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Human, Too Human  
Louis Malle
1973 || 72 mins

A documentary study of the automotive industry, focusing on the manufacturing process at a Citroen factory.

see also articles on:
Top 10 Films by Louis Malle || Louis Malle Profile|| French New Wave History || French New Wave Film Guide

Louis Malle opens his cinema verité portrait of the Citroen factory in Rennes, Britanny with a bucolic shot of cows in a farmer’s field before pulling back to reveal a busy road and the futuristic outline of the car plant. This incongorous juxtaposition of the old rural France and the new manufacturing works of modern France sets the tone for a film that, in Malle’s own description, “is not supposed to be an exposé or a demonstration, but a deliberate look cast upon a work style that exists in the whole world and under all political systems.” The ironic tone continues in the next sequence, now inside the cavernous interior space, as a female worker glides on a travelling crane above an expanse of sheet steel rolls to the reverent sound of a church choir. The factory has become the modern day cathedral, Malle seems to suggest. Is this what we’ve come to as human beings?

But Humain, trop humain is no Marxist polemic. There’s no heavy-handed commentary or worker agitation on show. Indeed there’s very little dialogue at all, except for an amusing 15 minute sequence at a Paris auto show, reminiscent of a Jacques Tati film, where the general public, with little notion of the complex process involved in producing the cars on show, make trivial observations or complain that a knob for adjusting the front seat should be moved a few centimetres to the left. This is observational documentary at its most literal, and as with most of his documentary work, Malle keeps his distance and lets the film speak for itself.

So what does it tell us? That man has become dehumanised and is simply another cog in the production line machinery as Charlie Chaplin suggested in Modern Times? Not necessarily. The workers captured on film appear very much in charge of the machinery they operate rather than the other way around. The more we watch, the more we’re impressed by their competence; without individual responsibility for each stage of the production process there would be no final product. It would have been interesting perhaps to see the bosses and designers at work behind the scenes too, and in that sense the film feels somewhat incomplete, but as a documentarian Malle tended to simply film what interested him.

However you read it, what makes Humain, trop humain such a fascinating, at times hypnotic, viewing experience is achieved through some quite brilliant cinematography and editing. Cameraman Etienne Becker focuses his lens on faces and the way people move while they work, emphasizing humanity over machinery. Editor Suzanne Baron cuts to the rhythm of the assembly line, establishing a pace suggestive of poetic meter. Though some might find the prospect of watching a 75-minute film about a factory production line off-putting, this is an absorbing and meditative portrait of modern working life.

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