Friday, 24 June 2011

La Question Humaine

After five months' silence...

Anyway. Nicolas Klotz's La Question Humaine (2007), released in the UK as Heartbeat Detector, is presented on the dvd box blurb as a near-future dystopia in the the tradition of Godard's Alphaville, a film that uses contemporaneous Paris as a setting for a narrative that seems to be set on another world. Klotz's film self-consciously restricts the viewer's perception of a wider world: the narrative is limited to office buildings, nondescript urban streets, and one short automobile ride taken by a secondary character to a car park, where he is left by his chauffeur. While the plate-glass, overlit offices resemble the kind of architectural indices used by Alan J. Pakula's paranoid conspiracy movies in the early- to mid-1970s (Klute, The Parallax View, All The President's Men) to signify a cultural and political pathology at work, what La Question Humaine seems to probe in its first hour is a Ballardian anomie. The film's protagonist, Kessler, played with glassy automatism by Mathieu Amalric, is a psychologist in a French subsidiary of a German corporation whose professional skills are put to work (a) in recruitment and (b) much more worryingly, in devising technical criteria by which employees may be made redundant. As in the typical Ballard text, beneath the professional protocols and social codes is a fundamnetal alienation and a kind of perverse, pathologised reaction to dehumanising structures of corporate life. In a very oblique sequence in what is already an oblique film, Amalric and some co-workers enter a rave in disused warehouse or factory, sign of the post-industrial. Intoxicated, thrashing around with a bottle of clear spirit to his lips, Amalric violently assaults a female co-worker and then gets into another fight before being ejected. He later denies any memory of the event, a moment that will become increasingly significant later in the film. So far, so satisfying: a Ballardian trajectory seems mapped out to increasing disintegration and pathologisation.

However, the film then takes an interesting swerve. Detailed to monitor one of his superiors, played by Michael Lonsdale (who was the villain Hugo Drax in the Bond film Moonraker back in 1979), Amalric discovers the hidden history of some of his co-workers, and of the company itself. Both are deeply embedded in the history of Nazism, and are guilty of complicity in genocide. As the second half of the narrative unwinds, the film begins to construct a fundamental homology between the technical facility of Kessler as a psychologist, whose approach to his work enabled the corporation to dispose of a thousand workers without provoking in him any kind of ethical qualm, and that of apparatchiks in a genocidal state, where a focus on systems allows the 'human question' to go overlooked. The shots at the beginning of the film of a large refinery, smoke billowing into the air, take on a rather more urgent political and ethical meaning than the generic dystopian coding suggested by the Alphaville references on the dvd packaging. The smoke rising from the chimneys is meant to remind us of the death camps; the crudity of this visual signifier, its very obscenity, recapitulates the obscenity of another kind of human 'disposal'.

The film ends with Amalric tracking down a former employee to Le Mans, a man who has been sending him threatening letters. In a bar-tabac, the man reveals the legacies of complicity in genocide that marks the personal and economic post-war history of Europe. Cunningly played by Amalric, the glassy dislocation of the first part of the film becomes the self-alienated gaze of someone whose own complicity is finally revealed to them. Much as I love Ballard's work, this is somewhere he never would have gone; his relentless internalization/ pathologization of social and political formations do not generally allow this opening out into history. Only, perhaps, in the late books, in Super-Cannes, and particularly in Kingdom Come and the political history of the father, does this enter explicitly into the Ballardian trajectory. It is perhaps the particularly French context here, of Occupation and collaboration, and of the wars in Indochina and particularly Algeria ('la guerre sans nom'), that insists upon the political necessity to speak that history of violence and complicity that underpins the ethical blankness of the technocrat.