« Let's Dance, 2007 | Main | Love Songs, 2007 »

March 3, 2008

La Question humaine, 2007

question.gifIn an interstitial episode the occurs halfway through Nicolas Klotz's La Question humaine (Heartbeat Detector), a group of diners at a low rent café are racially profiled and rounded up by the police for a random check of identification papers, the first among them, Papi (Adama Doumbia), the African immigrant whose wife, Blandine (Noëlla Mossaba) was injured during deportation in Klotz's previous film, La Blessure. It is a jarring contrast from the world of indulgence, privilege, ivy league education, and corporate grooming that would define the characters in La Question humaine, the final installment in what Klotz would describe during the film's introductory remarks as the Trilogy of Modern Times (along with Paria and La Blessure), in tribute to Charles Chaplin: an interrogation of society's conscience - its humanity - at the beginning of the 21st century, a century after the Industrial Revolution. Adapted from the novel by Belgian author François Emmanuel, the film is set within the fictitious global conglomerate called SC Farb, a thinly veiled reference to the notorious, Nazi-era, German chemical company IG Farben whose dismantled and reacquired industries include the French multinational pharmaceutical corporation Aventis (which subsequently merged into the Sanofi-Aventis that is headquartered in Paris). Ostensibly centered on corporate psychologist and executive trainer, Simon Kessler's (Mathieu Amalric) attempts to perform a covert evaluation of the CEO, Mathias Jüst's (Michael Lonsdale) mental health at the request of a high-ranking executive, Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) following a series of erratic behaviors and questionable actions, the film chronicles Kessler's own moral awakening after gaining Jüst's trust by drawing on the memory of a company quartet that he had formed years earlier with Rose, his then-mistress Lynn Sanderson (Valérie Dréville), and former employee Arie Neumann (Lou Castel), and uncovers the closely guarded secrets that would bind the amateur musicians together in the buried knowledge of a shameful collective history. Framed as a mystery and corporate intrigue film, La Question humaine is a scathing and unflinching indictment of the societal toll of corporate economics, where efficiency, optimization, productivity, and profitability are used as evasive euphemisms for inhumanity, exploitation, and social genocide. Klotz uses cold tones, dark contrast palettes, and institutional spaces that figuratively mirror the grey souls of corporate white-washing and amnesia, where new generations (a sentiment acutely embodied in the incorporation of New Order music during a rave party attended by newly recruited employees) systematically collude to bury the transgressions of their forefathers in order to avoid confronting the past and consequently deflect their own personal accountability and sense of moral restitution.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


Thanks for the write-up on this mesmerizing and provocative film, Acquarello. I appreciate your thoughts on the New Order music especially, since I'm not very familiar with that culture and found those scenes particularly opaque. Seeing them in relation to generational apathy makes a lot of sense.

Posted by: Doug Cummings on May 02, 2008 4:28 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Doug. I really like that Klotz and Perceval are posing relevant questions about the way we value humanity. There's also a tie in with New Order in La Blessure in that Klotz uses Joy Division for the soundtrack in that film, and there's that sense of institutionalization and dehumanization in their music (the idea behind Factory Records was that Manchester was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and by the late 70s was in complete decline) that reflects Blandine's inhuman treatment by the immigration system when she seeks asylum.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on May 02, 2008 10:26 PM | Permalink

Somehow this movie was never on my radar when it was making the rounds, but I caught up with it recently on video and was strangely mesmerized, as Doug says. It's remarkably tense and absorbing, considering a good bit of it involves people standing, or sitting, or having sparse conversations. I'm not sure I've seen anything at all by Klotz before, but I love the way he frames people. He puts Mathieu Amalric in the background of one scene in a bar, standing behind two women; he's out of focus, they're in focus. No idea who they are. And when they open their mouths and start singing, we hear none of it.

There's a scene where Kessler and his date are watching people sing, and we get to watch, too, at length. They're seated way in the back of the shot, and I swear that the arrangement of their chairs changes when we finally get a medium shot, and then another from a different angle. Some time may have passed between shots, but I suspect Klotz was more interested in their relative position at a given moment than he was in preserving continuity.

I love your phrases here: "cold tones" = "grey souls".

Netflix has a Klotz film called The Bengali Night starring Hugh Grant (!). Is it worth a look?

Posted by: davis on Sep 23, 2008 5:06 PM | Permalink

Hi Rob, sorry about the moderation thingy. I could have sworn I had it set to email me when it does that, but I guess I didn't. Bengali Nights isn't bad, it definitely reflects Klotz's humanism, but I think he's reached a new level with these collaborations with Elizabeth Perceval. I haven't seen Paria, but I remember Harry Tuttle mentioning that there was a definite meshing with La Blessure. At that time, I didn't know that Klotz had envisioned these films as a trilogy, but it makes complete sense now.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Sep 29, 2008 10:50 AM | Permalink

A movie that compares sacking people to the holocaust. Why does everyone call it interesting and provoctive. why doensn't anybody call it grotesquely absurd (if not insulting)? This movie needs a high-browy 2 h 15 to say something we all agree on.

Posted by: Olaf K. on Jan 21, 2009 2:12 PM | Permalink

Hi Olaf, suffice it to say we strongly disagree on this one. I do want to clarify that the film does more than just compare corporate downsizing with the Holocaust, it directly implicates corporations like I.G. Farben. Harun Farocki illustrates this connection in Images of the World and the Inscription of War too. But what Klotz and Perceval also show is how all these takeovers and mergers are also forms of historical whitewashing. As for the length, I don't think it was done for highbrow effect as much as it was to sustain a certain tone/mood of moral greyness.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Jan 21, 2009 3:47 PM | Permalink

>>I do want to clarify that the film does more than just compare corporate downsizing with the Holocaust, it directly implicates corporations like I.G. Farben.

Yes, but assuming that the movie serves as an illustration of a pattern, this is where for me Klotz is not just shouting but foaming, because he does not succeed in getting beyond the incidental circumstances of this particular company with this particular past. And then you end up with the blunt comparison, which to me is nonsensical. The last line of your review sounds like an interpretative stretch to me, but perhaps you can explain to me how the historical whitewashing would work.

Posted by: Olaf K. on Jan 21, 2009 6:05 PM | Permalink

Referencing these takeovers and mergers as historical whitewashing is not a blunt comparison - too much of a shorthand for what I think is obvious, yes, but not nonsensical. The corporate whitewashing I'm talking about are things like Andersen Consulting changing their name to Accenture after the Enron debacle or ValuJet changing their name to AirTran after the plane crash where they were found to be transporting oxygen containers improperly. It's a way of whitewashing the past and deflecting accountability by burying it under layers of acquisition or restructuring, or worse, cosmetic name changing where the system that enabled it still exists. That's what Klotz is talking about, I think, that these are still the same companies from World War II, but instead of being vilified for the past, they've been embraced after some convenient name changes because they continue to fuel the economy.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Jan 21, 2009 11:54 PM | Permalink

Thanks acquarello, I see more clearly what you are saying now. I think we are talking about different comparisons here. The burying comparison pertaining to the whitewashing, which indeed is part of the film, is not nonsensical or upsetting to me. The sacking-holocaust comparison (which is quite explicit in some of the dialogue and very pervasive towards the end), however, is and this one overshadows the other one completely for me. One can say in Klotz's defence that he has the balls to walk a thin line, but I was quite appalled after the political hammering towards the end. (Not a Godard fan either.)

During the movie I was constantly thinking about another movie that I haven't seen mentioned in reviews, which is Hiroshima mon amour. It also puts forward an intricate play between a past atrocity and remembering/forgetting, here pertaining to a love affair. I think I found myself having the same reservations there, although Resnais' poetic associative approach makes it harder for me to verbalize concrete objections.

Posted by: Olaf K. on Jan 22, 2009 2:46 AM | Permalink

Read monologue where I say dialogue, sorry.

Posted by: Olaf K. on Jan 22, 2009 2:49 AM | Permalink

Ah, okay, so it has to do more with the criticism towards the Lou Castel encounter (and his diatribe about the job losses) being heavy handed? I tend to agree with you on that. He arrives so close to the end of the film that by the time Amalric's character meets him, it's a bit of a letdown, like doing summary recap of something that was already obvious from the preceding two hours or so to hammer home the point.

Sure, it's heavy handed, and I do think the film gets a little messy at the end, but I think Klotz and Perceval were really trying to emphasize this idea that the Holocaust is also a manifestation of this mindset of exploitation that continues to drive corporations (as well as a human tragedy). It's still about trying to engineer ways of getting free labor to maximize profit, whether through slavery or work camps. It's still about exploiting workers. It may be going overboard to use the Holocaust just to illustrate this point, but to me, it still fits when companies like IG Farben are implicated in the real world.

Posted by: acquarello [TypeKey Profile Page] on Jan 22, 2009 2:42 PM | Permalink

Yes, I used sacking as the keyword for human exploitation, dehumanization and the like and that's the part where the comparison annoys me. Seems to me that the theme you brought up is more interesting. Would make a nice movie :) It at least got me looking at "Images of the world..." now.

Posted by: Olaf K. on Jan 22, 2009 3:21 PM | Permalink

A year and a half later, what most impressed me in the film, and which is also mentioned in the string developed by Olaf and acquarello above, is the similarity to Newspeak (Orwell, 1984) established in the next to the last scene.

Posted by: blasphemea on Jul 28, 2010 7:57 AM | Permalink

Post a comment:

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)