Revolution on the factory floor

Soviet cinema aside, film-makers have always seemed suspiciously uninterested in plots set on the factory floor. As a crop of new films show, the Europeans are making up for lost time. It couldn't happen in Britain, says Matthew Sweet. But why not?
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The Independent Culture

It might be a biscuit factory. Or a glass works. From the outside, Mosfilm, the huge production facility in Moscow where Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Tarkovsky all clocked on for work, doesn't look like a building in which 20th-century masterpieces were made. Movies are still being shot on its crumbling monumentalist stages, but the money is mainly Mafia and the stars are mobsters' molls. In the corridors, there are hundreds of broken windows. Tiles bow and snap under your feet. Open a door, and you're more likely to see a dog nuzzling the contents of a spilled dustbin than any evidence of film-making. Walk around the premises of any other imperilled industry - Cammel Laird shipyard, perhaps, or the Longbridge Rover plant, or the remains of Elstree - and you'd probably breathe in the same air of desperation. Places like this never make it into the movies.

It might be a biscuit factory. Or a glass works. From the outside, Mosfilm, the huge production facility in Moscow where Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Tarkovsky all clocked on for work, doesn't look like a building in which 20th-century masterpieces were made. Movies are still being shot on its crumbling monumentalist stages, but the money is mainly Mafia and the stars are mobsters' molls. In the corridors, there are hundreds of broken windows. Tiles bow and snap under your feet. Open a door, and you're more likely to see a dog nuzzling the contents of a spilled dustbin than any evidence of film-making. Walk around the premises of any other imperilled industry - Cammel Laird shipyard, perhaps, or the Longbridge Rover plant, or the remains of Elstree - and you'd probably breathe in the same air of desperation. Places like this never make it into the movies.

Outside the Soviet bloc, where musicals about a boy, a girl and a cold-rolled steel plant were a staple of the repertoire, cinema has been surprisingly uninterested in plots set in factories. Mainly, I think, because it's been embarrassed about the fact that it was made in them. A new French film, however, is about to show us what we've been missing.

Laurent Cantet's Ressources Humaine is a sharply crafted drama set in a metal-pressing plant in provincial France. It is a refreshingly straight story about a young business student who gets a placement in the personnel department, and finds that his work is being used to engineer his father's dismissal. It has no metaphorical content. It simply explores the impact of this situation on these characters, through their relationships with each other and their relationships with the factory by which they are all employed. Cantet cast the film from a roster of unemployed metal workers, and then spent weeks in the factory location training them for the jobs their characters would perform in the film. That awful situation which arises when actors aren't competent to perform technical tasks (usually it's a matter of hiding what their hands are doing with the body of the piano) just doesn't occur. It is more evidence - Exhibit A is Eric Zonca's Dream Life of Angels - that the French are kicking their addiction to frowsty costume romance and metropolitan melodrama and rediscovering plots about characters who aren't wholly self-absorbed, and who actually seem to work for a living.

For another significant French film with a factory setting you probably have to go back to 1972 and Jean-Luc Godard's Tout va Bien, in which Jane Fonda and Yves Montand find themselves locked in with the manager of a meat factory as the work-force goes on strike. They listen to the strikers' grievances, and they discuss their own political and personal dissatisfactions, concluding that the chaos in the factory is a product of unresolved arguments arising from the political upheavals of May 1968.

Godard made the film during his Maoist phase, but it's hard not to see his distaste for the monotony of work - his grim, leaden tracking shots that grind past ranks of Carrefour check-out operators and production-line workers - as an aspect of his Swiss bourgeois background, not his dilettante attachment to Maoism. "I don't know whether it's a comedy or a tragedy," he said of the film. "At any rate it's a masterpiece."

Cantet's film has none of Tout va Bien's chilly detachment. It's been compared to Ken Loach - though Loach, with the exception of his new one, Bread and Roses, has usually been more concerned with characters denied access to the workplace than the trials of those who are part of it. And its setting might signal the beginning of a little vogue: Lars von Trier's new film Dancer in the Dark takes place in a metal-pressing factory, where the production line is staffed by Björk and Catherine Deneuve. Which is probably enough to tell you that it doesn't share the social realist program of Ressources Humaine. In fact, Dancer in the Dark goes back to older models, by way of the Czech musicals which comfort its heroine like a woolly blanket. It's a redeployment of the Victorian plot about the mill girl who sacrifices everything for her loved ones - anyone familiar with Mary Barton will get the deal immediately, and submit to its cruel, weepy, cathartic pleasures.

None of these films - not Cantet's, not von Trier's, and certainly not Godard's - could have been made in Britain. And the reason for that, I think, goes back to a process that began in the Twenties.

Many of the people who, in the years following the First World War, took moving pictures out of the hands of gentleman amateurs and turned it into a national industry were former factory owners who transformed the way film studios were run by treating them like industrial plants. Gainsborough and Gaumont were founded by men in the textiles trade. J. Arthur Rank inherited his father's flour empire, and his family still maintains that he always preferred milling to movies ("The bread side was in his veins and the film people weren't his sort," his grandson recalled in 1996).

Depictions of factory life in British cinema were compromised by these conditions. It's not that the places were invisible, but management were hardly going to search out some British Eisenstein to make the factory a theatre of action, and risk being offered a critique of the source of the wealth that was propping up the movie industry.

When Hitchcock sent John Gielgud belting around a chocolate factory in The Secret Agent, he was obviously enraptured by the aesthetic possibilities of its staircases, mixing machines, and plain girls in mob caps, but that's where his interest stopped.

There were sentimental treatments of factory life, of course - such as the Gracie Fields vehicle Sing As We Go, in which bluff lasses walked out of their closing cotton mill with a song in their hearts. ( Love on the Dole, an altogether tougher handling of the same subject, had to wait two years in the vaults before the censors would allow it into cinemas). And there were many examples of that peculiarly British phenomenon, the conservative satire - I'm All Right Jack and its lavatorial little brother, Carry On at Your Convenience - which suggested that a sensibly apolitical work-force was as frustrated as management by book-waggling union Trots. How J. Arthur must have been comforted when Kenneth Cope brought W.C. Boggs' loo factory to a halt, and the audience giggled at the notion of their rights being exercised. And how telling of the difference between British and French cinematic culture that Carry On at Your Convenience and Tout va Bien came out within a few months of each other.

In this era of consensual politics, there is much less cultural resonance - and much less at stake - in filming a plot about the lives of industrial workers. Even so, British variations on the theme have remained stuck in Gracie Fields mode. The Full Monty might as well have been called Strip As We Go, for all the insights it had to offer into why the industry that employed its characters had gone into decline. The movie starts its story once the factory gates have safely closed, and all we learn is that the spanking new Sheffield of the opening Seventies promo reel has now somehow disappeared, and that women have taken over - to the extent that they're even pissing standing up at the urinals of the working men's club. How did it happen? Don't ask Peter Cattaneo.

But maybe this incuriosity is only to be expected. How many questions have been asked about the mutation of the British film industry itself from an industrial process to a circus of polite shystering?

That seemed all too clear to me last year, when I attended a reception in the shell of the old Gainsborough studios to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Alfred Hitchcock. Towards the end of the event, I took a snoop around the higher levels; walked through cavernous concrete bays in which stars such as Phyllis Calvert, James Mason and Margaret Lockwood had once galloped through synthetic snow, strolled by artificial lakes, pursued wild, histrionic conversations in three-sided Regency drawing rooms. And beyond these theatrical spaces, up an unlit staircase - a maze of narrow corridors, inches deep in pigeon guano, scattered in broken glass and dead and dying birds.

Here, a generation of film professionals put on their costumes and their make-up and went downstairs to serve the busy machines of British industry. Which are all silent now, of course.

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