As a footballer, Eric Cantona was extremely hard to hate — even for opposition fans who hate Manchester United and every living soul associated with the club as a matter of principle. Cantona was too elusive a target for the toxins of football tribalism, but what set him apart was complicated.
It was his gladiatorial panache on the ball. It was those furious eyebrows, each one the size of most of his teammates’ entire hairdos, projecting over the soulfully primitive eyes of a cave painter. It was his unstable Sardinian temper — famously expressed in that kung-fu autograph for an unfortunate gobshite of a Crystal Palace fan. And it was his uncompromising pretentiousness — expressed in his popped collar and that famous press-conference analogy about trawlers and seagulls.
Cantona didn’t give a seagull’s ass about humility. He was unable and unwilling to be “down to earth”. And he has wielded that haughty charisma to fine effect in his acting career (even when playing an apparition of himself in the wonderful Looking for Eric).
But it’s a measure of his skill as an actor that he can switch off his charm like a torch when the role requires it — and what remains is an intensity that is both menacing and vulnerable. In Inhuman Resources (Derapage in French), a thriller series now streaming on Netflix, he plays Alain Delambre, a depressed, fifty-something former human resources manager who has been jobless for six years. Alain is broke and humiliated, and at risk of losing his damp-riddled Paris apartment. He develops an alarming habit of head-butting people who annoy him, and is fast losing the respect of his wife (Suzanne Clement) and his two daughters. He needs a break, but not the break that he gets — a job impersonating a hostage taker in a “role-play” exercise for a struggling aeronautics multinational.
The firm’s chief executive, the creepy Alexandre Dorfmann (Alex Lutz), needs to lay off 1 000 workers and automate a factory to placate profit-hungry shareholders. So he wants an executive to manage the layoffs who can stay the course in the face of a violent worker uprising. Dorfmann’s plan is to fake the hostage situation to test the nerves of the contenders; Alain is hired to turn their lives into a living hell.
If this all sounds contrived and implausible, it definitely is. But Cantona alone is engaging enough to merit suspending our disbelief, and Lebanese-French director Ziad Doueri (who was once Quentin Tarantino’s camera assistant) paints enough light and shade around the rickety plot to make it all digestible. That trick has become something of a French speciality of late — witness the similarly ludicrous but perfectly functional storyline of Lupin.
Inhuman Resources also shares with Lupin its construction of a Manichean struggle between the man on the street and the man in the boardroom. The class war in Inhuman Resources is much grittier and morally messier. Alain is a true antihero, and the writer of the source novel, Pierre Lemaitre, was initially not happy about the casting of Cantona, worrying that his charisma would dilute the darkness of the character. He needn’t have worried. Cantona could always go to dark places — and return unscathed, with his collar up.