Updated: Dec 7, 2021
As this year's fff@home continues to make French cinema more accessible to UK audiences, I was excited to see Bruno Podalydès' latest film, French Tech (Les 2 Aldred), which takes a farcical look at the modern workplace and the world of high-tech start-ups. I've been a fan of Bruno's work for some time now, having been won over by his 2015 effort, The Sweet Escape (Comme un avion), which now ranks as one of my Top Five French films. He has a keen eye for how to find the humour in any situation, while getting to the heart of the matter; and he knows how to find the right actors for the job - most often people he's worked with before. French Tech is no exception, and once again finds him teaming up with his brother, Denis, opposite another one of his favourites (and mine), Sandrine Kiberlain.
The film opens with Alexandre (Denis Podalydès) trying to find work after his wife leaves (he tells people she's a technician on a submarine) and his bank manager warns him that he needs to come up with something fast. After a bizarre interview, he gets hired by a young start-up company, which requires 24/7 availability from its employees and operates by the motto, 'No children'. The trouble is, Alexandre has two children, and right now he's their sole care-giver. While taking them to day care one morning, he meets self-styled entrepreneurial guru, Arcimboldo (played by Bruno), who takes on various odd jobs to make ends meet. He even works as a stand-in for protestors - turning up in T-shirts with slogans, and providing photographic evidence of their (his) attendance to show others. It's a wonderful commentary on the modern world, and the extremes of outsourcing.
Arcimboldo needs a place to stay, and Alexandre needs someone to look after the kids, so they decide to pool their resources to help each other. The situation becomes more complicated when Alexandre meets his new supervisor, Severine (Kiberlain) - a high-profile go-getter with a tough reptuation - and the two embark on their first major assignment to secure a contract in the small town where he grew up. It turns out this was the only reason Alexandre was hired, so they need to make this work or he faces the unemployment office once again. In a series of increasingly comedic events, the two encounter a variety of challenges, mostly brought on by the technology that is meant to serve and help them. As a result, Severine almost discovers his secret on the first day, but it turns out everyone has secrets, and things are not exactly as they seem at 'The Box'.
Despite how odd it sounds, it really isn't. Podalydès is a master at making the unusual seem commonplace, and the commonplace seem unusual. In this world, just barely removed from our own, the streets are littered with drones (referred to as 'Bird Pouches') which carry cargo across the city. One of Arcimboldo's many jobs is to collect and recharge these drones, so they're ready to fly again. They serve as a metaphor for the people, who have themselves become mindless drones - no better than this equipment - in pursuit of their careers. In one hilarious scene, a taxi driver is falling asleep at the wheel while driving Alexandre and his children home late one night. Alexandre asks if his boss is making him work this hard, but he cheerfully explains, "No, I'm my own boss." Even Arcimboldo needs the occasional reminder when someone tells him, "Don't say 'work-mode. You're not a robot."
As with Comme un avion, the original French title is based on a simple detail which forms part of the narrative. Les 2 Alfred are the two plush monkeys favoured by Alexandre's children, and they pop up various times throughout the film. While I can understand how French Tech and The Sweet Escape might work better for English-language audiences, they lose the subtlety and humour the French titles convey. There's actually a lot in Podalydès' work which is decidedly and uniquely French, and perhaps that's why it's so hard to find his films available with English subtitles, but it's also a real shame. It's one of many reasons I was so keen to see French Tech while I had the chance, although I hope this one gains a wider release as its themes are both current and universal.
French Tech comes with my highest possible recommendation, whether you're a fan of Bruno Podalydès or you're discovering his films for the first time. Not only is he a wonderful writer and director with a sharp comedic mind, but he's also a wonderful on-screen presence, and I'm so pleased his work behind the camera hasn't robbed us of that. Seeing him, his brother Denis, and the radiant Sandrine Kiberlain together is always a delight, and it's something I hope everyone can enjoy. Check out The Sweet Escape as well, if you get the chance, but for now you can still get tickets to stream French Tech via INDEE+ until the evening of December 7 as part of this year's online selection of the French Film Festival UK.