Playing the villain in a James Bond film can have calamitous consequences for an actor’s career. With that in mind and Quantum of Solace looming on the horizon, UK cinema-goers should treat Heartbeat Detector as a chance to see the great Mathieu Amalric in a good film while they still can.
Amalric plays Simon Kessler, an in-house recruiter and psychologist at the Paris subsidiary of a German chemical company who is tasked with assessing the mental health of his CEO, Mathias Jí¼st (Michael Lonsdale). However, Jí¼st’s response to Simon’s enquiries is that his disturbing behaviour is a result of something he knows about the executive who gave Simon his assignment, Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon). Namely, that Rose was one of the orphans brought up in the Lebensborn camps built by Heinrich Himmler’s SS. To further complicate matters, in the course of his investigation Simon finds some anonymous letters which suggest that it is in fact Jí¼st, not Rose, who may have ties to the Holocaust.
Lonsdale is one of the few exceptions to the Bond baddie rule mentioned above; in Moonraker, he played a billionaire industrial who tried to wipe out humanity using chemical weapons in order to repopulate the Earth with his own master race and director Nicolas Klotz makes full use of the associations he brings to the role of Jí¼st. However, while this is ostensibly a corporate thriller, Klotz is not saying that corporations commit genocide or that Nazis responsible for atrocities during the Second World War went into big business immediately afterwards. Instead, the film works on a more philosophical level. Thinking and even hallucinating about the Holocaust causes Simon to see the parallels between the dehumanising, dead language used by technicians at the Chelmno concentration camp – where the technique of feeding exhaust fumes back into vans to exterminate Jews was first used – and the language of corporate capitalism. Employees are not humans, they’re ‘units’. They’re not fired, the company is ‘downsized’. Klotz’s concern is that this suppressed humanity will find dark outlets, for example through mental illness and violence. Amalric is the perfect choice to play the product of this system as he has the same unpredictable, dangerous quality as other great actors such as Jack Nicholson.
Throughout the film Klotz offers several other possible languages, culminating in the final scene where Simon reads a list of the victims at Chelmno over a black screen, each name pregnant with meaning. The director also uses music to powerful effect with a soundtrack that includes Schubert and New Order as well as a great original score by the French musician Syd Matters. At 135 minutes the film is a bit too long, but this is cinema at its most thought-provoking.