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.


Craig said...

This sounds like a very interesting movie, sort of a Michael Clayton with a deeper moral imperative. How would you rate the performances?

Chet Mellema said...


Almost everything you wrote in your review is, of course, factually accurate, and if there are merits to this film they can be found in Almaric's performance and your astute observation on the usage of language. However, I watched the film twice and reviewed it a few months ago and I would be remiss not to comment that Heartbeat Detector is extremely difficult to watch. Now, I don’t mean in the sense of gratuitous violence or cringe-worthy dialogue; rather, there is a suffocating moroseness to the picture that strangles the viewer from beginning to end. At least that is what I felt. It certainly makes for clear thematic conveyance to the audience, but the pervasive exposition, elimination of light whenever reasonable (or unreasonable), and the constant and clear delineation of parallels between present-day corporations and the holocaust seems to me to be wildly over-the-top in its execution. And for me, the absence of ambiguity – and in this case, a total absence of ambiguity – is a leading indicator of a minor work.

Thank you for your review. I enjoyed it…just wanted to add a slightly different perspective.

Is your hit-count so high that you have “guest bloggers” now?!? (ha)

Craig said...

Hi Chet,

Helen saw this movie in a London theater while visiting Jolly Old England recently (it's played nowhere near Cleveland to my knowledge), and I suggested she write a review. I don't get to as many foreign/arthouse type films as I should so her piece balances out the Indys and Iron Mans nicely. I tried watching Flight of the Red Balloon today but felt a coma coming on, and fled after 40 minutes.

My hit count is miniscule compared to others, but as long as the quality of readers is up to those like yourself, I'm perfectly content. (When are you gonna start posting again, man?)

Helen said...

Chet Mellema,
Thank you for bringing this up, it’s an issue I skirted and I agree completely; this was one of the most painful films I’ve experienced. I think I partly had the underlying sense that complaining is just not allowed here—it’s the Holocaust, after all—it’s our duty to suffer occasionally in honor of the victims. And my personal response had a lot to do with the fact that I was traveling on business, had worked hard all day, and was determined to get something out of this film no matter how difficult it proved to be. It is not short and I came very, very close to walking out near the end; I began to feel physically ill when Simon (and the audience) are dragged out into the light—into the only daylight and outdoor scene in the film—where we are then verbally bludgeoned, for what feels like an unnecessarily long time, with Holocaust imagery. I’m really still debating the effectiveness of this ending, which is definitely not subtle or ambiguous. Is the message that this particular theme requires bluntness in the end? That it simply does not deserve artful subtlety of any kind?

Craig also asked about the actors’ performances, and I agree with Chet that Mathieu Amalric’s performance as Simon was really exceptional, the desire to keep watching him carries you through much of this film and he manages to make you feel like you have taken an emotional journey with him. I also thought Michael Lonsdale was very strong as Mathias Jüst and that the interactions between the two of them had an interesting and tense chemistry that helped keep the suspenseful thriller part of the film in motion.

I am grateful for this conversation because I’m still thinking about and recovering from this film and no one here where I live has seen or even heard of it, so thank you, Craig and Chet.

Chet Mellema said...

Craig: Not sure. I've had so much going on with work and other things lately that writing has taken a back seat. I have a few pieces in the works so hopefully I can get those up fairly soon. It's just been hard to find the time the last couple of months.

Helen: That's the beauty of the internet. I live in Des Moines so I REALLY have no one to chat up films like Heartbeat Detector...and many times I have to make quite an effort to see such films. Most of the time it's worth it, though.