Work eats our lives. For nine, 10 hours a day — often more — we are either at work, traveling to work or catching up on work at home. Yet, for whatever reason, the process and patina of working life is rarely the subject of cinema. Except in the films of Stéphane Brizé, the French director who has made the workplace his stomping ground.
In The Measure Of A Man (2015) Brizé focused on a middle-aged white-collar worker who loses his job and, just as he reaches the end of his tether, gets a job as a security guard where he is expected to spy on his fellow workers. In At War (2018) he told the story of a factory strike. In his latest, Venice Film Festival competition title Another World, he moves upstairs as the film embeds us with middle management. Things are no better up there, of course, there is just the chance to die at a bigger desk.
Brizé’s favored male muse is Vincent Lindon, who seems to be in everything right now; at 60, he is definitely having a moment. There is something canine about Lindon, a baggy-eyed, growly amiability that makes you want to give him a biscuit, even when he’s shouting at people. Here he plays Philippe, manager of an electrical goods engineering plant that is part of a large French company recently sucked into the maw of an even larger American conglomerate. Two years after a workforce cull, top management is looking to sack more people, despite increased profits. Plant managers like Philippe are under orders to decide who to ditch.
Philippe is a decent man — at least, he used to be. Now he finds himself assuring the union representatives that he doesn’t know anything about the rumors circulating about lay-offs. He hears himself telling the workers that the production lines are safe when he knows they are not. It’s about courage, says the soignée executive from Paris who is demanding that her managers step up to the mark. The courage to do things one might rather not do. To show the American shareholders that when more courage is required, France will be ready. Brizé’s ear for this sort of hollow corporate team-building talk is unerring. Of course, everyone knows it’s just about the money.
Philippe has been doing this job for seven years. In that time, his marriage has fallen to pieces. Sandrine Kiberlain, who was married to Lindon for 10 years in real life, plays his wife Anne. The film opens in a lawyer’s office where they are unhappily arguing over the spoils of divorce. Kiberlain, who is quite brilliant, is watchful, tense, constantly on the brink of tears. Another of Brizé’s achievements is to convey, with barely any dialogue, how these two have found themselves in a situation that neither of them wants; it is as if life is squeezing them in a vice.
Middle age is often a turning point, of course. Philippe and Anne have a daughter now studying in the United States, but their son Lucas (Anthony Bajon), hitherto an exceptional student, is in a psychiatric clinic after stabbing one of his teachers with a compass. Watching this awkwardly estranged couple listening to their son babble nonsense, trying not to let their faces crumple, is a sort of agony. You yearn for Philippe to leave that wretched company. You want him to be a dad and a loving companion; you want to claim his right to the pursuit of happiness. There is a fight to be fought there, for sure, but he can’t save those 500 workers. Just let him save himself.
In spirit, Another World is reminiscent of those films of the 50s and early 60s that used to show on television in the midday movie slot, films like Twelve Angry Men or To Kill A Mockingbird that were underpinned by a belief in human decency and hope for a better world. There are people, some of them portrayed with merciless accuracy in this film, who might see this sort of sentiment as naïve, unworldly or plain old-fashioned.
And maybe they are, but Brizé’s story and the way it is told are absolutely of the moment. A nervously roaming camera closes in on faces filled with quiet desperation; the talk that reduces people’s lives to numbers is counterpointed by telling silences. When Another World reaches a warmly satisfying pay-off in the final scene, you feel that we have all earned it.