Human Resources

France/UK 1999

Reviewed by Ginette Vincendeau


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Normandy, the present. Frank, a young business-school graduate, starts work experience in the office of the factory where his father has worked all his life. Befriended by management, he is shocked by his father's meek attitude and by the combative stance of the Communist-backed CGT union, led by Madame Arnoux. Frank's brief is to study the introduction of the government's 35-hour week scheme. His idea to canvass workers' opinion by questionnaire is taken up by the managing director, but angers the union. Outside the factory, Frank alienates his childhood friends.

When a confidential letter informs him that management is about to fire 12 workers, including his father, Frank tells his family, Madame Arnoux and Alain, a young worker he has befriended. At night, he and Alain print copies of the letter which they post over the factory entrance. After he is dismissed, Frank joins workers and the union in planning a strike. His father refuses to follow the strike, prompting a major row with Frank. At a picnic outside the factory gates during the strike, Frank tells Alain he is moving back to Paris.


Marked by a concern for social issues and notable for its pared-down naturalistic mise en scène, Human Resources offers a refreshingly unusual picture of France and of French cinema. While the film is a break from narcissistic Parisian petit-bourgeois agonising and gorgeous recreations of French heritage, Human Resources' tale of industrial strife in a Normandy factory does relate to the socially aware agendas of Young French Cinema, as seen in the films of Bruno Dumont and Erick Zonca, similarly set among the northern unemployed. But where Dumont and Zonca harness their interest in social matters to auteurist strategies, newcomer Laurent Cantet harks back to post-May 1968 documentaries (such as Marin Karmitz's collectively conceived Coup pour coup, 1972) and to the films of Ken Loach, to which Human Resources, predictably, has been predictably compared.

Cantet's self-effacing mise en scène foregrounds his attention to the social realm through unglamorous real locations (local cafés, the factory) combined with unflashy camerawork and a non-professional cast (with the exception of Jalil Lespert as Frank, a graduate on work experience in the factory) relying on mainly improvised dialogue. Unlike most social-fiction films (French poetic realism in the 30s, say, or Italian neorealism in the 40s), here the characters' status as workers is less a background detail, there to enliven essentially melodramatic personal conflicts, than the very subject of the film. This does not mean that Human Resources is without tension or drama: Cantet's film is classically structured, bracketed between Frank's arrival in his home town and his imminent departure, and there are obvious narrative devices, such as his confrontation with old schoolfriends, the appearance of a secret letter and his sudden change of camps from management to workforce, signalled by his pivotal phone call to union organiser Madame Arnoux. Remarkably, Cantet is also able to build suspense into such mundane events as Frank's first day at the factory.

And underlying the whole story, of course, there's the generational conflict between Frank and his father, who has worked in the factory all his life. But here again this most universal of dramas is brilliantly shaped by the social mould: Frank's father has given him the means of elevating himself socially; but having achieved a measure of success, Frank has distanced himself from his father and his family. One of the achievements of the film is that we feel emotionally Frank's agonising mixture of pain, anger and shame at seeing his father's humiliation and, more damagingly, acquiescence in his own oppression, but we also understand the situation intellectually. The irresolvable nature of this socio-Oedipal drama is illustrated by the lack of reconciliation between the two at the end of the film (if there's ever a Hollywood remake, it will no doubt include a climactic scene where father and son express their love for one another).

More obviously, Human Resources dramatises the larger issue of the 35-hour week which has agitated France over the last year or so. The brainchild of Socialist politician Martine Aubry, it is often seized by management as an excuse to extract more from workers in less time, rather than for the stated (and genuine) aim of job creation; hence the grassroot opposition which the naive Frank is initially unable to grasp.

Cantet has rightly attracted a lot of attention for his accomplished handling of his mostly non-professional cast, especially admirable in a first feature. It is hard to know whether to praise Lespert for appearing as genuine as the rest of the players, or whether to praise the others for seeming as professional as Lespert. Jean-Claude Vallod, as the father, is heartbreaking without being sentimental, but Danielle Mélador as Arnoux is the standout, partly because of her natural acting ability, partly because she has the best lines, notably her great put-down to the management: "Perhaps you'd like me to be a capitalist."

Human Resources is not without its unsubtle touches. The personnel manager is a little too much of a caricature, and in real life young Frank is unlikely to have chosen to work in the same factory as his father. One might also query the choice of a black character to help Frank reach his true feelings (as a North African character did in Coline Serreau's La Crise). Nevertheless, Human Resources is generous, sensitive and innovative. It is a film in which, in the widest possible sense, the personal is political.


Laurent Cantet
Caroline Benjo
Carole Scotta
Laurent Cantet
Directors of Photography
Matthieu Poirot Delpech
Claire Caroff
Robin Campillo
Stéphanie Leger
Art Directors
Romain Denis
Caroline Bernard
Florent Maillot
Evariste Richer
Loic Lemoigne
©La Sept ARTE/
Haut et Court
Production Companies
La Sept ARTE and Haut et Court present a film by Laurent Cantet
Supported by Programme MEDIA de l'Union Européenne
With the participation of Centre National de la Cinématographie/
Procirep/BBC Films
Executive Producer
Barbara Letellier
Commissioning Producer
La Sept ARTE:
Pierre Chevalier
Production Manager
Mat Troi Day
Unit Production Manager
Pierre-Jean Robert
Unit Manager
Laurence Durand-Gaillard
Artistic Consultant
Gilles Marchand
Assistant Directors
émile Louis
Rafaèle Ravinet-Virbel
Dominik Moll
Script Supervisor
Cathy Thomasi
Constance Demontoy
Pascal Truant
Screenplay Collaboration
Gilles Marchand
Costume Designer
Marie Cesari
"Quatuor No. 13 en la mineur" - Melos Quartett; "Zip Jazz"
Philippe Richard
Jonathan Acbard
Antoine Ouvrier
Didier Leclerc
Sound Mixer
Fabrice Conesa Alcolea
Sound Editor
Valérie Deloof
Sound Effects
Nicolas Becker
Assia Dnednia
Jalil Lespert
Jean-Claude Vallod
the father
Chantal Barré
the mother
Véronique de Pandelaère
Michel Begnez
Lucien Longueville
the boss
Danielle Mélador
Madame Arnoux
Pascal Sémard
personnel manager
Didier Emile-Woldemard
Françoise Boutigny
Félix Cantet
Marie Cantet
Stéphane Tauvel
Jean François Garcia
Gaëlle Amouret
Marie-Laure Potel
François' friend
Patrick Baron
Patrick Pignard
Peggy Lefevre
Alain Champin
Alain Thénault
Patrick Brochard
Cedric Dessolliers
Jean-Pierre Dolinski
Olivier Bourguet
Jean-Jacques Abadie
Rufin Verliefde
Claude Verdier
émile Louis
Maurice Renaud
Philippe Grassiot
Josiane Delahaie
Jean-Luc Darcq
Stéphanie Chevret
Anne Lebert
Alain's wife
Annie Duval
customer at restaurant
Jean-Sébastien Cerdan
Frédéric Dubois
Paul Gomis
not submitted
National Film Theatre
circa 9,270 feet
103 minutes
In Colour
French theatrical title
Ressources humaines
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011