In 1993, after nearly two decades of pretending to work for the World Health Organization, Jean-Claude Romand finally lost control of his charade and faced exposure. To avoid it, he murdered his entire family. The case made international headlines, and captured the imagination of the French filmmaker Laurent Cantet, who has since performed the simple but complicated task of seizing a great idea for a movie and making a great movie from it, namely Time Out (L’Emploi du Temps).
Correctly realizing that pathology is not drama, Cantet did just what Hollywood probably would not: He excised the singular brutality of Romand’s story, and recast it to illuminate a universal humanity. For a protagonist, Cantet devised Vincent (Aurélien Recoing), a well-off suburban executive who loses his job but would sooner fabricate a better one than tell his family the truth. When we first meet him, Vincent has pretended for nearly three months to spend his days away on business, lying to his wife about his whereabouts and daily agenda—which consists of ambling through convenience stores and among children on their way to school, or driving aimlessly through the car-commercial countryside.
The reason for his deception is not immediately clear, to us or to Vincent himself, but he isn’t simply ashamed; he seems to relish freedom from his working life enough to avoid rationally planning a reasonable alternative (perhaps he has concluded that none exists). Instead, he improvises. Vincent tells his family he’s been appointed to a distinguished United Nations post in Geneva for the remote development of African economies. Yet he bristles at their enthusiasm, as if for fear of jinxing himself. For the practical matter of sustaining himself, he cons old friends into investing in a vaguely described business opportunity (though he takes great care to explain that the venture is both risky and not above board), and borrows from his father, supposedly to set himself up in Geneva.
Enter Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), a smuggler of bogus designer goods who, drawn by the shrewd observation that Vincent is a good liar but not yet a great one, recruits him as a fellow black marketeer and protégé. In turn, Vincent, who faces mounting difficulty being honest with anyone, including himself, discovers an unlikely but necessary confidant; with his new kind of life comes a new kind of friend.
However staid his performance, it is understood that Vincent has become desperate, and the eventual collapse of his scheme seems inevitable. What can we do but watch in wonder? Cantet remains nonjudgmental, and nonviolent, but does not flinch from a kind of psychological brutality. The horror he presents is one of slow recognition: we’re made to witness the unmasking of a delusion.
In the same way he opts against the no-brainer of violence, Cantet nimbly moves beyond the increasingly easy target of mere corporate malaise. He doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence by patly deriding the fog of financial consultancy or the mire of bourgeois life. If anything, he is assertively ambiguous. The film opens on Vincent asleep in his car, motionless and turned away from the camera—a gesture, albeit an apparently passive one, that could signify insouciance as easily as shame. Later, when Vincent slips into an office building and distantly contemplates its industrious inhabitants, it could be with envy or relief. Is he flouting his freedom, or deeply regretting it? And finally, Cantet’s ultimate solution to Vincent’s dilemma could be seen as either clemency or a terrible punishment. The director obeys the European-cinema tradition of discretion, which makes for a compact and mysterious work, whose deliberate omissions and ambiguous resolution are precisely what make it so indelible, so capable of receiving whatever experiential prejudice we might impose on it.
If the film has a radical message it is a quiet and questioning one, about the troubled symbiosis of career and identity. Such a theme has borne heavy consideration from a variety of thinkers before—Marx and Melville come immediately to mind—but Cantet gives it a fresh workout.
Folding Jocelyn Pook’s darkly ruminative score into an environment of dusky shadows and shades of gray, Cantet controls the film very well. Given its firm pace and carefully portioned narrative line, it’s not surprising to learn that he co-wrote the script with his editor, Robin Campillo. But most elemental here are generous close-ups of the very watchable performers. Recoing delivers a subtle and confident study without once over-projecting—an impressive feat for a noted stage actor’s film debut. As Vincent’s wife, Muriel, Karin Viard does fine work too, saying volumes wordlessly, illuminating the dawning awareness of Vincent’s deception, and cycling through the attendant anger, grief, pity, and love with just enough of that special French-actress-mystery that is the core ingredient of international superstardom. Livrozet, who has real experience as a criminal, and a great face for movies, couldn’t be more right for the role of Jean-Michel. His expressions ripple with an unctuous but undeniable charm, and the weight of his life seems to cling to his shoulders like a wet wool coat.
Midway through the morass, Vincent confides that driving has always been a kind of balm for him, and was easily the best part of his former job; he was fired partly for spending too much time in the car. To demonstrate, a few mesmerizing, forward-looking views from the moving car are as close as Cantet comes to camera trickery. That, and the natural optical effect of occasionally engulfing his characters in suggestive voids. Vincent and Jean-Michel are constricted by the night as they sneak across a border; Muriel briefly slips away into a snowy white haze; and, in the penultimate scene, having been caught and confronted by his children, Vincent finally leaves the haven of his car, and walks alone into the dark, literally vanishing.
Time Out is the sort of probative story American cinema desperately needs, but seems too frequently unable to produce. It is Cantet’s second film (the first, 1999’s Human Resources, about a family conflict in a provincial French factory, also won awards and fond attention), but bears the depth and assurance of a filmmaker closer to the end of his career than the beginning. It requires a mature wisdom not only to understand the stakes and ironic consequences of self-liberation so thoroughly, but to dramatize them so gracefully. To Cantet’s credit, cutting out the most sensational element of the terrible true story that inspired him has only deepened his film’s resonance.