Julie Lecoustre and Emmanuel Marre’s Zero Fucks Given (Rien à foutre) is a character study about a flight attendant struggling under the indifference and sexism of working for a big corporation.
The film was one the 20 Best Films of 2022 so far.
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Late in Julie Lecoustre and Emmanuel Marre’s Zero Fucks Given, Cassandre (Adèle Exarchopoulos) does an online interview for a job as a flight attendant at a private plane company in Dubai. It starts out innocuous — she’s asked to explain how she’d manage certain difficult situations — but it gets increasingly creepy and invasive. How does she stay fit, the disinterested man asks, not because the job requires fitness but because the looking hot part of it does. Before making his final determination about whether she’d be a good fit for the company, he asks her to parade in front of the webcam, and turn around — making sure she looks the gorgeous, feminine part. It’s harrowing and the most explicit objectification that Cassandre faces in the film, but hardly the first case.
The enforced performance of femininity among flight attendants — from the mandated shaved legs to the training in smiles — is central to the job and to Cassandre’s complicated feelings about it. On her days off, she walks around with her unwashed hair in a rats nest, deliberately eschewing the physical appearance standards her job requires. On work days, she puts on bright red lipstick, neatly pulls her hair back, and squeezes into a tight, form-fitting skirt-and-blazer uniform. There’s a particularly funny and grotesque scene in which Cassandre and a group of female flight attendants go to CPR training while in uniform. Their tight skirts and high heels are, to say the least, hugely inconvenient for performing this potentially life-saving task.
When we first meet Cassandre, she’s in an endless cycle of work, partying, and casual sex. She doesn’t seem to enjoy any of it very much, and it’s not leading anywhere. At a club, she tells a man she has no interest in a relationship, only in a one-night stand. At work, she flies around the world and back, never getting to spend time at any destination: she might as well not have gone anywhere at all. At this point, the film’s title seems to describe Cassandre’s state of mind: she gives zero fucks about her work or her personal life, but there’s no off ramp for this cycle.
Yet her work is something she seems to care about if not enjoy, even if that may be partly because it’s an escape from her personal life. Because she works for a Ryan-Air-esque cheap flights company, Wing, a big part of her job is to sell Duty Free ware on each flight, and she is constantly exceeding her sales targets. In an early scene, we watch her move down the aisle of the plane with a garbage bag to quickly clean up the mess before the next flight; she props herself up by the arm rests to check the overhead bin is empty in each row. It’s efficient, practiced, and conscientious. She even accepts extra holiday shifts without a second thought, though given how her sister takes the news, we suspect Cassandre may be using her job to avoid her life.
When Cassandre learns that her contract is expiring, and the only open positions would require a promotion, she reluctantly acquiesces to the training required to upgrade to becoming cabin manager. Surrounded by colleagues who are looking to move up in the airline world, Cassandre is inspired to start thinking seriously about the future of her career: could she get a job at the more prestigious Emirates airline? The training, which involves learning to smile for thirty seconds and CPR in inappropriate attire, also emphasizes the importance of having empathy for your passengers and how to defuse difficult situations. When we see Cassandre back on the job, she’s carefully applying what she’s learned.
Becoming the head flight attendant (or “cabin manager”) at Wing seems to bring out the best in Cassandre: with such responsibilities, she starts to care for her passengers’ wellbeing instead of merely enforcing the rules. She also cares for the people she’s managing, and she gets in trouble for it, which means getting phone calls from a soulless — of course, male — middle manager who reprimands her for what seems like perfectly reasonable behaviour. When she rates her colleagues’ work too highly for a flight where they didn’t meet their sales quota, she gets lambasted for lying. When she explains the mitigating circumstances — there was turbulence and it wasn’t the flight attendants’s fault — she’s told that she both should have explained all of this and that it’s not an adequate excuse. Cassandre’s instinct to show empathy for a crying passenger and comfort her, offering her a free drink which Cassandre pays for herself, ultimately gets her fired. She’s informed she should have followed the rule book and not given the passenger special treatment, and yet, she’s actually following the instructions she got on her training to treat the passengers like people.
Cassandre’s dismissal leads her to leave her rented flat in the Canary Islands and to finally go home to Belgium to see her father and sister. There have been several references to Cassandre’s dead mother throughout the film, and it’s in this final chapter in Belgium that we understand how much her grief has pushed Cassandre into her “Zero Fucks Given” approach to life. Suddenly, home for what might be the first time since she became a flight attendant, Cassandre must defend her career path to her friends and family. There’s a scene over dinner in which her father doggedly refuses to acknowledge Cassandre’s promotion and increased responsibility as a cabin manager, and she’s forced to defend the importance of her work.
The Belgium sequence opens up the film’s examination of the sacrifices to your identity made in the name of work. Cassandre’s father is a real estate agent, and her sister works for him. There are repeated references to the need to keep up appearances in their line of work, from the clothes they wear to the car they drive. These requirements are less gendered and gross than the ones Cassandre faces, but it does contextualize the dehumanization that is ubiquitous thanks to capitalism. By the end, the title seems less to refer to Cassandre’s attitude than to corporations’ treatment of their employees, who are seen as cogs in a machine or bodies to ogle rather than thinking, feeling humans.
Zero Fucks Given gives rare attention to the ins and outs of working a relatively menial job for a big corporation. There are constant reprimands from management for what seems like minor if entirely innocuous infractions. There’s fear among colleagues that one person’s bad behaviour (like not shaving their legs) could harm the whole team, which means there’s always a threat that your imperfect behaviour could be reported. At the same time, there’s little autonomy, too. Cassandre’s life revolves around a gruelling routine, which lets her live and play on a sunny beach, but prevents her from actually living — putting down roots, finding something to care about. It’s a film that deals with the minutiae of working life, like how the desire to upgrade your phone plan to an international one can become an endless bureaucracy when you’re on an account opened by your now deceased mother.
In the first third of the film, Cassandre feels constantly isolated despite being surrounded by her insensitive roommates and a constant stream of Tinder dates. Once she starts training to upgrade her job, she starts to have colleagues who matter to her, whom she can talk to and might actually help her. In the final third, when surrounded by friends and family, she feels most alone. Yet there are beautiful moments of realistic connection. One evening, she and her sister are smoking in the backyard, and they have to repeatedly wave their arms to get the motion-activated outdoor lights to turn back on. Their father’s back is seen in frame, seated at the door to the backyard, as they ask him to tell stories of their mother: how they met, when they kissed, what their births were like. The family never fully figures out how to talk to each other, but they do connect in small ways that feel so real.
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