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The 35-hour work week has all of France in its thrall. This film turns it into a feature about economic and familial politics. Frank, a business school graduate, returns to his provincial hometown to take a management position in the factory where his father has been working for 30 years. First Frank makes the mistake of actually asking the workers on the assembly line for their opinions. Then upper management manipulates his findings to lay off employees. This creates a huge rift, not only between labor and management, but between father and son. A human morality tale that evokes paternal and filial love, and illustrates the personal risk behind political ideas. Written by
Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel 'The Brothers Karamazov', for all its monumental breadth and depth in philosophy and theology, has at its very core the dominant figure of the Father, whose callous authoritativeness and irresponsible disposition--and eventual murder--have decidedly molded the characters and philosophies of his four sons--Mitya, Ivan, Alyosha, Smerdyakov--and altogether marked their essentially tragic fate.
Two films I recently saw, though not really epic in scope, have arguably imbued the spirit of the literary masterpiece:the French 'Human Resources' by Laurent Cantet and the Russian 'Mother and Son' by Aleksander Sokurov are predominantly deferential to the parental figures, respectively, of the Father and the Mother.
If Dostoyevsky's 'Karamazov' is in the manner of the psychological/existential probing of the human soul with a murder-mystery on the surface, in what way do the two films work on their archetypal themes?
'Human Resources' works as a labor drama as it involves an educated son (Jalil Lespert as Franck)who returns to his hometown after years of studying in Paris to be trained as part of the management staff of a factory(whose name serves as the film's title)where his father(Jean-Claude Vallod as Jean-Claude)has been devotedly working for 30 long years.
Despite being imbued with fresh ideas and attitude, Franck tries as much as possible to maintain a "moderate" persona at work in deference to his father's unquestioning servility--to the point of becoming an anonymous piece among the assembly of workers(who isn't, anyway?).So we can initially see that the son's newly-assumed, though arguably much higher, position is "humbled" before the father's mere length of service.
But little did Franck expect that he would be gradually immersed in--and eventually, fiercely committed to--a sensitive issue regarding a planned assembly-line scheme that almost all the factory workers consider as exploitative and inhuman, as it would basically enforce the policy of "reduced hours and workers, forced production quota, less pay." I say "almost", because everyone else is visibly concerned except for the young man's father, with whom the "business as usual" philosophy is adhered to the fullest, despite the fact that in the near future, the management would already have "no business" with him.And this is what agitates Franck further.
Thus, in an emotionally-shattering confrontation, the son makes it known to the father the worthlessness of all his labors and value as an assembly-line worker.With his new-found cause, Franck may have saved his father's reputation, but not his own future("When are you going?" and "Where is your place?" are his meaningful queries by the film's end).
While 'Mother and Son' is an entirely two-character drama(Gudrun Geyer and Aleksei Ananishov in the title roles)that is outwardly simple but, in fact, open to multiple interpretations.I have my own take on the story(uncertain though it may be), but for fear of pre-empting those who might want to see the film sooner or later(and of putting myself to shame), I better not dare to give my piece of mind on the matter for the time being(I patiently watched the film three times for three straight days, but still...!).Instead, let me say that, as this was made by a contemporary Russian filmmaker(acclaimed in Cannes for his equally maverick works, 'Russian Ark' and 'Father and Son'), it was closer to the mood and leanings of the above-mentioned Russian literary classic--dark, brooding, eerie, lambasting.If you thought Andrei Tarkovskij was enough to rattle your brains out, think again.
The disciple has learned his lesson from the master--by heart.(I have another Russian film in waiting, '100 Days Before the Command' by Hussein Erkenov, said to be another 'obedient' disciple.)
With regard to the narrative technique, the two films move radically on different threads.
Laurent's work is molded according to the style of a neorealist "docu-drama"--the emphasis is on the commonplace and the seemingly trivial, but not to be taken for granted;the characters are portrayed by non-professional or first-time actors who, for the most part, have lived the lives they essay onscreen;and to further bolster the authentic feel, dramatic frills and shrills, the "workshop-intensive"-type of acting are shunned(this isn't to say, however, that there are no crucial turning points in the film, as the above-mentioned confrontation between the father and son indicates;it's just that the emotions are raw, rather than garnished).Again, the viewers are asked to observe, to immerse themselves in the lives and concerns of these ordinary people, who are essentially no different from them.
I say "again", because 'Human Resources' was released around the time when other French-language dramas of the same mold had initially made their way to the silver screen:'La Promesse', 'Life of Jesus', 'Rosetta', 'Humanity', 'Dreamlife of Angels.' There seemed to be a "trend" back then.
But if these films--particularly 'Rosetta' and 'Humanity'--tended to be "inward-looking", to dwell in their anxiously-guarded private world, Laurent's film, as its primary issue(the workers contending with a proposed labor scheme)calls for, doesn't only concentrate on the two central characters but takes into consideration the other critical characters as well--their fellow factory workers(in the same way that Dostoyevsky pierces through the souls not just of the Karamazov brothers but also of the various important figures that directly or subtly affect their lives).
For his part, Sokurov's excruciatingly meditative and tranquil dialectics in his film(as if some kind of painter was deeply-absorbed in putting on canvas every scene), with an attendant sense of something forbidden taking place, is counterbalanced by the pastoral countryside, now and then draped in golden sunshine rays, heavy clouds and smooth wind, an expressionist camera focus and a few of the most astonishing shots ever composed onscreen.The "exact" nature of the "troubled" relationship between the mother and son can be gleaned from their evocative gestures and utterances--like "You always kept your eyes on me.I was ashamed", the son says to the mother and "I was afraid that they would take you away from me", the mother lets it known to the son.
Ah, to dissect an age-old commandment!
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