the idea with alacrity because he can marginalize the union leadership thereby. When word leaks out about the questionnaire, the union objects and refuses to cooperate. Frank also suggests that the plant should adopt "annualization," that is, a variable work week, two days when demand slackens and six days when orders for parts increases, which would add up to the equivalent of 35 hours per week. Again, the workers are cool to his idea, but the boss is so impressed by Frank that he offers him a permanent job with the company.

As he gains favor with the boss, his former school chums tell him that he has become a Paris snob, uninterested in the plight of workers. Frank, nevertheless, feels more comfortable socializing with the workers than with the managers, having grown up in a working class family. One day Frank serendipitously discovers a memo detailing how the purchase of robotics will enable the plant to fire 11 more workers, including his father, only a few years before they qualify for a company pension; results of the questionnaire are part of the justification for the layoffs. Frank then refuses to accept the job offer, leaks the memo to the union, and joins the picket line as the plant is shut down by a strike. Much of the film focuses on the fact that Frank’s father is so ashamed of his working class background that he refuses to support the union, but the son goads the father into joining the work stoppage to save his own job. At the end of the film, while the strike is in progress and the outcome is in doubt, Frank buys a train ticket to Paris to resume his studies and perhaps find employment. Before leaving, he sits next to Alain (played by Didier Emile-Woldemard), who is closest to his father on the shop floor. When Alain points out that Frank is about to resume his place in Paris, Frank asks rhetorically, "What’s your place?" As we leave the cinema, we thus ponder that those who take pride as industrial workers are increasingly becoming obsolete, and the gulf between the classes is widening. Human Resources, which hired unemployed workers for all but two characters, is intended to raise the consciousness of workers that they will lose their incomes and even their jobs if they fail to unite together in protest before it is too late. A movie that shows how economic globalization is eroding democracy, the Political Film Society has nominated Human Resources as best film of the year 2000 in raising consciousness of the need for greater democracy. MH

Lewis Ringel of California State University, who teaches at both the Fullerton and Long Beach campuses, has donated the fifteenth course syllabus to the Political Film Society’s Syllabus Series. Copies of the 15 syllabi are available at $1 each.