Given its divisive nature, and a misguided tendency to write it off as boring, maybe it's not all that odd that American filmmakers haven't really wanted to address the subject of labor negotiations.
But watching something as deceptively simple as the French import "Human Resources," which turns the subject into heady, compelling stuff, it seems we've been missing something.
And even though this is a foreign-language drama with subtitles, no less and some of its plot particulars are specific to its home country, the themes are pretty much universal. That alone is a powerful selling point for this slowly paced but interesting piece.
In fact, looking at the subtlety and conviction with which the subject matter is handled, it's hard to believe the film has come from a newcomer, Laurent Cantet, who is clearly a talent to keep your eye on.
Almost as unbelievable is the fact that the cast is mostly amateurs, though you'd never guess by the performances. Of the bunch, the only one with much experience is Jalil Lespert, who stars as Franck Verdeau, a business-school student with big ideas.
Franck has landed a management internship with a manufacturing plant in his home town, where he plans to help implement the controversial 35-hour work week, which is facing opposition from both the labor union and management.
Coincidentally, the plant also happens to be the one where his father (Jean-Claude Vallod) has worked for the past 30 years. So the elder Verdeau gives his son some valuable advice about not rocking the boat.
However, Franck is convinced that the plan will benefit everyone, so he pushes ahead with it, devising a labor survey that he believes will help ease tensions between the workers and the higher-ups.
Not too surprisingly, the strategy backfires, and his bosses instead use the surveys as a means to determine which employees will be let go, including his father. That leaves Franck with a serious dilemma: Should he side with management, and perhaps land a high-paying job with the company, or stand with the employees who have come to trust him?
Again, you'd probably think that such material would bog down in preachy rhetoric, but Cantet tries to keep the script's philosophizing to a minimum. Instead, he focuses on the more interesting character relations.
That affords ample opportunities for the cast to shine, especially Lespert, who's nearly perfect as the conflicted management trainee. The supporting performances are nearly as good, especially from Vallod and Danielle Melador as a radical labor organizer.
"Human Resources" is not rated but would probably receive an R for scattered strong profanity (including the R-rated curse word) and use of crude slang terms, as well as brief violence (a scuffle in a bar). Running time: 100 minutes.
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