By Chet Mellema
Dir. Nicolas Klotz, France, Red Envelope Entertainment and New Yorker Films
In the last several years, moviegoers have been inundated with films—narrative and documentary features alike—that depict the decaying soul of the individual in the service of corporate ambition, but I can recall no such work as dark or morose as Heartbeat Detector, a new film from French director Nicolas Klotz (La Blessure, Paria). And I mean literally dark: where the characters live, work, and play is, without fail, presented in stifling shadows or nearly devoid of light. Though the film ably establishes a pervasive, portentous atmosphere, it sadly results in stylistic overkill. While unquestionably sincere in its efforts to suggest that personal choices in furtherance of institutional progress can and do have dire consequences—not only for the decision maker but also, and especially, the nameless victims of such choices—Klotz’s film is a challenging slog, and it falls far short of compelling cinema.
The details of Heartbeat Detector’s narrative are straightforward and easy to summarize: Simon Kessler (Mathieu Amalric) is a psychologist in the human resources department of SC Farb, a German multinational chemical firm with a subsidiary in Paris. Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), a division manager for SC Farb, tasks Simon with investigating the reportedly odd behavior of Mathias Jüst (Michael Lonsdale), the CEO of the Paris branch. As Simon conducts his investigation and slowly turns over one corporate stone after another, motives and allegiances are called into question and the sordid and lamentable pasts of not only SC Farb but also of Rose, Jüst and other company cohorts emerge from the darkness. Discovery of such appalling secrets forces Simon to unwittingly evaluate the role he has played on behalf of his employer, and especially the human toll of his rote devotion to corporate objectives. As events unfold, Simon begins to comprehend the effect of his actions on his own relationships, but more importantly on the lives of the former employees of SC Farb.
In recounting the general sequence of events in Heartbeat Detector, and considering the involvement of the always reliable Mathieu Amalric and Michael Lonsdale, one might assume that all the ingredients for a sublimely melodramatic corporate thriller are in place. Yet Klotz and screenwriter Elisabeth Perceval explain the vagaries of the story with wave after wave of insipid exposition, mostly in the form of voice-over narration from Amalric, talking-heads conversation between the characters, or someone actually reading aloud from letters or corporate reports. Much of the information, especially later in the film, is meant to shock, but the delivery mechanisms and level of intricacy tend to suffocate its dramatic effect. To be fair, Perceval may have been hamstrung by inordinate minutiae in the source material, a book entitled La Question Humaine, by François Emmanuel. The excessive exposition nonetheless calls into question the filmmakers’ discretion in filtering Emmanuel’s original story into a digestible form for the film. The best screen adaptations properly trim the fat, but Heartbeat Detector remains grossly overweight. (The undue exposition is also used to draw some audacious—and inappropriate—associations. Essentially, the genocidal activities of a foregone corporate generation are presented as analogous to the remorseless termination of many SC Farb employees: clearly beyond comparison.)
Notwithstanding the script’s limitations, Klotz tries to communicate the loss of individuality, a feeling of isolation, and the guilt-ridden torment of one newly reflective employee through deliberate imagery elucidating the brooding nature and absence of distinguishing human traits in SC Farb’s environment. Throughout Heartbeat Detector, Klotz visually establishes a stale, male-dominated, black-suited business milieu. One of the opening scenes, in fact, shows a group of young men, all clad in black, lined up at urinals with their backs to the audience. We clearly don’t need to see their faces or learn their names—they’re all the same. And each time we are shown the offices, congregating areas, or even bathrooms of SC Farb, the lights are low, the mood is less than inviting, and the suits appear interchangeable, emphasizing the gloom and lack of individuality eating away at the company’s associates.
The only thing differentiating Simon Kessler from his nameless, uniformed colleagues is their avoidance of him at nearly all costs. Simon has likely developed a less-than-favorable reputation among his co-workers due to his prominent role in the recent company restructuring that reduced the employee base from 2,500 to 1,200 workers, and his isolation is captured with a dominant, visual clarity. Note the repeated shots of Simon framed alone against a wall or a closed curtain, or how his entry into a room causes it to conspicuously empty in a matter of moments. While the visual cues certainly provide subtext as to the mental state and professional standing of the main character, their deployment grows obvious and repetitive over an exhausting 140 minutes.
In spite of its heavy-handed techniques, however, Heartbeat Detector displays intermittent flourishes of restraint. Amalric is particularly successful at conveying the inner struggle and maddening effects of guilt. Klotz and Co. task Amalric with slowly burning away the hardened exterior of a corporate hatchetman until all that’s left is an introspective and disillusioned man with an uncertain future, and he is up to the challenge. Amalric’s ability to seamlessly make this transformation, through an understated body language that demands close examination by the viewer, provides a path through Klotz’s visual excess. Without his performance to study and admire, the film would be reduced to an endurance test. Heartbeat Detector also contains several inspired musical interludes—ranging from techno-music rave parties for the suits to esoteric, coffee shop a cappella performances—suggesting that there exists a proper and necessary way for the lost corporate souls of SC Farb to momentarily escape from their past transgressions and present shame. The filmmakers deftly weave these musical asides, as well as a handful of soundtrack selections that hit all the right notes, into the narrative structure of Heartbeat Detector, temporarily suspending the pervading melancholy shrouding the characters (and viewers) in exchange for emotionally realized but brief moments of unadulterated pleasure.
Yet the virtues of this moribund movie quickly fade upon the arrival of whatever blatantly symbolic image is just around the next corner: whether it be a display of tribal masks on the wall of Karl Rose’s office (perhaps a souvenir from a privileged excursion to a third-world country), the obsessive hand-washing behavior of Matthias Jüst (they’ll never be clean enough, Mr. Jüst), or the recurring shots of SC Farb’s industrial exhaust, once again paralleling past and present death. While obsessively focused on visual metaphor, conveyance of narrative detail through the spoken word, and laying the groundwork for the film’s startling analogy, Klotz fails to properly emphasize the lives of the people themselves. It’s bitterly ironic that in a film entitled Heartbeat Detector, evidence of a cinematic pulse is very difficult to find.