Sunday, May 25, 2008
In the Vein
By guest-blogger Helen
There’s a heart racing out of control at the bottom of Heartbeat Detector (La Question Humaine) but you have a long journey to take before you find it -- its depiction of contemporary corporate culture is timely and chilling. Simon Kessler (Mathieu Amalric) is a human resources department psychologist in the Paris branch of SC Farb, a German petrochemical company, but, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that his job is mainly about eliminating weak employees, not at all about providing therapy services to help them cope or improve. There is an ominous overall darkness to the film, a visual sense of foreboding, and the deeply-toned midnight blue suits that everyone seems to wear are a part of this.
Another thing that sets the stage for a sense of imbalance or something being amiss is the unsettling contrast between scenes of conversations and interactions between people—these are dense and closely cropped and include unwavering and intense eye contact—and the way these scenes are relieved by strong doses of silence and of open space surrounding them. A large part of the story is told with non-verbal communication and body language.
Partly an intriguing thriller that includes a complex chain of suspicions of mental instability and anonymous letters disclosing Nazi connections among three top executives of the company, what makes Heartbeat Detector interesting is the way it remains ambiguous throughout; you’re not ever sure what is real and what is a conspiracy. Kessler, who is considered to be one of the company’s model "acolytes," who moves coolly and unblinkingly through his intensely demanding and complex world, and who has recently been responsible for choosing who would be let go in the company’s massive downsizing, comes completely unraveled when he digs into the situation and begins to make the connections—when the film’s theme of the monstrous parallels between fascism and the 21st century corporate machine emerges. You can't stop watching Kessler as he takes this dark journey and his experience is emotionally intense, deeply personal, and riveting.
The style shifts abruptly at the end and this film that told so much of its story non-verbally or with brief bursts of highly-coded conversations closes with a lengthy monologue on the insidious evils of bureaucracy and the loss of individual sense of responsibility. And that is followed by a long recitation: the reading of a death camp engineer's cold and technical notes on his solutions for solving various problems handling the "units" and the "cargo." While Kessler is reading this to us, echoes of the equivalent corporate terminology—words like "downsizing" and “la question humaine”—ring loudly in his mind. Suddenly, at the end, it’s all about language, how we use words to protect ourselves from pain, about how easily innocent words can hide the truth, about how easily we all buy the story, the superficial sense of these words, and how Kessler, once he sees through the language that shielded him from the painful reality of what he did to individual people’s lives, is set completely adrift.