Streaming on various platforms in the UK, Corporate is an intriguing début film that didn’t get a UK cinema release and which has received contrasting responses from those who have seen it. I watched it thoroughly engaged throughout, late at night and and determined to finish it. It was only on reflection that some doubts began to appear. But I am still thinking about it and I’m certainly glad I’ve seen it. Perhaps when I’ve written about it I’ll be able to make my mind up.
The film begins with what appears to be a corporate video of some kind, a team-building exercise on the slopes of Chamonix in which the HR team and some departmental staff are being introduced to a new policy. The footage picks out a bright young-ish star Emilie Tesson-Hansen (Céline Sallete) who is being praised by the HR (personnel) boss of a large French company, Stéphane Froncart (Lambert Wilson). She is learning how to drive a team of dogs pulling a sleigh. We guess that this is a metaphor for the work she will be doing for the company. This is the credits sequence. The narrative proper starts a year or so later in the Paris offices of Esen, a large French agri-business conglomerate. Emilie is interviewing one of the staff, persuading her to ‘go mobile’ – in effect to offer herself for re-location. Emilie has her own secretary who is shielding her from another member of staff who is desperately trying to see her. What Emilie has been asked to do by Stéphane will slowly begin to emerge but first there is a dramatic incident that shocks all the staff. It affects Emilie most of all since it involves her HR work and the policy she has been carrying out. What will transpire will be a form of ‘office thriller’ in which Emilie could be the villain, the victim or the scapegoat.
Some of the reviews and ‘user comments’ suggest that this narrative is very familiar and hackneyed. Others suggest it is quite fresh. I realised that I have seen several French films which might be described as ‘office thrillers’, but most of these have involved sexual jealousy, financial crimes or simply the jostling for power between executives. Corporate hints at some of these elements, but they aren’t central. The focus here is on HR and Health and Safety and the narrative introduces a French public official new to me, a Work Inspector with powers to investigate all kinds of health and safety issues in her district and to levy fines or refer possible criminal cases to the police and local Prosecuting Magistrate (I’m tempted to draw on my experience of watching Engrenages). I think both the civil and judicial procedures are different in the UK and North America, but similar narratives are possible here. The nearest French film I’ve seen that has some of the moral/philosophical questions associated with a narrative like this is Ressources Humaine (France 1999) by Laurent Cantet. The two films are different in both aesthetics and story line but they do share a sense of moral responsibility by a character in a junior managerial position, whose actions cause hurt for other staff members, but who is also being manipulated by senior management. This kind of situation, familiar to many of us in different ways in the managerial cultures of both the public and private sector, throws the focus on the individual caught at the centre of a clash between late capitalist ‘leadership’ strategies and personal ambition/self respect and a sense of workplace ethics.
I was not surprised to find that Emilie has worked for ten years in the UK before presumably being head-hunted by Stéphane (who had taught her at business school perhaps?). There seems to be a discourse about French business talent moving to London in several films. In my recent post on La villa (France 2017) I referred to a character who is thinking of moving to London where taxes are lower and business is perhaps less formal than in Paris? Emilie is now back in France with her English husband Colin (Charlie Anson) and her young son Leo. Colin has decided to be a house-husband and father since Emilie is earning a good salary. She certainly isn’t home much, works late and sometimes gets home drunk.
The first time director is Nicolas Silhol who also co-wrote the film with Nicholas Fleureau. In the Press Notes, Silhol reveals that his father teaches management at a business school and works as an HR consultant. The film is very much research-based and Sihol interviewed a female HR manager who had herself experienced something similar to Emilie. Silhol also points towards a news story about a spate of suicides at France Télécom after which it seemed to be implied that the workers concerned were responsible for their own suffering. Silhol also interviewed Work Inspectors. The developing relationship between Emilie and Marie is central to the narrative and I think gives the film a distinctive narrative trajectory. Overall, the film is ‘hopeful’ that management practices could improve but it isn’t a ‘feelgood film’. Emilie is a character who initially behaves in a manner designed to save her own skin but she gradually begins to see another way to look at events.
The Press Notes offer an insight into some of the ways that the director and his DoP thought about the camerawork and how to use it to first focus attention within the Esen offices and then to allow the ‘outside world in’, partly through the focus on the Inspector. I think I’m more convinced by the film after reading the Press Notes. The central performance by Céline Sallette is very good and Lambert Wilson is always a reliable presence. Violaine Fumeau is a less well-known actor who impressed me and the two women worked well together on screen. This is an impressive début by Nicholas Silhol. I think the idea of an English husband for Emilie is a good one but I’m not sure it is fully exploited in the scenes that involve Emilie’s interaction with her husband and son. That might be the film’s weakness for me, but overall I would recommend this to anyone wanting a gripping office drama.
The trailer below offers a sense of the dramatic narrative but it does give away plot details.
I am glad Lambert Wilson is still getting respectable work. His appearance in the Matrix reboot was an embarrassment and definitively take the money and run, but he is a commanding presence in the right role.