Heartbeat Detector (La Question humaine) (2007)

Heartbeat Detector (La Question humaine) first published by Film4

Summary: Adapted from François Emmanuel’s 2000 novel, Nicolas Klotz’s film exposes modern society’s age-old dark side.

Review: Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector opens with a long, slow tracking shot that passes over a row of numbers (365, 367, 369 etc.) that have been stencilled, evidently long ago, into a rough cement wall. 

“Where do I start?”, a voice is heard to whisper, and the image changes to a clutch of industrial chimneys, belching smoke. The chimneys belong to the Parisian branch of a German-owned petro-chemical multinational referred to as ‘SC Farb’ (although it is made clear that this is not its ‘real’ name), and the voice belongs to Simon Kessel (Mathieu Amalric), a psychologist working in the company’s human resources department – but it is that first image of the numbers, depersonalised, dislocated and never fully explained, that will cast their long shadow over the film’s unfolding events, as the distant past keeps returning to haunt the immediate present. It is no wonder that Simon does not know where to begin his story. “It’s too difficult”, as he says, “to explain chronologically.” 

Simon is asked by company executive Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) to conduct a discreet investigation into the mental state of CEO, Mathias Jüst (Michael Lonsdale), whose behaviour has of late become alarmingly erratic. Simon begins researching the ‘Farb quartet’, a musical group for which Mathias once played, as a pretext for approaching the man, but although Mathias is clearly in a fragile state and by his own admission “tormented”, he still has a very good idea what Simon is really up to – and he also knows a thing or two about Karl’s own less than salubrious background. Mathias is hiding a collection of upsetting letters from an anonymous party, and soon Simon is receiving similar letters himself – leading the underling psychologist to realise that he has been playing his own small but significant part in a crime against humanity.

Heartbeat Detector (La Question humaine) plays like an elegant exercise in misdirection. The investigation into Mathias’ behaviour has the feel of a mystery thriller, and yet running in parallel to Simon’s detective work are scenes of the psychologist just getting on with his quotidian affairs in the work environment: sharing the bathroom with similarly suited drones, flirting aggressively with the company’s archivist (Delphine Chuillot), ritually humiliating a new recruit (Nicolas Maury) on a motivational outing designed to make the employees “soldiers, knights of the business realm”. And then there are the musical interludes: Mathias reduced to tears by Schubert, company workers losing themselves at a rave, or an audacious seven-minute sequence in which Simon and his girlfriend Louisa (Laetitia Spigarelli) listen in silence to a fado performance – a sequence so long that it goes from funny to uncomfortable and then through to something altogether more transcendent. Which in fact reflects the trajectory of the film itself, moving from its apparently meandering, formless beginning towards a final solution of unimaginable (but all too human) horror. Even the mawkish-sounding English title takes on the bleakest of dimensions once its full significance has been revealed. 

As in Michael Haneke’s Hidden (2005), here anonymous letters elicit from their recipients a guilt that has previously remained buried and denied. For Heartbeat Detector is a commentary on the fascism inherent in our contemporary corporate and political culture – a fascism with historical, social and linguistic antecedents in the atrocities of the Holocaust. Yet far from being like those headstrong web-users whose every on-line argument lapses into crude accusations of Nazism, Klotz and his writer/partner Elisabeth Perceval deploy the more subtle tools of suggestion and analogy to deliver their unsettling message. 

Amalric is superb both as the music-loving everyman and as the crueller “other guy” that he so easily becomes, and Lonsdale cuts a similarly ambiguous figure. Josée Deshaies’ cinematography is slick and dark, and Syd Matters’ trippy soundtrack is suitably disorienting. It all makes for a neatly noirish arthouse package, with a hell of a kick in its tail.   

“What exactly is your job?”, Simon is asked by one of his friends. “You work for a big company, but what do you do?” By the end viewers may well be posing such innocent-seeming questions to themselves too with not a little unease, as we are all confronted by our own complicity in day-to-day evils, disguised only by the blandness of euphemism and the cold rationalism of numbers. 

Verdict: A confronting examination of human evil in all its enduring banality, Heartbeat Detector takes a crooked path towards its bid for some straight talking.

© Anton Bitel