One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Equity inspires a look back at other films set in the corporate world.

Human Resources (1999)

A young man finds himself caught between management and workers in Human Resources, Laurent Cantet’s subtly complex portrait of the strains between the upper and working classes, and the way in which men define themselves through their work (and, in turn, are defined by the system as cogs in a machine). Returning to his Normandy hometown, young Franck (Jalil Lespert) accepts a desk-job internship at the company where his father (Jean-Claude Vallod) has toiled for decades on the factory floor. Having recently laid off workers, the firm is beset by distrust between the establishment’s boss (Lucien Longueville) and the union’s leader (Danielle Mélador). Even greater friction ensues once the enterprising, cocky Franck, who’s being groomed for greater things by his superiors, designs a questionnaire to garner employee feedback on a proposed 35-hour work week—an idea opposed by the union, which views it (and Franck’s survey, which he claims is only for informational purposes) as a stepping-stone toward further downsizing.

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Rigorously focusing on his characters’ faces, Cantet (The Class) stages his capitalism-centric scenario with patient verité attentiveness, detailing the strategic machinations of both sides of the conflict, as well as the underlying emotional state of Franck and his dad. Initially convinced of his ability to pal around with his suit-and-tie boss and those manning the industrial machines, Franck soon finds that straddling such a line isn’t as easy as it seems. That only becomes more pronounced when he inadvertently discovers that the union’s fears about his questionnaire were justified, and that his actions may have negative consequences for his own family. While Human Resources late plot twist is hardly stunning, its final father-son confrontation is an overpowering tour-de-force, revealing the tangled knot of resentment, shame, regret, and guilt that have motivated Franck to do what he’s done, and what he plans to do going forward. Ending on a note that poses no easy answers to its questions about the machine-like operation of, and trauma caused by, capitalist enterprises, Cantet’s film resounds with quiet, complicated tragedy.

Availability: Human Resources is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library.