GFF19 #2: Ceux qui travaillent (Those Who Work, Switzerland-Belgium 2018)

Frank is forced to take a long hard look at himself

This European co-production helmed by Swiss writer-director Antoine Russbach is a gripping drama, part moral tale, part family melodrama starring one of the great actors of Francophone cinema, Olivier Gourmet. Gourmet, the Belgian actor who almost defines the Dardenne Brothers’ films, is in nearly every scene as Frank, the archetypal ‘hard-working man’. The narrative begins with Frank caught up in the middle of a regular occurrence. He is a project manager for a shipping company which organises container traffic on ships bringing a range of goods to Europe. As far as I can work out, Frank is based in Francophone Geneva and the ship in this case is heading to Marseille from West Africa. In his conversations with the ship’s captain, Frank speaks English.

Frank has to solve problems and this is very difficult when the chartered flights ships are old and unreliable, the multinational crews are not always well-trained or well-paid and there are plenty of possible ways of making mistakes. Frank has to make a decision just as he is picking up the youngest of his five children from school because she is sick. He makes a morally reprehensible decision and later he will pay for his ‘mistake’ – even though it will save the company a great deal of money.

In this early section, the film seems to question the Protestant work ethic and the capitalist desire for profit above morality. Frank is a farmer’s son brought up in the ‘school of hard knocks’ – something he tries to explain to his four older children. He will then realise that his obsession with work – which has brought the family a swimming pool and many other luxury items – has also led to a neglect of his role as husband and father.

I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure any more, but I will note that his relationship with his youngest daughter is, in a way, his salvation in what becomes a family melodrama. I’ve read at least one review that suggests that the film has a ‘feelgood’ ending. I can’t agree with that but it is an abrupt ending and I may have misunderstood it. It seems to find a ‘human ending’ – signified by Frank’s rapprochement with his family, but also implies that he will go back to the same kind of work with similar possible consequences for projects that might go ‘wrong’.

Those Who Work is a conventional film with many familiar scenes and typical characters. Yet it never fails to engage and Gourmet’s performance holds everything together with great skill. His character explains that as a child he was never allowed to speak his mind and here Frank pauses before he speaks in a deliberate manner.

I don’t agree with the ideology of the film’s conclusion, but overall I found this an impressive production which I would like to see in UK cinemas. This entry in GFF’s ‘Window on the World’ strand made for a strong beginning for my visit to the festival.

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