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  • The Crisis before the Crisis:Reading Films by Laurent Cantet and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne Through the Lens of Debt
  • Martin O’Shaughnessy (bio)

The discussion that follows establishes a three-way conversation between two films, Laurent Cantet’s L’Emploi du temps (Time Out [2001]) and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence [2008]) and one work of theory, Maurizio Lazzarato’s La Fabrique de l’homme endetté: essai sur la condition néo-libérale (The Making of Indebted Man: Essay on the Neoliberal Condition [2011]). The subject of the conversation will be neo-liberal governance and the role of debt within it. Part of Lazzarato’s argument regards the central role debt has played since the start of the global financial crisis in 2008. But another part of his argument is that during the neo-liberal era, debt has been a, if not the, key element of governance. In what follows, I will suggest that the films in question already showed a highly developed awareness of this circumstance and preceded theory on the terrain. Cantet’s work from Ressources humaines (Human Resources [1999]) onwards, and with the possible exception of Vers le sud (Heading South [2005]) has always evidenced a desire to be contemporary to its moment. Entre les murs (The Class [2008]) provides a particularly telling account of some of the fault-lines in French society and contradictions of the French Republican education system. Ressources humaines and L’Emploi du temps form a diptych about the contemporary world of work that charts a shift from the stability of Fordist labor to something very different, but perhaps no less alienating. Like Cantet, the Dardenne brothers are moved by a determination to remain contemporary to their historic moment. Their films since La Promesse (The Promise [1996]) seem to be an affirmation, seen from the viewpoint of those at the bottom, or in terms of the murderousness of mainstream values, that the crisis had already been here for some time. Cantet and the Dardennes are very different directorial figures, and a comparison of their films might not always be productive. What makes L’Emploi du temps and Le Silence de [End Page 82] Lorna a sensible pairing in the context of this article is their mutual focus on contemporary modes of governance, and particularly on the tripartite interaction of the entrepreneurial individual, the networks that sustain and constrain him or her, and the disciplinary power of debt

If the factory-worker father of Cantet’s Ressources humaines, with his attachment to routine and the secure enclosure of the factory, seems an archetypal example of the old Fordist man, Vincent, the hero of L’Emploi du temps, is an exemplar of the new human (Marks). He is a management consultant, albeit one who hides his unemployment, and thus represents the shift of power from production and the factory to the corporation and finance. He is constantly on the move, and happiest in his vehicle. Having no fixed career path, he moves from project to project, even if some of his projects are illicit or invented. He functions through his networks: old college friends, family connections, fabricated UN connections, and a gang of smugglers. In short, he is the kind of flexible, mobile, connected person that the new world of work seems to call for.1 Yet he is also an embodiment of the new unfreedoms and alienations. He risks losing any stable or self-directed sense of self because his roles shift and his behavior is driven, not from within, but by the need to convince his different networks. His mobility suggests empowerment; he is the man at the wheel. Yet his networks and their decentered surveillance can always reel him in—the automobile never being mobile enough to escape the reach of the cell phone and its pressing call.

The Dardennes’ Lorna is in some ways like Vincent. Since La Promesse, all the brothers’ characters have been creatures of the new. They move in a world where working-class solidarities have been dismantled and collective protections weakened, and in which the struggle of all against all has been institutionalized. Knowing they are...


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