In Nicolas Klotz’s misshapen but thought-provoking Heartbeat Detector, office shrink Simon (Mathieu Amalric) unwittingly tracks his pharma company’s history back to the black hole of the Holocaust. A corporate mystery with a horrific answer, this French neo-melodrama opens on to an evergreen avenue of insight: the insidious continuity of Western civilization, and especially language, with its 20th-century nadir.
Ordinarily a human-resources interviewer, Simon is recruited to vet the sanity of morose CEO Jüst (Michael Lonsdale), in an apparent power grab by a rival silverback. Though Klotz drops breadcrumbs — air of primal-sin secrecy, antiseptic office archive, war-criminal name echoes (IG Farben, Carl Krauch) — the first half of Heartbeat basically elaborates on the view of blue-chip corporation as sleek-suited tribe recharged by ritualized nightly hedonism, a gloss that feels 80s as much as 00s. The director’s aesthetic is enveloping but also smothering: corporate-mannequin choreography, grayed-out palette and swallowed-up blacks, jet-lag-jag soundtrack, and theatrically constrained lighting for interludes.
When Simon receives a pastiche of documents linking company and execs to a darker past, the movie drops its bomb (one already dropped in Holocaust literature): corporate processes and doublespeak share affinities with the technical language and distancing ideologies of the Nazi industrialization of genocide. Simon, our proxy, deteriorates with the realization (and the guilt felt as a professional legitimizer).
But for a movie so fervent about the power of language, the filmmakers should have known to rein in the stylization, and attend to more than Amalric’s voiceover recitations and Lonsdale’s admittedly absorbing mystique. It’s an ever-vital investigation — our “enhanced interrogation techniques” roughly translate the Gestapo term — but Heartbeat feels naggingly cerebral and knotted-up.