French Film and Work: The Work Done by Work-Centered Films

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This article is driven by my initial perception that, when dealing with workrelated fi lms, it may be more interesting to ask what they do (how they seek to change the way we look upon the world) than what they show.1 Limiting my scope to Franco- Belgian fi lms, I concentrate on two fi ctions and two documentaries that focus on the workplace. The fi ctions are Laurent Cantet's Ressources humaines/Human Resources (FR, 2000) and Jean- Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne's Rosetta (FR/BE, 1999), and the documentaries are Marc- Antoine Roudil and Sophie Bruneau's Ils ne mouraient pas tous mais tous étaient frappes/They Did Not All Die But Were Stricken (FR/BE, 2006) and Sabrina Malek and Arnaud Soulier's Un Monde moderne/A Modern World (FR, 2005). The number of work- related fi lms in France has been considerable in recent years, especially in the area of documentary, but with fi ction fi lm playing its part.2 I make no pretense that my chosen fi lms can somehow typify this wider corpus. What they clearly share with many other fi lms, nonetheless, is a desire both to engage with profound changes in the nature of work and to use the workplace to force hidden oppressions into visibility. In my analysis of the fi lms, I draw heavily on the work of two theoreticians, veteran fi lmmaker Jean- Louis Comolli and po liti cal phi los o pher Jacques Rancière, the former because he has written more interestingly on fi lmic repre sen tation of work than anyone else I am aware of, the latter because he has provided such important insights into the complex interface of the po liti cal and the aesthetic.

Some of Comolli's most important thoughts can be found in two articles published in the journal Images Documentaires and in his contribution to a group discussion or ga nized by Patrick Leboutte for the Séminaire des Images.3 In the latter, Comolli suggests that, throughout its history, fi lm has tended to neglect work. Ever since the Lumière brothers famously fi lmed their workers exiting rather than entering the factory, cinema has associated itself more with leisure, with the escape from toil, than with what happens in the factory, the offi ce, or other place of labor. Of course, there have been exceptions, like Chaplin's classic Modern Times, but generally, when cinema has shown work, it has been reduced to what Comolli calls les confettis du travail, brief snatches of productive labor.4 In any case, as Comolli notes, work is a power relationship (the power of one over another, the submission of bodies to a discipline) that resists mise- en- scène. When it shows work, cinema is drawn to its spectacular dimension, the dance of body and machine that obscures salaried labor's oppressive nature. This is the typical fodder of the kind of fi lms that companies make about themselves, which concentrate on work's choreographed gestures to the exclusion of its duration, its harshness, its wear and tear of the worker, and its fatigue. Because of this, a cinema that really wishes to engage with work must, as Comolli says, "fi lm against cinema," or, in other words, fi nd ways of fi lming that refuse to be drawn to the spectacular surface.5 Picking up on André Bazin's celebrated suggestion that the cinema frame should be seen more as a cache, something that hides what surrounds it, than as a (pictorial) frame or a window (on the world), Comolli suggests that work- related fi lms should concentrate on what is offscreen. It is the ability to activate the offscreen that can bring the invisible into visibility, and the primary resource available to the fi lmmaker to do this is the spoken word.6 As Comolli puts it, "what you can't see directly can be recounted. Somebody comes and tells what happens at the time and in the space to which we do not have access. This is why recourse to the spoken word in times of oppression is important. When the production line is functioning, workers do not speak."7 If work is associated with silence and submission, the taking of voice tends to occur when work stops, typically because of workplace confl ict. …