Movie Review: Heartbeat Detector
By Michael Phillips, Tribune Movie Critic
A rich, vexing experience, "Heartbeat Detector" ("La Question Humaine" in its French release) draws a rather outlandish parallel between the dehumanizing language used by the Third Reich in its systematic eradication of the Jews and the contemporary corporate-speak that reduces the downsized to the "right-sized," while finding new and horrible ways to deploy phrases such as "business unit." I suspect those about to be right-sized right out of a career will find this parallel more convincing than those doing the right-sizing.
As driven by linguistics and euphemism as this film is, it's also a slippery and wonderfully acted drama - "Michael Clayton" with a far more troubling moral landscape. Mathieu Almaric, lately in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," portrays Simon, who works as company psychologist in the human resources wing of a petrochemical firm. This guarded, eagle-eyed character is responsible for screening job applicants and, we learn, he was a key player in reducing the company's staffing by half during a recent recession.
Simon's life becomes unmoored by a sensitive assignment. The managing director suspects the company's CEO, based in Germany, of dementia, or a nervous breakdown, or some unknown affliction. Simon is charged with drawing up a confidential report. Years ago the CEO played in a string quartet; under the ruse of starting a company orchestra to boost morale, Simon ingratiates himself with his quarry, learning about his habits and tastes, taking mental notes on his mental state.
The way Almaric plays opposite Michael Lonsdale, superb as the wily business leader, you're reminded of animals circling each other with utmost care. The psychological chase is all.
Mr. Just, the CEO, may not be the basket case his managing director believes him to be. He supplies Simon with evidence that the managing director may have had direct ties to the Nazis. He may have a lot of blood on his hands. So might Just. And so, in his own efficiently ruthless way, might Simon.
"Heartbeat Detector" takes its time. Director Nicolas Klotz, working from Elisabeth Perceval's script based on a Francois Emmanuel novel, finds great value in small moments, such as the way Lonsdale pours himself a drink while plotting his next conversational ploy. A sequence set at an early-morning rave, where we see Simon starting to fall apart, goes on a full 10 minutes - and those minutes really are full, mysterious, alive.
"How do you reconcile 'the human factor' with the company's need to make money?" Mr. Just asks Simon. The question tantalizes, partly because Simon doesn't know whom he's dealing with, on any level. And who is Simon? His lover, a musician, accuses him of being a void of a man, though a scene of Simon's tryst in a pristine corporate archive with a pristine blond (Delphine Chuillot) suggests that the void, however alluring on the surface, is all around us. In its linking of horrifying recent history and modern European life, "Heartbeat Detector" recalls Michael Haneke's "Cache." While I can't swallow Klotz's equation of those gassed in World War II with victims of corporate eradication, the film's obsession with the breakdown of language and how it affects our actions is genuine and sharply realized.
No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for language and some nudity).
Running time: 2:21
Opening: Friday (through July 10) at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
Starring: Mathieu Almaric (Simon); Michael Lonsdale (Just); Jean-Pierre Kalfon (Karl); Laetitia Spigarelli (Louisa); Delphine Chuillot (Isabelle); Valerie Dreville (Lynn).
Directed by: Nicolas Klotz; written by Elisabeth Perceval, based on Francois Emmanuel's novel "La Question Humaine"; photographed by Josee Deshaies; edited by Rose Marie Lausson; music by Syd Matters; production design by Antoine Platteau; produced by Sophie Dulac and Michel Zana. A New Yorker Films release.