This would appear to be a study in the absurd as it applies to Japanese
business culture. Mostly, it's a sophomoric film effort drawn from a novel
by Belgium's latest literary toast, Amelie Nothomb, and tells the story of a
thirty-something woman returning to the country of her birth, Japan, and
fitting into a job with one of Tokyo's major corporations.
Author Amelie Nothomb names her poor, unfortunate lead Amelie, leaving little
doubt of the autobiographical nature of her work. Thinking that because her
Japanese is as good as her French, Amelie (Sylvie Testud - "The Chateau") she is beginning
her one-year contract with the firm as a translator. Nothing is further from
She is immediately treated with disrespect and ordered to perform menial jobs
around the office, or no job at all. It would seem that her Japanese bosses
and co-workers are uncomfortable with her, feel smugly superior to her or
just can't handle a foreigner in their midst.
Bosses yell and show no patience, even while creating confusion with
their lack of purpose. They seem to have no interest at all in plumbing what
abilities or expertise Sylvie might have to offer. She's ordered to make and
serve coffee during a high level meeting with a large corporate client. She
does so, saying something welcoming as she sets each coffee cup down. The
effort alarms everyone. She's ordered never to do it again on the basis that
her Japanese is too good.
As though that isn't enough of a punishment, she's then tasked to photocopy a
thick business portfolio. Each time she does it her temporary boss (who is
only one of the petty tyrants) declares it misaligned and orders her to start
again. While performing this drudge work, she's discovered by the only
decent chap around, Mr. Tenshi (Yasunari Kondo) who gives her an assignment
to work for him on an important report calling for research. Working on her
own time through the night, she delivers a laudable paper. But, again, it
gets her nowhere.
Instead, she's assigned to work under the immediate supervision of Fubuki
(Kaori Tsuji), a tall, elegantly beautiful ice queen of a woman steeped in
the ways of her culture, shamed by the fact she's nearing thirty and not
married, and convinced of her country's superiority over all others. Her
treatment of Sylvie, putting her to work in increasingly demanding or
demeaning jobs, seems a ploy to prove Sylvie's, and by extension her
country's, mental deficiencies.
The degradation of poor Sylvie is so unrelieved by the merest sign of
positive change and so brutal in the totality of its condescension, it
becomes annoying. Which robs director Alain Corneau's film of its
entertainment potentials, despite Ms. Testud's charm battle to make her
Amelie more than the script's one-note caricature. The director should have
known better and can't be excused for such a hopeless piece of work, no
matter what the success of the novel might have been.
It seems that, as Amelie is performing one of her many to-the-camera
monologues about her miseries and reactions to them, the words are pulled
from a passage in the book which may have read well but simply doesn't produce
the effect on screen that the filmmaker assumes it does. The satiric attempt
to condemn the prevailing racism and sadism in the Japanese business culture
is not served as well as it might have been because it's so drained of humor.
Her bosses' (Saito, Omochi, Unaji) foolish character exaggerations do little
The best thing that can be said of the film is that it provides a rare
opportunity for Ms. Testud's unique dual languages. We'd love to see her do
it again to greater effect.
~~ Jules Brenner