Concerned nurses checked for a pulse several times while Judge William Lee reviewed this chilling human resources thriller from France.
"I had to guide them towards my only goal: making them soldiers, knights
of the business world, highly competitive subalterns."
The sins of the fathers haunt their sons in this story of corporate scheming and blackmail. Chilling secrets and Mathieu Amalric's intense performance reward patient viewers who can lose themselves in the mystery. The rest of us can skip ahead to the good parts.
Facts of the Case
The multinational petrochemical corporation SC Farb has just finished a massive restructuring that has cut its production line workforce in half. Simon Kessler, a psychologist working for the company's Human Resources department, played an important role in the downsizing by designing the criteria that decided who stayed and who was let go. His next assignment, given by SC Farb's director Karl Rose, is to report on CEO Mathias Jüst (Michael Lonsdale, Munich) whose recent odd behavior suggests he may be unfit for the job. Kessler discovers a link that allows him to quietly enquire about Jüst: he was a member of the company's classical music quartet. However, Jüst is already expecting Kessler's probe since he believes there is a plot against him. When information surfaces that links Jüst's father, and perhaps SC Farb, to Nazi activities during World War II, Kessler is confronted with questions about his own professional detachment from human lives.
Heartbeat Detector, originally titled La Question Humaine after the book by Francois Emmanuel, poses a chilling philosophical question of whether the behavior of modern, faceless corporate culture is morally equivalent to systematic murder. Most people would say there's a huge difference between terminating someone's job and terminating his or her life, but with all things philosophical, the sport lies in the argument, not the resolution. For the sake of argument, our protagonist is the morally comatose Simon Kessler (Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) whose cold and methodical manner of assessing an employee's worth makes him suited to delivering a secret report on the corporation's CEO.
Beneath his professional coolness, Kessler is a bit of a mess. He's casually involved with two women, he acts like a jerk when he's out with friends and there is the suggestion that he has a substance abuse problem. The guy who helps decide what type of person is beneficial to the company is the same guy who goes to all-night raves where he gets so wasted he can't remember with whom he was kissing or fighting. Amalric does a great job playing a character that is difficult to pin down. He can turn from caring to disinterested, amorous to violent in an instant. Kessler is a damaged soul shaped into the brutally efficient corporate tool.
Director Nicolas Klotz keeps the viewer at a distance from the action so that we never really warm up to either Kessler or the story. Shades of Kessler's life emerge without explanation so we are simply left to observe details like his simultaneous romances. Similarly, his voice-over narration provides almost clinically precise facts of his professional concerns and nothing (at first) of his personal thought process. The mystery of the senior executives' link to the Third Reich also emerges at a measured distance. This is due in part to Kessler's reluctance to turn over more stones than he wants—he abruptly ends an interview with Jüst right when the troubled CEO wants to confide in him. As information comes to Kessler, it is initially withheld from the viewer so that we are always watching his investigation instead of participating.
Klotz also shows a preference for staging scenes in long shots that contribute to the feeling of distance from the action. I think it's a deliberate effort to make the viewer adopt an analytical perspective of the events, much like Kessler's detached view of people. The result, deliberate or not, is that Kessler appears more like a shell of a man and it is hard to empathize with him.
The look of Heartbeat Detector suits the coldness of the corporate world. The color palette favors shades of metallic blue and the lighting suggests that ghastly green fluorescent glow. The picture is satisfactory on this disc with a reasonably sharp image that is slightly grainy but otherwise free of blemishes. The picture is on the darker side—I suspect this was the creative intention—as many scenes take place in shadow or dimly lit rooms, but there is good image detail even in those darker areas of the frame. It is only noticeable in a handful of scenes but lateral motion across the screen is not entirely smooth. The picture is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio consistent with its 16mm film source, but the anamorphic transfer will fill 16x9 monitors without noticeable distortion. Either audio option (surround or stereo) works fine for this movie. There are a couple of scenes in which the music (at the rave or at recitals) has a strong presence as the camera devotes its lengthy attention to the performance, but this is a mostly quiet movie.
The feature on this DVD runs 134 minutes including end credits, which differs from both the 141 minutes indicated on the packaging and the 143 minutes reported on IMDb. The trailer is the only extra included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I've noted earlier, the viewer is kept at a distance from the action of the movie, but there's also very little action in this slowly paced mystery. Kessler's secret assignment is communicated plainly enough but there is a lack of urgency about it. Indeed, it was more than an hour into the movie before the story really captured my interest and even then I didn't feel any connection with the unfolding events.
Ultimately, the resolution of the mystery isn't quite worth the wait. The characters' connection with a horrific memory of the Holocaust is revealed in two scenes where they simply talk. No flashbacks, no music cues, but in these minimal moments so much chilling sadness and revulsion is presented that these scenes will haunt viewers long after the movie is over. However, these revelations are just the troubled memories of characters who are themselves at a distance from the actual events. Kessler's role (a psychologist, let's remember) is to provide therapy; he does not discover a conventional villain. As strong as these final scenes are, I thought the overall payoff didn't measure up to the long and slow journey.
The intriguing philosophical proposition that corporate culture excuses our inhuman behavior is worth considering, but the cold detachment of this story removes the bite from the debate. Amalric's strong performance of an enigmatic character is the highlight of this movie. Still, the mystery may raise the heart rates of patient viewers.
They took their sweet time making their case, but in the end we find those involved with the movie not guilty. On the other hand, New Yorker Films draws our suspicion with its inaccurately listed running time and a picture transfer that could have been better.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
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