The son (second right) watches as the boss talks to his father on the shop floor.
The son (second right) watches as the boss talks to his father on the shop floor.

Laurent Cantet won the big prize at Cannes this year with Entre les murs (France 2008). Set in a tough school with an ethnically diverse cast it sounds terrific and I’m looking forward to seeing it (I can’t find a UK distributor yet though).

I thought it would be useful to check out Cantet’s first film which sounded as if it had a similar approach. I missed Ressources humaines in 1999 – something I regret now. I was riveted to my rented DVD screening, what a cracking film!

The story is classically simple. A young man returns to his home town from a business or management school in Paris. He has arranged a placement as a trainee/intern at the factory where his father has worked for thirty years in a mundane job stamping out metal parts at 700 per hour. The son is bright and well turned out and only too eager to naively suggest ways in which the management can approach negotiations with the workers about the move to a national 35 hour week (recently rescinded by Sarkozy). This is the young man’s college project. He has a good idea, but the management are quick to use it in ways he hasn’t thought through. He’s going to have to eat humble pie before the ferocious CGT steward in the factory. But although it’s a terrific representation of evil bosses and a workforce struggling to understand how to cope with change, the real story is about father (who, most of all, doesn’t want to resist) and son, culminating in a scene of terrible emotional ferocity that few will be able to forget.

The approach is pure Loachian social realism, only lacking a little of Ken Loach’s wicked humour (not that this film is po-faced or solemn). All the cast bar the lead role are non-professionals, including unemployed people in the town. The camerawork is observational and functional without drawing attention to itself.

Loach himself has tended not to make too many recent films directly focused on an industrial dispute, although both Bread and Roses (2000) and Navigators (2001) included large elements of unrest at the workplace. Other than those (the first of which was set in Los Angeles) the last UK feature I can remember with such a theme was Dockers (UK 1999), a TV film written by Jimmy McGovern and Irvine Welsh. I always wondered why Loach was so popular in France, but this film suggests that he has French disciples who make similar films.