Nightshift

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Mar 16 09:31:31 MST 2001


When Pierre (Gérard Laroche) opens the locker he's inherited from the guy
he's just replaced on the nightshift at a bottle factory, he discovers
pictures of naked women taped to the inside of the door. As soon as he
begins removing them, a burly fellow worker named Fred (Marc Berbe) accosts
him. What's the matter with Pierre, he asks in a loud voice audible to the
entire team preparing for the evening shift, is he some kind of fag?

This confrontation sets the tone and defines the central dramatic tension
of Philippe Le Guay's "Nightshift", which was shown last night (March 15,
2001) as part of series on recent French cinema at Lincoln Center's Walter
Reade Theater. The French title is "Trois Huit", or 3 by 8, to designate
the way a day is divided into three 8-hour shifts in a typical factory. The
decision to make a movie on location in a bottle factory, with characters
drawn from the blue-collar world, is reflective of a trend among younger
French directors to root cinema in the social reality of France's majority.

Anybody who has seen "Human Resources" will see the similarity. Unlike
"Human Resources," which depicted a struggle between the workforce as a
whole and a boss looking to downsize, "Nightshift" focuses on the conflict
between one worker and another. However, the conflict is rooted in deeper
social structures in bourgeois society, which the factory, like prisons or
highs schools, is apt to intensify.

On his first night on the shift, Pierre becomes the target of an
ever-increasing series of mean-spirited pranks. At first Fred treats the
incidents as a kind of initiation ceremony. When one of his cohorts throws
a bucket of water on Pierre from an overhanging ramp, he is told that it
was done to him also on his first night there. But soon it becomes obvious
that Fred just has it in for Pierre. He taunts him, steals his food, writes
"cocksucker" on the windshield of his car and finally slams a basketball
into his face at a company game.

Eventually Pierre has enough of Fred's bullying and confronts him at his
apartment, challenging him to a fight. Since Fred is an amateur boxer and
at least 30 pounds heavier than Pierre, it is obvious that it would not be
a fair fight. In a surprising twist, Fred invites Pierre in for a drink and
confesses to him that he does not know why he does the things he does.
Perhaps it is a broken marriage and the financial strains of keeping his
father in a rest home that makes him nasty. In any case, he just wants to
end the one-sided conflict then and there.

Pierre, always anxious to try to get beneath the bullying surface of his
tormentor and relate to him as a fellow human being, accepts his peace
offer and even loans him money. Unfortunately, he will discover that Fred
was lying: a few days later Fred tells the nightshift that he spent
Pierre's money on a fish tank rather than family expenses and adds that he
will call the fish Pierre.

Even then Pierre finds ways to try to connect to Fred as a human being.
Perhaps his greatest flaw is to act ethically in an environment where
malice and inhumanity are the norm. During the hazing, Pierre asks a fellow
worker--an Arab--why he is joining the rest in tormenting him. He replies,
"You have become the Arab here."

If the gullible Pierre is not a satisfying protagonist in terms of our
expectations of a typical Hollywood revenge-morality tale, neither is Fred
a typical villain. Early in the film he risks his life to dive into a tank
of oil and repair a leak that threatened the team's ability to meet the
shift's production quota. He also joins the nightshift in helping Pierre
lay concrete in the floor of his new home on a weekend afternoon.
Afterwards, when the men sit on a nearby field sipping wine, the foreman
complains that there is far too little solidarity like they just
experienced laying concrete. Everyone is out for himself nowadays. Fred
chimes in that there never really was any solidarity.

In the discussion period following the film, a member of the audience
complained that the film was ultimately unsatisfying because the bully did
not get his comeuppance. Furthermore, she complained that the bully was not
believable because of the good aspects of his character. Le Guay quoted
Hitchcock in his reply, namely that the more complex a villain, the more
successful a film. Beyond the question of dramatic effectiveness, the
larger question involves how people become bullies and how the bullied
respond.

Speaking as somebody who was bullied in high school, a topic very much in
the news now, it dawned on me while watching the film that bullying is very
much a form of behavior that is inevitable in capitalist institutions such
as factories, high schools and prisons. The high school bullying which made
a fourteen year old take murderous revenge against classmates is deeply
imbedded in the competitive nature of our society. "Toughening" people up
is supposed to hone their survival skills in a market society, with high
school the ultimate training ground. Pierre's failings ultimately are like
those of Huckleberry Finn's, trying to behave ethically in an unethical
society.

Louis Proyect
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