"Human Resources" has the distinction of being not only one of the finest movies ever made about the labor movement, it is also unparalleled in its ability to explain and make concrete issues that barely receive attention in the print media, such as "just-in-time" production techniques.
College student Franck (Jalil Lespert) has returned home for a summer internship at the factory where his father Jean-Claud (Jean-Claude Vallod) has worked for thirty years. His parents are proud of him, the first member of the family to rise above their class. When he comes downstairs in a stylish navy blue suit for his first day in the Human Resources department, his parents can only beam at him.
As soon as he steps foot in the factory, he learns that his new class status is a mixed blessing. While his father is showing him how his spot welding machine works (this is the kind of job I held briefly 22 years ago "colonizing" a factory in Kansas City), the foreman walks over and bawls him out for wasting time. This is the first lesson in the young man's education into the class realities of the factory, as opposed to what he learned in management science at college.
As in intern, Franck is assigned to prepare a report on the feasibility of a 35 hour week. Since this is at a lower pay rather than something like "30 for 40", it will be a hard sell to the factory workers, who remain suspicious of the bosses after 22 of their number were laid off in the previous year. Throughout the movie, the bosses are always warning the workers that unless they are profitable, the factory will have to shut down.
When the boss (Lucien Longueville) drives Franck home in his luxury sedan (classical music plays on the car radio), the intern proposes a plan that will make the 35 hour week more acceptable. If a referendum is held at the plant, he is sure that the workers would go for the plan since the union would not be part of the deliberations, especially since management will be formulating the questions. Everybody knows that the way poll questions are constructed has a lot to do with the outcome. (Eg., "Do you favor continuation of Vietnamization in order to achieve a long-lasting peace?" versus "Are you for precipitous withdrawal from Vietnam that would leave the country at the mercy of the Communists?")
The boss buys into the plan and makes it clear to Franck that he has a future in the conglomerate that owns the factory. Unfortunately, his immediate supervisor in the Human Resources department views Franck's discussions with the big boss as an attack on his own position in the pecking order and warns him not to step out of line again.
Caught between two worlds, he catches flak from both sides. At a bar with old friends from high school, an offhanded remark is interpreted by one of them as snobbery. After Franck's internship is finished, he will go back to Paris with the rest of the rich people while they are stuck in their factory jobs. A drunken Franck lunges at his accuser in anger, but their friends separate them. At this point we begin to surmise that some of the anger is self-directed. While he has the outward appearance of a manager, he is still part of the working class.
When the union local at the factory hears about the referendum, they storm into the personnel office led by a middle-aged shop steward (Danielle Mélador) who is a member of the Communist Party. She is one of the most memorable characters in the film, who represents the collective class memory of the people she serves, including Franck's submissive father who loathes the idea of standing up to the bosses. In confrontation after confrontation, she never gives in an inch. Interestingly, the choice of a female in this role gives the Director and Screenwriter Laurent Cantet an opportunity to show how sexism weakens the working class. Before it has become clear what ulterior motives lie behind the seemingly reasonable referendum, her union comrades tend to view her a shrill and irrational, an "old witch" so to speak. Perhaps she is an old witch, but only in the original sense of the word: a wise woman who lives by her own rules.
As it turns out, the referendum was to be used as a wedge to introduce a whole series of labor-saving measures that would allow the factory to be downsized by 10, including Franck's own father. When he learns of this plan by accident, he decides to throw his lot in with the factory workers and reject the class that had been making overtures to him.
"Human Resources" is brilliantly written, directed and acted. It is playing in NYC right now at a Loew's on Broadway and 45th street, an unusual locale for an art film. It very well could be appearing in large cities around the United States. Not only is it worth tracking down, it is a film that could be used instructionally in college classes along with other classics like "Salt of the Earth".