The world of work, with its attendant dementia, has had a special place in French cinema over the past decade or so. Laurent Cantet's extraordinary Time Out was about a redundant executive going off the rails, while the underrated Whatever – adapted from the novel by champion misanthrope Michel Houellebecq – depicted the psychic cave-in that is apparently par for the course if you work in a French office, on film at least.
The theme finds its most enigmatic treatment yet in Heartbeat Detector, from the director-writer team of Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval. This bureaucratic thriller ends up making some contentious and, you could argue, predictable conclusions about the corporate condition. But the elegance and downright strangeness of Klotz's dreamlike direction give the insights a resonance that's hard to pin down.
Mathieu Amalric plays Simon, a psychologist working in the human resources department of an industrial firm of German origin. Usually busy helping to train young "knights of the business world", he's approached by a senior executive to produce a report on the company CEO, Mathias Jüst (the ever-magisterial Michael Lonsdale), whose erratic behaviour is giving cause for concern.
Digging deep, Simon discovers a nasty secret about the company. He also learns much about the nature of corporate culture, his complicity with its evils, and the way that modern society is permeated by a use of language that's perilously akin, the film argues, to the technological ideologies of Nazism.
You can write all this off as paranoid, or accept it as a sociological truism. But Klotz's atmospheric, elliptical style makes Heartbeat Detector far more than a polemical essay. Key to its appeal is Amalric's unsettling performance. The actor's familiar look of a naif out of his depth – his eyes suggest the hapless candour of a veal calf – give a special charge to his character's compromised duplicity.
While the film spends most of its time in the hermetically closed zone of the company, it also gives us teasing, sometimes mystifying glimpses of a world that corporate logic can't control. Music – a redeeming factor that might just save us from bureaucratic dehumanisation – plays an essential part, with the film's uncanny mood underpinned by Syd Manners' gentle, slippery alt.folk score. The eerily-evoked universe of Heartbeat Detector is not that far from the glacially mundane dystopias of JG Ballard. It's a fascinating, chilling world to visit – but you wouldn't want to work there.Reuse content