Work is the dirty secret of contemporary life -- to
judge by the movies, at any rate. Although work is where people experience
roughly half their waking hours over the course of four or five decades, working
life is not considered glamorous or electric enough to hold the attention of
audiences. Filmgoers, after all, treat the movies as a respite from (among other
things) working life. Yet much of our experience of human relations takes place
at work: the victories and defeats, purposes and routines, thrusts and
counterthrusts, lies and impositions, passions large and small, affections and
disaffections, actions, reactions, ambitions, thrills, and disappointments that
frustrate and animate life.
Not only that. Working life doesn't stop when people punch out. People take
the workplace home with them, for better and worse. It gives them a literal and
even spiritual place in the world. It shapes satisfactions and dissatisfactions
off the job. The workweek surrounds the weekend. Even in a service economy of
free agents scrambling from one disloyal company to another over the course of a
lifetime, work remains a top answer to the question "Who am I?" It imparts a
shape to life and serves as a marker of who we are, were, and hope to be. It
imposes habits and disrupts them, channels feelings and thwarts them. For good
reason, Freud thought love and work the psyche's essential needs.
Yet scarce are the movies that take seriously working life, the ideas that
people have about it, its moral dilemmas, its satisfactions and obstacles.
Movies, after all, have other objectives -- to dazzle us, deliver passions and
jolts, play with our hunger for glamour, fill our emotional lives, and relieve us
from our surroundings. Mainly, life on the job is represented as filler: the pro
forma occasion for a plot point, the quick explanation for a character point, the
pretext for a one-liner, the occasion for props and locations, the route to the
interesting place -- the courtroom, the prison, the battlefield, the
spaceship, the bed. The job is the gray zone that the character exits on the way
to a life in living color. There's only enough of the workday left on the screen
to suggest what it is that the characters are getting away from after hours.
In other words, rare is the movie in which characters do much work or think
much about it -- with two main exceptions: criminals and police (in which
category I include the currently hot subvariant, soldiers). Their
on-the-job choices and career moves seem dramatic, offering suspense, visible
high stakes, character clashes, and a range of emotions. Their working
lives feature surprises, betrayals, pleasures, and conflicts petty and large. The
safecracker assembles his team, figures out how to get around alarm systems,
decides what to do when a colleague makes a mistake, recovers from the mistake.
The old cop comes out of retirement to deal with a burdensome case, only to find
himself thrown in with overambitious, corrupt, and incompetent juniors. In the
worlds of cops and criminals, we find all the entrepreneurs, the bankers, the
hirers and firers, the work teams, the rivals, the rising and falling stars whose
actions propel life-and-death stories.
Insofar as the white-collar world features at all in the movies, the prevalent
mode is satirical. Business is conventionally a background for murder, extortion,
larceny, fraud, and rape. The big tycoon devours the little tycoon. The defense
engineer who gets fired goes ballistic. The big shot is the bad guy. A shot of the
office is purely a way to introduce a leading character or perhaps to illustrate
the grind that the characters are scheming to flee. As for factories, they might
as well not exist. With the exception of the occasional film about a strike or an
organizing drive, the movies have been postindustrial for most of their
century-plus history -- not only in Hollywood, but virtually everywhere.
Could it be that the world of work, its pressures
and meanings, is intrinsically too flat, too tedious, for the movies? Is
alienation, perhaps, an abstract invention of Marxists? In two fine films, the
French director Laurent Cantet puts the lie to this prejudice -- a prejudice that
is, by the way, as much foreign as Hollywood. In Time Out, released in
2001 and about to be released in the United States, the chief protagonist is a
middle-aged, low-level business executive whom we first meet driving across the
south of France while calling his wife on his mobile phone to regale her with
news of his latest sales adventures -- all fabricated, because he's been fired.
Eager to move up in the world but without the resources to do so, he claims to
have landed a significant job with the United Nations, over the Swiss border. We
watch him trap himself in an intricate skein of lies and criminality. In Human
Resources (1999), Cantet's first feature, an idealistic young man takes a
position as a management trainee in the factory where his father and sister work,
only to get caught between the company's rationalizing schemes and the defenses
mounted by the union.
In both cases, company pressures take their toll. Employees are expected to
become people they're not. Families and friends get squeezed. Inner life is
mauled by the effort to imagine a way out. People try to blunder their way
forward and fight back, but not without cost. Work is not the whole of the
protagonists' stories, but their stories are predicated on the fact that people
want to find meaning -- and often find meaninglessness -- on the job and in the
stories that they tell themselves about their work.
Cantet is neither romantic nor desolate. He does not fear ambiguities. In both
films, work is burdensome but may also be rewarding. In any event, the characters
need it. In Human Resources, the father, a longtime machine
operator, considers his job his fate and resists any force that would interfere
with his rapport with his machine -- even the union aiming to protect his rights.
There is no cure-all for alienation, no end to the desire for meaningful work, no
clear answer to the imperative question that a character asks at the end of
Human Resources: "Where is your place?" In neither film does anyone escape
scot-free. These are not road-movie characters who flee a lousy job or a bad boss
to hit the highway, where adventure beckons. True, action is possible: People can
stand up for themselves, even if they cannot free themselves from ensuing
entanglements. They can attempt to rewrite the stories of their lives, but their
escape attempts are provisional and risky. Moving up in the world -- whether
actually in Human Resources or deceptively in Time Out -- not only
does not change society but exchanges old problems for new ones.
Time Out is the darker film of the two, for in the landscape of
self-creation collective action is unimaginable, and for the protagonist,
Vincent, the way out -- deception -- lands him in one moral quicksand after
another. Vincent is loosely based on the real-life case of a Frenchman with no
degree who for 18 years pretended to be a doctor with the World Health
Organization, and who, threatened with exposure, murdered his wife, his parents,
and his two children. (This amazing story is the subject of a recent true-crime
book by Emmanuel Carrère called, in English, The Adversary.) But Cantet's
interest is not in melodrama, so Vincent's criminal career does not turn out
ruinous in that lurid way. About the ending, I will say nothing except that some
viewers take it to be happy, Cantet does not, and Cantet is right.
One thing that fascinates about Vincent is that he has not taken leave
of morality. He is played by a marvelously subtle actor with an ordinary face,
Aurélien Recoing. An actor who has frequently played roles from Chekhov,
Shakespeare, and Molière -- Vincent is his first leading film part -- Recoing
suggests with ripples of crosscutting emotion the burden of doubt and guilt as
Vincent decides whether to betray his parents, his wife and children, his
friends. Karin Viard, who plays Vincent's wife, is equally complex. There are
battlefields beneath their skins.
When I spoke with Cantet earlier this year, I got a
sense that the work of filmmaking itself matters greatly to him. How he develops
his films is unusual. Most of the actors are amateurs. Those who work in the film
help shape it. "I like working with people who have another life than mine," he
told me. "When you meet a professional actor, you learn little." Cantet writes an
initial treatment (in the case of Time Out, his collaborator is Robin
Campillo), sketching the main characters and their relationships. For Time
Out, he cast only two professionals, Recoing and Viard. The part of a very
inventive thief is played by a onetime burglar, Serge Livrozet, who after a
stretch in prison emerged as a radical activist and a writer (Cantet saw him on a
TV talk show about counterfeiters). Vincent's father is played by a friend of
Cantet's. Other amateurs he spotted as they came off work in a white-collar
suburb of Paris. As the pickup cast play with the story and play out their own
relationships, Cantet works out dialogue. He obviously has a tremendous talent
with his actors, for in both films the performances have the grain of
The locale is an actor, too, chosen with care. The physical environment is
ordinary: There is neither a lot of splendid scenery nor a lot of great ugliness.
In Time Out, the UN office that Vincent visits (casing the joint to stoke
up his imagination, perhaps) is a typical industrial-park creation. In Human
Resources, the factory floor is more than a background: It's an atmosphere
"an element in the creation of the story," as Cantet put it. It wasn't easy to
find a manager willing to use his factory to illustrate the venality of company
policy. Several agreed in principle but on reading the script changed their mind.
Cantet told me it took a full year, in fact, to find a volunteer: a factory
director who recognized in the story a piece of his own life and thought that the
making of the film might improve the relationship between management and workers.
Not least, he was planning to retire soon.
Cantet cites a few filmmakers who have inspired him, principally Roberto
Rossellini, but denies that he is a cinephile. Still, he is no naive realist.
Technique matters to him. He keeps his viewers off balance by holding a shot a
bit long or cutting it a bit short. Not surprisingly, Cantet, now 40, was trained
first as a still photographer. Refusing to call attention to the camera by
whizzing it through the action in the fashionable mode, he prefers to plant it in
one spot and show his characters moving through the scene. Attention is drawn to
the social relations playing themselves out, not to the artist in charge. Surely
one of the most accomplished new directors to appear in many a year, Cantet
denies that he set out to chronicle work as such. He has no interest in trundling
out any counterformula to compete with formulas of a more conventional sort. His
curiosity runs deeper than that, which is a relief. Anything he does will be
worth watching -- if he continues to find backers. Financiers of the world, pay
attention! In the face of aggressive Hollywood glitz, declarations of the death
of the European art film are common even in Europe itself, but once again turn out
to be premature.