The mundanity of office labor is a subject that's always rife for comedy. There's something about the cordiality of cubicle routine that just works well for subversive little flicks like [i]Office Space, Clockwatchers[/i] and [i]Haiku Tunnel[/i], three films which wring often-painful laughs from the pleasant personas that people present to their co-workers and the darkness just underneath the surface.
At first, [i]Fear and Trembling[/i] seems not only to be this type of film but the ultimate version of this type of film as Beligan translater Amelie (Sylvie Testud) gets a job working at an office in Japan. Not only are the social office mores presented with a smirking feel of how silly they are, but they're Japanese social office mores, probably the trickiest and most cryptic of mores for a neophyte to grasp.
Amelie's first day begins with her bypassing the secretary to let her boss know she's arrived, and it's downhill from there, as virtually everything she does seems to end up getting her called into a superior's office for a minor infraction of Japanese coda. Amelie at first feels comfort in her beautiful female boss Fubuki, as Fubuki's superiors progressively demand more and more from Amelie in an effort simply to keep her busy with meaningless tasks, but soon Amelie errs and Fubuki ends up on her case as well, giving her demeaning and complicated tasks just to humiliate her.
All of this is done through the eyes of Amelie herself, a perky, cheery girl who never quite seems to be so put-upon that the movie becomes depressing. Instead, it plays like a dark comedy of Japanese manners, as our leading lady jumps through hoops just to follow orders in a society that won't fire her with a determination that she won't quit. Even when she's reduced to scrubbing toilets Amelie has an aire of dignity about her, moreso, in fact, than the superiors who blindly follow moral code believe they have.
In the finale, though, the office dark comedy that [i]Fear and Trembling [/i]most resembles is[i] Secretary[/i], a film more about power plays in relationships than a mockery of forced manners in workplace settings. Amelie finally learns that the co-existance she has with her superiors is about power rather than manners, and her final play at the job eludes to a relationship that's more S&M than S&L.
Alain Corneau, director of the overrated [i]All the Mornings of the World,[/i] envelopes the film in a steady, slightly-smirking tone that manages to turn the tables on the audience just when they think they know who they're supposed to be laughing at. Some of the characters border on stereotype, like a constantly-eating executive the size of a sumo wrestler, and Amelie's occasional meanderings into daydream do nothing to advance things, but these are more minor distractions than real complaints. [i]Fear and Trembling[/i] is an entertaining comedy of manners that's certainly worth seeing for anyone who's ever spent time under the glow of a flickering florescent lightbulb.