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Workplace thrillers have become a specialty of French cinema in recent years, with films like Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources, Jacques Audiard’s Read My Lips, Pascal Bonitzer’s Right Here Right Now and the Vincent Lindon starrer The Measure of a Man turning regular day jobs into situations of high anxiety, whether of the legal or criminal kind.
The latest addition to the lineup is the intense executive drama Corporate, which stars the tightly wound Celine Sallette as an HR manager who finds herself on the company firing line when one of her employees commits suicide. Inspired by events and practices abundant in France’s current socioeconomic climate, this debut feature from writer-director Nicolas Silhol can grow a tad too movie-ish in its third act, but otherwise offers up a convincing and sometimes brutal portrait of a woman under the influence of the bottom line. Overseas distributors may want to take notice.
Sallette plays Emilie, a 30-something career girl who will do anything to please her suave overseer Stephane (Lambert Wilson) — a man ruling over their human resources department with a mix of charm and cruelty. When a cagey financial manager decides to leap off the top floor of the firm’s Paris headquarters rather than quit his job, Emilie’s and Stephane’s wicked ways fall under investigation by a zealous work inspector, Marie (Violaine Fumeau), who tries to take them down.
The setup is efficiently executed, with Emilie depicted as an aggressive workaholic who has a strayed relationship with her unemployed British husband, Charlie (Colin Hansen), spending more time sleeping on her office couch than at home. In one memorable scene, we see her leaving work after a fight breaks out between two erratic managers, then arriving on the fly at her son’s school. Normally such a surprise would be welcome, but this is clearly something Emilie never does, and both Charlie and the boy seem a bit disconcerted to see her suddenly playing “mom.”
But the real interest of Silhol’s script lies in how he shows Emilie’s company – which seems loosely based on a multinational like Danone – using a devious plan to downsize its staff while circumventing France’s draconian labor laws. Rather than firing people, which would cost them an arm in severance pay and lots of time in worker-friendly courts, Emilie and her team push their employees into a corner — “closeting” them as it’s called in French — so that they are so miserable on the job, they simple walk out. Or jump off the roof.
This is unfortunately a common occurrence in France nowadays, with companies like Renault and Orange experiencing waves of employee suicides under workplace conditions like the ones described in Corporate. (The 2005 film Burnt Out, co-starring Marion Cotillard, addressed the suicide issue more directly, while the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night had Cotillard playing a worker desperately fighting for her job in a race-against-the-clock scenario.)
Perhaps French movies have tackled the question of corporate pressure so intently in recent years because, as with most of Western Europe, the country has seen its traditional capitalist structure crumble under a globalized system of banks, international investors and pension funds. In other terms, “it’s the economy, stupid,” although movies like Corporate have a rather smart way of revealing the human casualties resulting from a world where short-term gains are all that matter.
If Silhol’s film becomes too melodramatic in the final stretch, with a denouement that feels both predictable and somewhat necessary, it winds up working in the end because it keeps the focus entirely on Emilie. In that respect, Sallette — who already showcased her talent in Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance and on the TV series The Returned — proves herself to be an engaging and often feverish presence, playing a woman wavering between personal morality and economic reality: your job or your conscience. Sadly, Corporate shows that in today’s work environment, it’s extremely hard to keep both.
Production company: Kazak Productions
Cast: Celine Sallette, Lambert Wilson, Stephane de Groodt, Violaine Fumeau, Alice de Lencquesaing
Director: Nicolas Silhol
Screenwriters: Nicolas Silhol, Nicolas Fleureau
Producer: Jean-Christophe Reymond
Director of photography: Nicolas Gaurin
Production designer: Sidney Dubois
Costume designer: Alice Cambournac
Editor: Florence Bresson
Composer: Mike/Fabien Kourtzer, Alexandre Saada
Casting director: Tatiana Vialle
Sales: Indie Sales
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