Images from Human Resources
This humiliation of Franckís father early in the film is paralleled with a later humiliation in this same spot at the end of the film by his son.
Franck is visibly uncomfortable during lunch with the other executives and misses the opportunity to discuss his proposal for a thirty-five hour workweek when one of them complains about being overworked.
Although race is never directly addressed in the film, it is notable that Franck reconnects to his working-class roots through a black man who works on the assembly line.
After noticing the suspect behavior of his supervisor Chambon and the boss Rouet, Franck reads on his supervisorís computer that the company is dismissing twelve employees, including his father.
As Franck walks to work, the image of the executives passing him in their cars visually represents how he is not actually a member of their class.
Images from Time Out:
The glass barrier indicates Vincentís sense of being excluded as he is caught observing a business meeting.
Vincent prefers being alone and studying the UN brochures for his pretend job to seeking actual employment.
The expression on Vincentís face suggests that he does not welcome Jean Michelís proposition that he sell black market goods even though he is desperate for income.
After being observed on a surveillance monitor by a security guard, Vincent is asked to leave the UN building after loitering for an hour.
Even though Muriel realizes at this moment how her husband has been supporting his family, she does not confront him about his lies.
Particularly in reference to this image, Cantet has called Vincent ďa spectator to his own life.Ē
This ominous image of Vincent walking into the darkness and leaving behind his wife on his cellphone has left the impression with audiences that Vincent will commit suicide.
At first the bright lights of this office scene are reassuring after the darkness of the previous scene. However, it quickly becomes apparent from Vincentís demeanor as he interviews for this job that he is committing a form of suicide.
Both Human Resources and Time Out explore the false choices posed by the neoliberal economy’s two competing rhetorics—what David Harvey calls the utopian project and political project of neoliberalism. In A Brief History of Neoliberalism David Harvey claims that neoliberalization can be interpreted
He argues that neoliberalization is a political project to restore class power that its proponents justify by the theoretical utopianism argument. In both Human Resources and Time Out the central characters use this utopian rhetoric in their roles as managers and consultants for global capitalism. The films, however, reveal that the promises of this neoliberal rhetoric are impossible within the framework of a neoliberal economy.
As mentioned previously, Human Resources focuses on the controversial subject of the thirty-five hour workweek. After introducing the thirty-five hour workweek on a voluntary basis in 1998, it was made compulsory in 2000 in the hope that it would reduce unemployment and stimulate the economy. The majority of workers favored the reduced workweek, which provided the same pay they had previously received for thirty-nine hours of work. It was revoked, however, in 2005 when unemployment remained high and the economy sluggish. The debate over the thirty-five hour workweek is a significant part of the debate over to what extent Europe should compete on neoliberal terms.
Prior to mention of the thirty-five hour workweek in the film, Human Resources foregrounds the issue of control of one’s time. The central character in the film is Franck, who is a young management intern at the factory where his father has worked all of his professional life. On Franck’s first day at the job, his father Jean-Claude explains that they arrive fifteen minutes early in order to have coffee and tell a few jokes because it “starts off the day better.” His co-worker says, “They’d have us start early every day.” There is a clear struggle between the managers and the factory workers over the control of their time. This tension intensifies on the assembly line when a few scenes later a supervisor scolds Jean-Claude for being slow. This concern about control of time also extends to the executives when at lunch one complains that he has been working every weekend.
Human Resources addresses the false choice of either being a flexible laborer in the global economy or facing unemployment. When Franck proposes the thirty-five hour workweek to his managers, his supervisor Chambon says immediately that they cannot create jobs and stay competitive. They already had to dismiss twenty-two workers the previous year. In the first meeting with the union, it becomes clear that the thirty-five hour workweek is a point of tension. The union wants the thirty-five hour week, but in order to create jobs not to eliminate them. The boss Rouet argues that the thirty-five hour workweek will be too costly. He claims that while the firm was profitable this past month they are still unstable. The union representative Arnoux warns the workers: “There’ll be no new jobs. He’ll use the thirty-five hours to cut overtime payments.” While the union is part of the rejection of the terms of neoliberalism, it is not the solution in this film. The labor union is portrayed as somewhat anachronistic, and it does not have control over the terms of the debate.
As a manager Franck both believes and gives voice to neoliberal utopian rhetoric. He tells the union representative that he believes the thirty-five hour week is good for everyone. Franck genuinely desires a dialogue with the workers. He thinks the negotiations “will further implicate employees in company affairs” and that “it will be interesting to give them responsibility.” While Franck talks about advantages for the workers, in terms of the plot his rhetoric actually provides the method for the corporation to gain greater control. In order to find out what the workers want, Franck decides to bypass the union by giving the workers a questionnaire. When Franck writes the questionnaire though, one of his supervisors criticizes his open-ended questions and suggests simplifying it by adding proposals in multiple-choice answers. Workers are left to choose between the managers’ answers rather than give their own. Yet again, a choice is seemingly presented where there is no choice. Issuing the referendum without the union’s approval also has the effect of dividing the union since some workers want to talk to management and some do not.
The limits of this neoliberal utopian rhetoric are clear in Franck’s conversations with both employees and supervisors. The factory workers are skeptical. When Franck discusses his project with his father, Jean-Claude expresses no preference for the thirty-five hour workweek. Franck then gives him the “right” answer and says, “Overall, working hours will drop. It’s an improvement.” His father is suspicious and rightly so. Franck has described the annualization of working hours, which would give Jean-Claude less control over his schedule. He would be subject to the demands of production, working 5 or 6 days one week and 2 or 3 another week. One of Franck’s peers, who also works at a factory, suspects that a reduced workweek will mean a speed-up on the assembly line.
Although Franck comes from a working-class family, he has to relearn the class position of the worker, and he does so through Alain, a young black man who works next to Jean Claude on the assembly line. After refusing to answer Franck’s questionnaire, Alain later confronts Franck to explain that his refusal was not due to lack of interest. He cares about work because he spends half his life at his job even though “factory work is no one’s dream.” While Alain hopes Franck can improve working conditions, he warns that it’s the workers who “have to hang in there.” When Franck later spends the night at Alain’s apartment after a fight with his father, he discovers that Alain has a wife and two infant sons. He admits to Alain that he did not realize that Alain had a family. It’s clear that Franck has not fully thought about Alain’s situation.
Franck’s boss Rouet uses his utopian rhetoric against him. Franck sells his boss on his proposal by claiming,
Rouet replies that that they “will win it together;” but for Rouet winning this issue includes laying off older workers such as Franck’s father. Of course, when Franck confronts his boss for the boss’ double-dealing methods, Rouet points out Franck’s own role. Franck defends his own use of the referendum but realizes that the survey gave his boss “a perfect alibi.” When Franck reveals that he knows about the dismissals, Rouet warns, “Don’t be arrogant. Soon you’ll manage a firm like this. You’ll make the same decisions. That’s what bosses do.” Rouet expects Franck to move from using the utopian neoliberal rhetoric to serving class interests, and to more directly engage in the neoliberal project of restoring class power.
Being upwardly mobile for Franck has significant costs. It means betraying his family and his ideals. Ironically, his father does not want Franck to be true to his working-class roots. Jean Claude wants his son to become a manager and is angry at the young man for risking both his job and future. Franck, however, rejects the terms of class mobility. Instead he takes the information about the layoffs to Alain, who he now realizes is “too young, too cheap to be unprofitable.” Together they use their skills against the company. From his boss’s computer Franck prints the secret letter to the regional employment branch announcing the dismissals and glues copies of the letter to the outside glass door; Alain welds the door shut. Posting the letter effectively works to mobilize the workers, who then go on strike. Jean Claude, however, refuses to go on strike even though he is being laid-off. Only after an emotional confrontation with his son, who is angry about the class shame that his father has instilled in him, does the older man leave the building.
Frank’s rejection of upward mobility means he rejects the undesirable options that neoliberalism offers. In the closing scene, Alain asks Franck, who is now out of a job, what is next for him, and Franck replies that he’s going back to Paris on the train tomorrow. Alain responds, “That’s good. You deserve better. You can’t rot away here. Your place isn’t in this hole.” Franck then returns the question, “So when are you leaving?” Alain looks down and Franck looks away. Their eyes never meet. But Franck persists, “Where’s your place?” The film ends with just the disquieting sounds of outdoor noise. The discomfort in this scene—manifest in their downcast eyes and the disconcerting silence—stems from the unbearableness of the social relations of neoliberalism. While they briefly united in rebellion, they are situated in the necessarily antagonistic positions of manager and factory worker. Neither of them wants the positions offered to them, but where does one go after rejecting the limited and undesirable options available? Not only is there a lack of options within this narrative of neoliberal capitalism, but there is no place for anyone who rejects the privileging of the few.
Time Out (2001)
Cantet’s second film Time Out also reveals the false promises of neoliberalism, in particular its much-touted ability to bring development and prosperity to the Third World. Neoliberal policies such as privatization and liberalization of trade have been promoted for the development of the Third World. While the United Nations (UN) now recognizes these policies to be a failure and censures organizations such as the World Bank, which played an instrumental role in implementing these policies throughout the 1990s. In this film the UN is implicated for its endorsement of neoliberal restructuring. Cantet’s next film examines the impact of this restructuring.
Time Out portrays how the central character Vincent not only lies about being laid-off but then also constructs elaborate lies to pretend that he has an important job at the UN demanding his time. While he has previously worked as a consultant and is already versed in free market jargon, he visits the UN building and studies brochures, memorizing facts to repeat back to his family. Vincent goes to great lengths to keep his family from knowing that he is not employed. Yet he does not spend his time looking for employment and has not even filed for unemployment after being laid-off. He does not want to work but does not want his family to know. It is this—his not wanting to work—more so than his loss of job which he must hide from his family.
While Vincent finds a job suffocating, to a varying degree other characters are also dissatisfied with working. The irony though, is that these other dissatisfied workers envy what Vincent supposedly now has—a stimulating and gratifying job. Vincent’s acquaintance Fred admits that he’s not ambitious and could never be passionate about a job, implying that Vincent is. To cope with work Fred is going into debt because he goes out after work just to “feel like I did something with my day. Give myself some kind of stupid pleasure.” While his friend Nono’s wife Jeanne is happy to be the breadwinner for their family, she still admires Vincent. She says his job “seems so interesting. It must be gratifying to be helping out Africa. Better than working for some private company.” His wife Muriel, who is trapped in the monotony of her role as a teacher, housewife, and mother, admits to being jealous of her husband’s ability to change jobs. She also admires the work that he does, specifically his role in promoting fair trade.
Of course, Vincent is not actually helping anyone. He’s lying to his wife about his new job. He “buys time” by taking money from acquaintances such as Fred for a supposed investment scheme in Russia. He also supports his family by selling goods on the black market when recruited by the con man Jean-Michel. These lies about where his money comes from are more than an individual pathology. These personal lies to his family echo the lies of neoliberal rhetoric.
In particular the film reveals the false promises of privatization. As Vincent becomes further involved in this lie, he asks his father for 200,000 francs to set up housing in Geneva. Muriel explains that they can repay this loan with the housing stipend. After the check is written, Vincent casually tells the story of talking to someone in Mozambique who is fighting to reconstruct their telecommunications network. He says, “Suddenly, I looked around me…all the marble and glass…all the space.” Muriel asks in astonishment, “You’re complaining?” and he replies, “No, it’s just surrealistic.” Vincent’s story evokes the gap between the wealthy and the poor, and his own experiences have made him realize that he is on the outside rather than inside of the wealth. When he visited the UN, he was asked to leave the lobby after a security guard, who had been watching him on surveillance, noticed that he had been there longer than an hour. On another occasion a security guard chases Vincent away after discovering him sleeping in his car in the parking lot of the hotel chain Novotel, where he conducts his investment schemes. Vincent has no place in these private spaces.
The merits of Vincent’s supposed job also come under question. In a conversation with his father Vincent explains about the collaboration between the UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). His father distrusts these collaborations as “never-ending meetings without any results.” Vincent begins to explain that beyond meetings, these arrangements offer financing and follow-up consulting, which not only fails to convince his father but instead provokes his exclamation: “Are you dreaming? Consulting in Africa! How can you believe in that?” While Vincent claims that he sees it in action, his father says, “Don’t believe it. That’s nonsense. All these small private initiatives never solved the problems of under-developed nations.” Vincent’s father is cynical about this collaboration’s ability to develop the Third World. Although Vincent’s father is thinking in terms of viability, the subtext of this scene suggests that the NGO-UN collaboration is as much of a lie as Vincent’s claim to be working for the UN.
It is significant that Vincent’s lie is revealed to his wife in a discussion about legal and “parallel” economies. When Vincent brings the con-man Jean-Michel home for dinner, Muriel presses him for information about his job. Jean-Michel claims to work “in connection with the European Commission, in their anti-fraud sector.” While Vincent and Muriel’s son Julien argues with Jean-Michel that selling fake goods is not a serious crime, Muriel grows increasingly aware of how Vincent has been supporting them. While Jean-Michel describes the factories that make both legal and fake goods, making it difficult to distinguish between the legal and parallel economies, Vincent and Muriel exchange looks. Vincent looks trapped and Muriel looks heartbroken as she realizes what Vincent has actually been doing.
After his lie is revealed to his family, the way the family reacts to Vincent and he to them suggests that he may harm his family or commit suicide. When he arrives home his daughter stares at him as if he’s a stranger and his eldest son Julien is angry and does not want to speak to him. There is a hardness in Vincent’s voice as he explains that he did it “so you could live like nothing happened” and reminds them that he could have left them instead. In a couple of instances, Muriel puts herself between Vincent and the children in a protective gesture. Vincent’s mood swings from despondent, saying “I’m just tired. None of you know how tired I am,” to anger, exclaiming, “What are you all doing there? Are you just going to watch me all night? You’re all completely sick!” When Vincent’s father arrives, Vincent climbs out of a window because he has “nothing to say,” drives off in his SUV, and then refuses to speak to his family on his cell phone. He then walks out of his SUV and out of the camera frame, seemingly into traffic.
The screen goes black and then immediately cuts to a brightly lit office scene. Vincent chooses the simultaneously most mundane and most terrifying path. In a job interview, Vincent is able to convincingly explain his seven-month period not working. With the help of his father’s recommendation his lies are accepted, and he is offered the job. Haunting music then becomes louder than the interviewer’s voice as the camera zooms in on Vincent’s face. His resignation is terrifying.
Vincent, like Franck and Alain from Human Resources, also does not have a place. Cantet’s films ask questions—such as “Where is your place?”—which have no answers within the rhetorical framework of neoliberalism. These questions demonstrate that the rhetoric is irreconcilable with what it is describing; they cannot be answered in a way that sustains the economic order. Human Resources and Time Out demonstrate the impossibility of any utopian element to neoliberalism. In his next two films Cantet transitions to examining the effects of the neoliberal economy on the Third World and its immigrants. While Time Out exposes the false promises of the rhetoric of Third World development, Heading South focuses on Haiti, a Third World country that has been a recipient of international aid and development programs.