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Human Resources

Kino // Unrated // April 22, 2008
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Chris Neilson | posted May 21, 2008 | E-mail the Author
In high school or college freshman economics, many of us were taught that the factors of production are land (i.e., natural resources), labor, and capital (i.e., buildings, tools, and machinery). If capital is scarce, or land is expensive, use more labor. If labor is expensive, use more land or capital.

In introductory economics classes, this is all kept on a high level of abstraction, with examples only hinting at any real world application. A typical textbook example might be this: In Myanmar where tractors (capital) and gasoline (land) are expensive, relative to the cost of labor, more farmers (labor) toil in the fields than in Iowa where tractors and gasoline are inexpensive, relative to the labor cost of farmers.

Studying introductory economics prepares one to solve a hypothetical like this, which could have come straight from an Econ 101 quiz:

The cost of pensions for retired workers is making labor costs at Acme Parts Manufacturer expensive, the cost of a pension for a retired worker is set by law and cannot be lowered; provide two possible solutions to decrease labor costs.

The two answers that leap to mind, for this graduate of introductory economics anyway, are replace older workers before retirement with either (1) younger workers, (a qualitative shift of labor) or (2) increased automation (a capital for labor substitution). This answer would be sufficient, I think, to demonstrate basic comprehension of the concepts of factors-of-production substitution, while not threatening the fiction that these scenarios are divorced from any human consequences.

French filmmaker Laurent Cantet's 1999 drama Human Resources adds flesh and blood to the bones of this hypothetical.

Franck (Jalil Lespert), a Paris business school student, is home for a management internship at the small town parts manufacturer where his father (Jean-Claude Vallod) has toiled as a machinist for 30 years. His older sister and many of his childhood friends also have blue collar jobs at the plant. Franck is intelligent, urbane, and motivated. When he begins his internship, Franck discovers that management and the labor union are at loggerheads over the specifics of implementation of a Government-mandated 35-hour workweek intended to lower unemployment and increase the quality of life for French workers.

It appears to Franck that the local union leader, Danielle Arnoux (Danielle Mélador), is being irrationally intransigent, still nursing a grudge over the firing of 22 workers the previous year on cost cutting grounds. Franck wins accolades from the plant manager (Lucien Longueville) when he uses a poll of plant employees to demonstrate that the union leadership's negotiating position is out of step with the desires of the plant's blue collar labor force. Franck intended the poll to provide a win-win for management and labor by easing the implementation of the 35-hour workweek, but when he discovers that management is using the success against the union leadership, to ease the way for firing 12 older machinists, including his father, before they're eligible for retirement, he finds his loyalties torn between management (and the class he aspires to join) and his father (and the class he was born into).

Franck's position is further complicated by his father who is so broken by his 30 years in the plant that he can't imagine resisting the will of management, either for himself or for his son. Franck's dad wants him to toe the line, and move on to a successful white collar career. Franck's father has sacrificed everything for the good of his family. He made it possible for Franck to go to business school. Does Franck owe it to his father to obey his wishes and keep mum, or do what he thinks is in his father's best interest by exposing the plan and rallying union resistance before it can be implemented?

Though director Laurent Cantet dispenses with a musical score and a romantic storyline, Human Resources is otherwise reminiscent of a Ken Loach film in its social realistic style and subject matter. All the roles except that of Franck are played by non-professional actors Cantet found on French unemployment lines. Jean-Claude Vallod, who plays Franck's father, had been a machinist since age 14, and like Danielle Mélador, who plays the labor union leader, he was fired shortly before being eligible for a factory pension. This level of authenticity permeates the film, and together with Cantet's documentary shooting style, greatly enhances the film's power.

This release by Kino appears to be an exact copy of the August 2004 Image release, right down to the extras.

The Video:
The image, presented in a letterboxed widescreen (1.66:1), looks like it was recorded on analog tape, then converted from PAL to NTSC. Though the grainy image and washed out colors may be purposeful choices by the director, the ghosting and other video problems surely were not.

The burned in white subtitles are sometimes lost against light backgrounds, and, surprisingly, some of the translations are extraordinarily clunky.

The Audio:
The 2.0 stereo audio is acceptable for capturing the dialogue, but fails to provide realism to the scenes set on the factory floor.

The Extras:
Extras consist of a one pager about the director, and, without subtitles, the original French trailer.

Final Thoughts:
Human Resources is the kind of social realist film about the impact of the class divide that rarely gets made, or even screened, in the United States. It's an important film capable of stimulating discussions about the interplay of efficiency, profit, and labor rights on the one hand, and father-son dynamics on the other. Unfortunately, the technical quality of this release is so low, it's difficult to justify the purchase price. I hope someday we'll see this film get the DVD or Blu-ray release it deserves.

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