Writer/Director: Jean-Marc Moutout
2010, France / Belgium
Are work-related problems driving you over the edge? Just minutes into Jean-Marc Moutout’s Early One Morning, a middle-aged businessman starts his day by coolly gunning down a couple of colleagues. As the killer waits quietly in his office, Moutout spends the next 90 minutes explaining what drove him to this shocking act of violence.
With its focus on the ongoing banking crisis and workplace stress, Early One Morning could have been conceived as a scathing satire or a pitch-black comedy. Instead Moutout, who also made the workplace drama Work Hard, Play Hard (2003), has taken the serious approach. What follows is a sad, thought-provoking but never mawkish story about the unravelling life of middle-aged bank executive Paul Wertret (superbly played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin).
The film begins with Paul’s meticulous preparations for what will be his final morning at BICF in Annecy, the bank he’s been with for almost 30 years. We return to key moments like his final bus ride, right at the end. By then, the flashbacks of recent events at the office and in Paul’s home life have built up a compelling psychological portrait. Every small action assumes greater significance when you understand what led him to this crisis.
The problems at BICF are, we learn, not unusual. The financial crisis has resulted in a loss of two billion euros. Now the board has brought in hatchet man Alain Fisher (Xavier Beauvois) to “get results”, as he so succinctly puts it. Under pressure from Fisher over his flagging sales performance and with creepy young analyst Fabrice (Yannick Renier) waiting in the wings, it’s not long before Paul starts to crack.
Moutout’s script deftly cuts between home and the workplace, demonstrating the corrosive effects of Paul’s stress on his otherwise happy marriage to Françoise (Valérie Dréville). In between we hear his conversations with a shrink and the devastating admission that he feels like crying all the time.
Darroussin’s softly spoken Paul has the haunted look of a man who knows that his professional success has been achieved at too high a personal cost. With his cell phone pressed to his ear, he scuttles from one humiliating meeting to another.
Darroussin’s subtle performance and the flashback structure prevent Early One Morning from turning into another depressing tale of a good man crushed by the ruthless corporate machine. We do see Paul, his wife and teenage son Benoît (Laurent Delbecque) in happier times, too. My one reservation is the subplot involving the family and a student from Mali, where Paul and his wife helped to build a school. I’m not sure we need any further embellishment of the aura of goodness and rectitude that surrounds him professionally.
Though Fisher and Fabrice are the men we see killed at the start of the film, there are no lip-curling villains here. As Fisher, Beauvois is a believable combination of insincere (he calls everyone “buddy”) and totally unconscionable. Moutout’s point is that having a good track record and being devastatingly honest won’t cushion you from the harsh realities of business life. When he is wrongly blamed for getting a female co-worker sacked, a guilt-ridden Paul tries to persuade her to sue for unfair dismissal. But by taking everything personally, he ends up destroying himself.
With carefully chosen selections from Beethoven and Handel, Early One Morning builds slowly towards an inevitable but still shocking conclusion. Those final minutes in Paul’s office have taken a long time to elapse and all who knew him will feel the aftershock for months – perhaps years.
– Susannah Straughan
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