Probably the most quoted phrase at the Edinburgh film festival last week was Film Council chief executive John Woodward's declaration that the council would not be making "social realist art films".

This is fighting talk, all the more contentious given that "social realist art films" were the defining flavour of the festival - not only British ones such as Paul Pawlikowski's Last Resort, but Crane World, about Argentinian construction workers, assorted Iranian entries, and the Sundance boxing hit Girlfight. Social realism is alive and passably well; even this year's Cannes winner, Lars Von Trier's ludicrous Dancer in the Dark, was social realism of a sort, spinning dance routines out of factory machine rhythms.

The term "social realism" is itself misleading, still carrying echoes of the days when it was a prescriptive label in the Soviet Union, used to describe films and novels about idealistic agronomists and steel smelters. Social realism today really means films that address daily life in a serious fashion; it is a pressing issue in Britain because, in our current leisure-obsessed culture, the working grind has effectively become a taboo. Stephen Daldry's 80s-set Billy Elliott is representative of the way that British film addresses political realities only if they are safely tucked away in the past. The film, a calculated heart-warmer about a boy who wants to be a ballet dancer, may be set in County Durham during the miners' strike, but that is little more than period trimming.

British cinema is generally averse to tackling the realities of working life, no doubt because of the commercial assumption that no one in their right mind would want to leave work on a Friday night and see a film set in an office or on the shop floor. Yet several recent French films have taken the working environment as material for drama that is engaging and entertaining, and not always as straightforwardly realist as you might expect. Take next week's release Whatever (Extension du Domaine de la Lutte), which wittily and nastily depicts office life as a pathological nightmare.

Another French film released soon is Laurent Cantet's Ressources Humaines (Human Resources). It spins riveting, moving drama out of the most unpromising premise imaginable: the implementation of the 35-hour working week. Cantet's film is a story about the young son of a factory worker, an idealistic young business studies graduate who joins the personnel department of the factory where his father has worked all his life. The plot thickens when the managers use his idealistic suggestions to engineer redundancies.

Cantet appears to be dealing with stereotypes: manipulative executives, devious paternalist boss, obstreperous shop steward. What's remarkable is that, with the exception of lead Jalil Lespert, all the film's players really are what they seem. Cantet recruited unemployed workers to play the factory staff; the boss was a real-life boss, and the shop steward a real shop steward. (This is not just a French art-film device: China's Zhang Yimou did much the same in his recent Not One Less.) The factory is a real factory, and it is amazing that Cantet was ever allowed to shoot such a militant project there; in fact, a new boss arrived at the factory shortly after the film was completed and barred Cantet from returning to photograph it for the film's poster.

Cantet's trump card is that he not only analyses industrial conflict but analyses it through people and their relation to language. At weekends, they speak the language of bars and the dinner table; but come Monday morning, they fall easily into union rhetoric and the convoluted argot of the French business world. It is a matter not just of wearing suits or overalls, but of wearing your language like a uniform that makes you think and move like a different person.

This is shopfloor drama with a touch of Roland Barthes. It is hard to describe Human Resources without making it seem like an arid social-studies tract. Yet Cantet's passionate film makes you re-examine all your preconceptions about what makes film drama involving. The industrial practice of "annualisation" may not seem the most promising screen material, but our own cinematic standbys of cheeky gangsters, clubland geezers and lovable young lads look pretty dreary in comparison.

Human Resources opens at the National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020-7928 3232), on September 15.

Jonathan Romney

The GuardianTramp

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