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The Heartbeat Detector – death by euphemism, acquiescence by cliché

language: where separate minds meet

language: where separate minds meet

The Heartbeat Detector (La Question Humaine) – Nicolas Klotz

Challenging, austere, masterly. That’s me. Drivel, pompous, dire. Those are some other comments – mostly from punters rather than critics it must be said. For me, if you take cinema, film, as an art form capable of the expression of profound ideas and deep emotions, then you will find these realised in The Heartbeat Detector. If you take such things into account: it has won three acting awards and best film at the Sao Paulo Film festival. Just to explain the title: if like me you have a little French then you too will wonder at what appears to be a strange translation. Suffice to say that the reason for the English title emerges in the film and the relevance of La Question Humaine is also clear.

The superb Michael Lonsdale (villain Hugo Drax in Moonraker and inspector Lebel in Day of the Jackal) is Mathias J?st, CEO of the Paris subsidiary of a multinational German industrial corporation. Deputy CEO Karl Rose has apparently become concerned at some oddities in J?st’s behaviour and secretly charges corporate psychologist Simon (Mathieu Analric who appears in the upcoming Bond movie with the silly name Quantum of Solace) to discreetly investigate. As he gets more and more drawn into his investigation, Simon uncovers a deeply disturbing history involving both J?st and Rose, wartime collaboration and the holocaust. The truth, who to trust, and the parallels between pressures of comformity both in modern corporate life and during the war, leave Simon reeling with personal and professional uncertainty and unease.

THD resonates with echoes of other films and film-makers. Not in a Quentin Tarrantino smart-ass, did-you-get-that-one sense; but through effective use of similar artistic devices to generate a desired resonance. Yet despite these, THD is at heart an utterly distinct and impressive piece of work. Given its subject it is necessarily sombre, serious and dark in tone. But in its poetic, open-ended use and exploration of image and language it is thoroughly absorbing throughout, and has one of the most moving, disturbing but effective endings I have seen for a long time.

In structure THD resembles Haneke’s Cache (Hidden) itself an elusive, thoughtful exploration of how traumatic historical events impact the present. Both THD and Cache engage us with mystery, thriller narrative structures that engage us in the sequence of events, often time-fractured, challenging our imagination. Like Cache most of the time nothing outwardly very dramatic happens. Both films are very ‘interior’: they provoke and stimulate the watcher’s imagination and ‘reading’ of the inner lives and fears of the characters.

Again like Cache, THD is technically masterful, cinematography and editing having a quiet, unobtrusive clarity and unfussiness that does not interrupt the flow of your mind’s response to the images before you. Many of these drift away from the naturalism of narrative into surreal images: of corporate “soldiers” in the obligatory uniformity of their dark suits and ties. More than one image recalls Magritte. THD is ‘interior’ in two senses: literally most of the action is indoors in dark, discreetly luxurious, shadowy corporate offices; and imaginatively as the film puts us in the heads of its characters. Psychologists, psychotherapists, even psychiatrists are among some of the most screwed up people I have ever met and Simon fits this pattern. His private life appears to reel from strobe-lit raves with heavy duty dope to a spiky sexual relationship with more volatile passion than stability or tenderness.

Music also figures on two levels in the film. The soundtrack of tuneful, lyrical, sad songs by ‘Syd Matters’ pseudonym for French musician Jonathon Morali, perfectly underscores the sombre tone of the film. (Syd Matters is a partial conflation of Pink Floyd members Syd Barrett and Roger Waters). Also music is part of what distresses J?st to the point of despair and attempted suicide. And Simon’s quirky emotional and sexual life carries fantasies connected with singing.

What adds an extra dimension to THD is that as well as evocative imagery, Klotz displays a fine sensibility, a philosophical subtlety in his use and exploration of language, especially towards the end of the film. Just as images can engage, excite, and deceive, so too can language. In both, it is the artistic use to which these tools are put, what the director tries to create with them, that matters most. Who we are, our identity, and our honesty, truthfulness, compassion, emerges through our use of language especially as it mediates our relationship with others. Similarly, we can discern the preoccupations, the vision if you will, of a serious director in the way he uses all the artistic techniques and tools at his disposal. Many purist film-makers treat language as a necessary evil, trying to convey their vision through image alone. This is a wonderful discipline and can sometimes have the desired artistic effect in that most art lives conceptually within a sense of limit: there is a limit to what the sculptor can do with the block of granite before him; or the painter with his oils and canvas that define the boundaries of his form. Modern film technology offers an almost limitless ‘palette’ of images and as we so often see with formulaic Hollywood action movies; thought, imagination, is reduced to simple, raw sensation. Fun – but little else. Great movies can resonate in the mind and memory for ever.

However language, just like image, can impose its own limits. Klotz’s blending of these two forms of expression in THD is unusual, movingly effective and aesthetically satisfying. The film ends with just a black screen and words. But all that has gone before has woven itself into our own uniquely individual subjective imaginations even though we will share similarities, and a consistency of emotional response between us as we watch and hear and read. The immensely powerful emotional impact of the ending where the language itself, beginning with bald banal facts, transforms itself into prose poetry in order to invest those facts with the depth of emotion they should, but tragically now often don’t evoke. This because repetition and the literalness of photographs and film images (e.g. the Holocaust and the breathtaking images of 9/11) have de-sensitised our minds to the banality of horror and evil; of the bureaucratic detachment and meticulous efficiency of the business-like process of destroying human life. Murder as a challenge to efficiency, speed and economics. With 9/11 – even murder as ‘art’.

Klotz is a radical. He clearly wants to parallel the loss of self, of individual conscience found among people under the sway of the expansive ideology of National Socialism in Germany with the pressures to conform and subsume ones own conscience into the false morality of the collective, of any kind, but especially the equally expansive capitalist corporation. Klotz’s forensic examination of language here has very strong echoes of Jean-Luc Godard although in a far less didactic form. Klotz is a professor at La Femis, the French National Film School so the technical expertise of the film is no accident.

The distinctive element of THD, adding layers of guilt and self-doubt, is that the main protagonists are linked inexorably to the horrors of the past through their troubled memories as young boys witnessing inexplicable and terrifying events in which their fathers played shameful or morally ambiguous roles. Klotz suggests that the first step to control and subjection of the individual is to bleed all controversial and uncomfortable truth from language; death by euphemism, acquiescence by cliché. He touches on the empty jargon and morally anodyne language of business and our helplessness before supposed economic and business necessity through the ‘restructuring’ that cost 1,200 people their livelihoods.

Not a fun night out at the movies, but a fine challenging piece of popular art. It needs, but rewards patience and serious thought. Remarkable.

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