'Those Who Work' ('Ceux qui travaillent'): Film Review

Courtesy of Condor Distribution
A compellingly social, and broodingly existential, look at unemployment.

Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet ('Rosetta') plays a lifelong workaholic who suddenly finds himself out of a job in Swiss director Antoine Russbach's feature debut.

What John Wayne was to Westerns and Boris Karloff was to Universal horror flicks, Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet has become to a specific brand of Francophone drama: one that depicts the oppressive workplace struggles of men at the end of their tether.

From his debuts in the Dardenne brothers’ The Promise, Rosetta and The Son to films like 40-Love, The Minister and The Night Watchmen, Gourmet has perfected the part of a tormented blue-collar drone, middle manager or bureaucratic lackey — a man crushed by both the weight of globalization and his own agitated home life. If there’s one thing linking all of Gourmet’s work together, it may be the fact that every single character he’s played has high blood pressure. In any event, they all sweat a lot.

The latest Gourmet-catered (sorry) role is that of Frank, the toiling hero of Swiss director Antoine Russbach’s promising first feature, Those Who Work (Ceux qui travaillent). Frank is a loyal company men who’s been employed by the same international shipping firm for decades, having made his way up from uneducated truck driver to logistical expert responsible for navigating massive freighters around the high seas from a headquarters in Geneva.

When we first meet him, Frank’s military-style work routine, which includes waking up every day at 5:45 a.m., taking a cold shower and then staying at the office past 8 p.m., hits a major snag: The captain of one of his ships has found an African stowaway on board, but it’s too late to turn back and too costly to bring him into France. So Frank makes the awful decision to have the crew toss the poor man overboard — a decision that will lead to Frank’s dismissal from the company to which he dedicated half his life.

It’s easy to be morally outraged by Frank’s behavior, but Russback, who co-wrote the script with Emmanuel Marre and Catherine Paille, takes great pains to explain how several contributing factors have pushed him to do the wrong thing. These include a rough Dickensian childhood on the family farm, a ruthless capitalist market where goods are shipped at the lowest cost possible to eager shoppers across the globe and the fact that Frank has a wife and five children — and thus seven mouths to feed at home.

The socioeconomic backstory feels a bit schematic at times, with Russback constantly justifying why Frank does what he does, leaving little mystery regarding his psyche. Overtaxed and hemmed in on all sides, he’s the product of a cutthroat environment that takes no prisoners, and he’s finally come to the realization that you need more than a solid backbone and go-getter attitude to make it. “I work hard!” Frank keeps exclaiming to himself and those around him, but his complaints fall on deaf ears.  

Gourmet slides seamlessly into such a persona, playing a man so sure of his own ironclad work ethic that he’s blind to everything else. A telling scene early on shows how Frank can’t even sit down for dinner with his family — he’d rather eat a sandwich in his home office and work some more, even when he’s out of a job. (Echoes of Laurent Cantet’s superb 2001 drama Time Out can be felt here, with Frank pretending to go to work each day whereas he’s just driving around in circles.)

Eventually, another job offer comes Frank’s way, but by then he’s seen a different side of himself and his life, spending more time with his family than he has in years. The third act, which takes an almost documentary-style departure to visit the supermarket supply chain that Frank was so long a part of, maintains some suspense as to whether or not he will accept the new position, which once again involves shady maritime practices.

The outcome is both realistic and a tad anticlimactic: In the end, society — that is, the hyper-capitalist society we all now live in — is once again the winner, and it’s too bad Frank couldn’t keep up the fight. Then again, the Gourmet character par excellence is precisely that: a man engaged in a long, losing battle with a world that will always have the upper hand.

Released in France late last month after premiering in Locarno back in 2018, Those Who Work scored big at last year’s Swiss Film Awards (their version of the Oscars), winning prizes for best film, screenplay, cinematography and supporting actor for Pauline Schneider, who plays a job counselor trying to guide Frank along his rocky career path. The film has yet to find a U.S. home and certainly deserves a look, especially from distributors familiar with the work of the Dardennes and other purveyors of a genre that Gourmet can now safely call his own. 

Production companies: Box Productions, Novak Prod
Cast: Olivier Gourmet, Adème Bochatay, Louka Minnella, Isaline Prévost, Delphine Bibet, Michel Voïta, Pauline Schneider
Director: Antoine Russbach
Screenwriters: Emmanuel Marre, Antoine Russback, in collaboration with Catherine Paillé
Producers: Elodie Brunner, Elena Tatti, Thierry Spicher, Olivier Dubois, Bernard de Dessus Les Moustier, Françoise Mayor, Anke Beining-Wellhausen, Arlette Zylberberg
Director of photography: Denis Jutzeler
Production designer: Elisabeth Houtart
Costume designer: Anna van Brée
Editor: Sophie Vercruysse
Sales: FilmNation

In French, English
102 minutes