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Farewell Laurent Cantet: two of his early films

Last week the death of one of the most remarkable contemporary French filmmakers was announced: Laurent Cantet (1961-2024), author of a coherent, committed, sensitive, and humanist work that left its mark on the cinematography industry with titles such as Human ResourcesTime OutHeading South7 Days in HavanaArthur Rambo or The Class, with which he won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and winner of the Best of European Cinema Award, among others.

Laurent Cantet at the 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes | © Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

A graduate of the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC), he caught attention for his multicultural stories of great sensitivity, starring individuals who were against the system and institutions. Thanks to the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM), we were fortunate to meet him in the streets and precincts of the Michoacán capital on several occasions, as the filmmaker was a special guest of the festival in 2015, 2017, and 2022. As a small tribute to his work, this is a reminder of a couple of exceptional films with which Cantet started in the film industry.

A metaphor for collectivization and a bastion of class struggle and solidarity work, the working class has been a tireless protagonist in film. Just like in Human Resources (1999, Ressources humaines), the debut feature of documentary and short filmmaker Laurent Cantet, who enrolled in this theme boldly, emotionally, and intelligently. The title plays with the capacity of solidarity of a group of workers faced with the insensitive machinery of the bosses, for whom "human resources" represent only an administrative step in the corporate pyramid.

Human Resources came to the same conclusions as other colleagues such as Francois Dupeyron, author of C'est quoi la vie? (1999), and Robert Guediguian, author of Marius and Jeanette (1997), A Place in the Heart (1998), and The Town is Quiet (2000). The starting point is the paradigm of a social problem in France at the end of the millennium: the 35-hour shifts. Frank (Jalil Lespert) is a young economist who returns to his hometown and joins the same factory where his father (Jean-Claude Vallod) has worked all his life. Frank gets hired to study the advantages and disadvantages of the factory workday and negotiate with the unions to find a settlement. However, in daily practice, Frank realizes that this is only a deception that ends with massive layoffs, including that of his father, who has worked his ass off so that his son could have better education.

One of the most intense moments in this candid portrayal of social reality is when the young and frustrated main character confronts his father for ignoring his existence throughout his life due to his isolating job and obedience to his employer. The film avoids Manichaeism at all costs and features non-professional actors in the style of Ken Loach. Human Resources presents an ethical dilemma regarding the transfer of values between generations and how the children of marginalized workers often end up representing the same bourgeoisie that has exploited their families for generations. It is a painful metaphor for the invincible capitalist machinery that destroys families' illusions.

With Time Out (L'emploi du temps, 2001), Cantet explored the story of a man who loses his job as a consultant but keeps it a secret from his family. He goes as far as creating a fake full-time job in Switzerland. The director relied on the significant presence of actor Aurélien Recoing in the role of Vincent. Recoing managed to bring a captivating authenticity to a character with a split personality, based on the protagonist of a well-known case in France.

Cantet and Ronin Campillo, his co-screenwriter, based the story on the case of Jean-Claude Romand. Romand was an unemployed man who took on a double life by swindling several acquaintances, which led him to commit a long series of murders. The screenplay eliminates the gory part of the affair —which was morbidly exploited by the press —and concentrates on his chameleon-like ability to fit into any environment. Vincent seems to be an honest man who equally blends at a family reunion as a loving father and ideal husband or as an executive of the World Trade Organization, in a UN office, or at a hotel lobby.

Vincent interacts over the phone, sleeps in his car, and becomes a sort of time-wasting psychopath. When the situation becomes unbearable, he acquires another personality and involves several people in a non-existent business. He is even capable of helping his friends with this made-up job. Vincent is a fascinating character, trapped in his own doubts and fears in a competitive world (hence, the metaphor of judo and his son's competitions), cornered between bourgeois economic stability offered by the family, the job, a salary, and a liberating universe of leisure and swindle. At the same time, the fear of being accepted by freeing himself from the tutelage of the father who gives him money, although he repeats the same scheme with his adolescent son. Time Out is a superb drama about fear of the future, responsibility, and immediacy. Farewell, Laurent Cantet.