Blue-collar, white-collar

A new French drama of age-old class struggling.

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The French films Americans see are mostly love stories and period pieces, rarely about anything as unchic as labor unions. But Human Resources serves as a bracing reminder of just how and why France, a model for the shiny, prosperous new Europe, is plagued by labor unrest.

In simple, no-frills fashion, director Laurent Cantet sets up a thorny situation. College student Frank (Jalil Lespert) arrives home, to a small industrial town in Normandy, to take a summer internship at the factory where his passive, acquiescent father (Jean-Claude Vallod) has toiled for 30 years. From his first day on the job in the personnel department, Frank feels uneasy. He’s ambitious and resourceful, a rising young executive eager to make a good impression. Yet Frank also carries the white-collar dreams of his blue-collar family, along with their limited perspective of what success in that world truly entails.

The product manufactured at this factory is never identified, and that’s telling because Cantet (who co-wrote the script with Gilles Marchand) is using a specific situation to illustrate a larger issue: the way in which class structures mold an individual’s identity and moral outlook.

This unassuming yet undeniably powerful film is made all the more impressive since Lespert is the only professional actor onscreen. The rest are factory workers whose actual jobs mirror those of their characters, and they provide a stunning verisimilitude to this tale (particularly Didier Emile-Woldemard as Frank’s only real ally at the plant).

When Frank’s good intentions — to serve management while retaining the perspective of the workers — backfire, Human Resources takes on the scope of a classic tragedy. Age-old conflicts (haves vs. have-nots, fathers against sons) resurface, providing a reminder of how little really changes in our fast-moving world.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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