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Documentary director Nora Philippe plants her camera inside a French unemployment office

The current unemployment rate in France is just under 10% — a rate that’s more or less remained stagnant for the last twenty years. By comparison, the last reported figure in the U.S. was less than 6%, though it’s important to keep in mind that each country has their own way of crunching the numbers. Either way, it’s been clear for decades that France has a serious job problem, especially when it comes to hiring college graduates, many of whom seek more lucrative work abroad in an ongoing brain drain that makes the Gallic future look like a rather bleak one.

Focusing on an unemployment bureau located in one of the country’s worst neighborhoods, documentary filmmaker Nora Philippe reveals yet another sad reality about France’s fight against joblessness: those in charge of finding work for others seem to be no better off than their clients, faced with a Sisyphean undertaking marred by limited resources and a completely Kafkaesque office environment. It’s the best insight to be found in the otherwise pedestrian fly-on-the-wall expose Pole Emploi, Ne Quittez Pas! (Unemployment Office, Please Hold!), a worthy undertaking that has caused lots of ink to be spilled since its mid-November local release, though it’s hard to see the film finding international recruitment outside of a few niche festivals.

Taupe Mens UNIONBAY UNIONBAY Mens UNIONBAY Taupe Watson Mens Watson Watson Anyone who’s visited the DMV or other such government-run institutions knows what may lie in store for them: long lines, crappy service and the feeling of being sucked into a bureaucratic vortex with no way out. That’s definitely the mood conveyed by the office in Livry-Gargan (a working-class suburb northeast of Paris), where dozens of overtired public agents deal with over 4,000 desperate jobseekers, trying to find them gainful employment and meet the performance-based initiatives laid out by the French state.  

Read more 'Lou!' ('Lou! Journal infime'): Film Review

But as Philippe reveals in one disheartening sequence after another, these people are clearly not up to the task – though it’s also not entirely their fault. Faced with archaic computer systems that constantly break down and a mound of paperwork that even their dedicated boss, Corinne, can hardly understand let alone sift through, they simply don’t have the means to do their jobs properly. Add to that the reality of finding jobs for an undereducated and often inexperienced population, and you get what amounts to a never-ending quagmire that would have any normal person going postal. To quote Newman from Seinfeld: “It keeps coming and coming and coming…”

Adapting a documentary approach that recalls the work of Frederick Wiseman (who's thanked in the end credits), Philippe never intervenes with her subjects and simply captures things as they happen. While that technique yields some rewards, it’s not as engrossing as a classic like Wiseman’s Welfare, which deals with a similar topic but manages to provide some truly riveting characters and moments. And while that film’s stark black-and-white photography seems to fit its content perfectly, this movie’s low-grade HD aesthetics are an eyesore, even if the filmmakers don’t really have much to work with inside the extremely uncinematic Livry-Gargan agency.

If most of Pole Emploi underlines how stark the situation has become, there are still select moments of humanity – including a temp worker’s going-away party – that show how kindhearted people can band together for a worthy cause. But even the film’s hopeful closing sequence, in which four kids from the banlieue are given jobs as street sweepers through a new government initiative, is something of a downer. As local officials congratulate themselves and sip champagne, the young men stand alone off to the side, staring blankly into their futures as if to say: “Thanks for nothing.”

Director: Nora Philippe
Producer: Maud Huynh
Director of photography: Cecile Bodenes
Editor: Anne Souriau
Composer: Marc Marder
Sales agent: Gloria Films

No rating, 78 minutes

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