Humaine, Trop Humaine

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 16, 2015

They start and they end with dreariness and drudgery, but this is actually a very subtle, substantial take on a subject that is too often taken for granted. Marx and his minions bemoan the standardization and diminution and alienation of industrial process. We take that for granted because it’s true. But it’s not only, or absolutely true. As is so often the case, a closer look really complicates things. The fact is that though the workers do not see the thing through from beginning to end, many of them actually make contributions that are much more than just mindless. Malle and his contributors spend considerable stretches detailing the very skilled, and possibly very satisfying work of a number of craftsmen (the silver welder, the young man tamping that trunk into place, the long-haired kid having at the doors).

Furthermore, the discourse of the more wild-eyed activists and socialists can distract us from a very basic engineering fact. Though mindlessness and occasional terrible accidents may result, it is also true that industrialism is kind of amazing, an expansive, practically endlessly variable record and product of human ingenuity. Orson Welles (1942) and the end-of-year accident statistics prove that cars have ruined the world, but they’ve also shrunk it to our partial and certain benefit.

So, Malle’s politics will suggest that this is basically a critique, and the film’s extended (and interestingly early) digression/extension into the trade show confirms the fact. And yet, for all of the satirical substance of this section, the aforementioned complexity stands. Yes, it’s all materialistic and faintly frivolous. Yes, there is hoodwinking, and strong evidence that the apparatuses of commerce are absurd. (This section actually ends up being a very close, doubtless inadvertent companion piece to Jacques Tati’s Trafic.) But on the other hand, this apparatus not only contributes to the GDP and the horrible Corporation’s bottom line, it also benefits small investors, and provides regular people with jobs!

As for the product, that is real and not necessarily corrupt pleasure that these consumers, buyers and gawkers both, are experiencing. And, since this is France, you hear evidence of considerable subtlety and sophistication, of real intelligence and substance as people talk about these cars, their various merits, and their place in the society. You want to be careful about parotting the propaganda of the fascists, but it’s not always propaganda. Industrial society and the booming markets it creates may indicate and add to people’s prosperity and happiness.

And, Marx. Malle starts and ends his film with dreariness and drudgery. Also, this is a terrific record of clothes and hair which, though 70’s, actually look fine—actual people generally make the craziest ensembles work, in one way or another.