Kids These Days!

Running Time 143 minutes
Written by Elisabeth Perceval
Directed by Nicolas Klotz
Starring Matthieu Amalric, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Michael Lonsdale

Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector, from a screenplay by Elisabeth Perceval, is based on the book La Question Humaine by François Emmanuel. The film takes us on a circuitous route from the human resources department of a present-day multinational petrochemical corporation called S. C. Farb all the way back to the deals the corporation made with the Nazis during World War II to facilitate the Holocaust. The name “Farb” is close enough to the more incriminating industrial name “Farben” to give the show away from the outset. The unwitting protagonist of the piece is psychologist Simon Kessler (Matthieu Amalric). Simon has been credited by his managing director, Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), with expediting the hiring and firing of executive personnel and the setting up of motivational seminars to instill in the executives the almost military ethos that will transform them into “soldiers, knights of the business world, highly competitive subalterns.” Now Rose has decided that Kessler is the perfect choice for investigating Mathias Just (Michael Lonsdale), the CEO assigned by Farb’s head office in Germany to promote the company’s interests in France. Rose suspects that reports of Just’s recent behavioral lapses indicates that the CEO may be becoming unfit to execute the firm’s mission.

Kessler begins his inquiry by inspecting Just’s company file, and finds some minor eccentricities but nothing terminally damaging. He then decides to befriend Just by suggesting the reforming of the company’s musical groups, which had been disbanded years before. After initially being wary of Kessler because of his ties to Rose, Just decides to trust him to the extent of revealing several death threats he has received in anonymous letters with Le Mans postmarks, as if the writer wanted to be identified. It is not difficult for Kessler to trace the anonymous letters to their source, a disgruntled former company employee, Ari Neumann (Lou Castel). But the point of the film is not the skill and zeal with which Simon tracks the letter writer down, but in the shocking story Neumann has to tell about Rose and Farb’s past cooperation with the Nazi death machine.

Another point the film makes is the inescapable resemblance of modern free-market capitalism to the ruthless efficiencies of the horrific Fascist and Communist regimes in both the past and the present. The film also deplores the loss of reformist passion in today’s most talented young people. As Mr. Klotz states in an interview, “The young people we show in the film would have been on the barricades in May 1968. They are radical utopian romantics who are up for anything, but now their utopia finds form in the buzz of the corporate world. They’ve lovers of free enterprise, giving it incredible energy and a form of disposable, instant, vital youth that wants to get its kicks, enjoy, compete and even die in some ways. It’s like China’s youth filmed by Jia Zhang-ke in The World. But in a company and in the free market, power is always in the hands of the old: those who have a past, history’s killers with blood on their hands who get their power from murder and elimination.”

Ms. Perceval, the screenwriter, adds: “The film is also partly a study of young executives. When we met then, I was surprised by their vitality, their health and their beauty. Everything in their attitude, appearance, rivalries and attractions makes you feel these young men belong to a professional elite. Free market competition is also expressed in their bodies. Sexual ambiguity is always present in the corporate world. Between colleagues, this state of arousal produces a whole range of rituals involving humiliation, brutality, coming together and pulling apart: it formats a uniform mass that loves and hates within itself.”

Sounds a lot like Boston Legal, House and Grey’s Anatomy, doesn’t it? The film itself is a projection of the fiercely competitive world in which we live and die. The women in the film, well enough played by Edith Scob, Laetitia Spigarelli, Valérie Dréville and Delphine Chuillot, are swept up in all the male primping and preening from which even Simon is not immune. He even tolerates a Rave concert to demonstrate his bona fides. He simply loves his work, that is, until he gets a rare glimpse of his masters as monsters.

Still, the problem with Heartbeat Detector remains that it is not enough of a mystery to justify its convoluted and elongated form, and not enough of a historical revelation to justify the quirkiness of the lead character’s unstable behavior. But it has haunted me ever since I saw it, with its implied foreboding for the future. Implied and justified in my opinion, and it may become yours if you choose to catch Heartbeat Detector.