Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:06 pm 
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A hypnotic study of work and identity

Laurent Cantet's 'Time Out' ('L'Emploi du Temps') is a suspenseful thriller about joblessness and identity, family and friends, the modern void many of us live in from day to day. ('The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,' as Thoreau said.) When the movie begins Vincent is already driving around, sleeping in his car, and calling from the hyperspace of his

cell phone to pretend to his family that he's still at work. Later he admits he's not at his old job but claims he's working in Switzerland at an even better one, for the UN, helping developing nations in Africa. When we see him on his wanderings in hotels, parking lots, and corporate headquarters we feel he's killing time (the French title, 'L'Emploi du Temps' simply means 'use of time') but also fantasizing, escaping, and gathering material for his scam. He's creating a new life for himself, and when he's back among friends and family he's enthusiastic. The fantasy has him excited and the 'job' contains the one thing he liked about his old job - the long drives - without the boring meetings and paper work.

The friend I saw 'Time Out' with has experience with the unemployed and said this behavior is commonplace: lots of people who are out of work pretend they're not. But the movie doesn't feel commonplace to me. I feel it creates a 'new cinematic language,' as they said of Antonioni's 'L'Avventura,' which had a similarly dreamlike, glacial pace. In both cases the mood is compelling and hypnotic. 'Time Out' also evokes some of the films of Chabrol, or the Ripley novels of Patricia Highsmith, in showing an apparently conventional bourgeois character who underneath is isolated, strange and scary. The power of such pieces is the tension between the conventional and the criminal. Vincent is soon doing something illegal - bilking friends and former co-workers out of large and small sums of money in a get-rich-quick scheme that's supposed to relate to his connections in Africa - and then he's recruited by Jean-Michel (the smooth, reptilian Serge Livrozet), a dealer in contraband. It's strange to see how conventional Vincent always seems through all this. But the really shocking thing is that he's pretending to be someone he isn't not just to his friends and former associates and anyone he meets but also to his wife and three kids. A strange sense of disquiet comes over us as we see Vincent getting away with all his scams. It seems nothing will ever go wrong for him but we know he is doomed. Or is he? The ending is the biggest surprise of all.

Aurélien Recoing, the gifted movie newcomer who plays Vincent in 'Time Out,' looks something like Kevin Spacey, but unlike Spacey he isn't sly, self-conscious, and stagey but has a recessive manner. When an emotion plays across Recoing's face it seems teased out of him from outside rather than projected from within. His apparent joy at his invented new 'job' puts us off guard because we'd expect his twilight-zone wandering and the unemployment he's hiding to depress him. His older son Julien (Nicolas Kalsch) is cool and wants to ignore Vincent, but does he 'suspect'? I don't think so; I think Julien is just being a rebellious teenager - at first. Julien's steady, straightforward demeanor is a point of reference for the movie. He's the only person in the family who's sure, in his limited way, of who he is and what his values are. Vincent's wife, Muriel (Karin Viard) is on the cusp, uncertain, suspicious, but a lover as well as a wife, willing to respond to whatever signals Vincent sends out. When she meets Vincent in Switzerland there's a disquieting scene where she keeps seeming to disappear in the snow. The scene reflects her uncertainty. Will she follow Vincent wherever he goes? Almost imperceptibly as the movie progresses the situation becomes more and more dangerous for Vincent and his fabricated world seems about to explode.

The paradox is that Vincent is trying to be free by deceiving everybody and reinventing himself, but he is completely the slave of their expectations and of his scams. His family is always present to him and to us - isn't the whole game primarily for their benefit? -- but he's terribly alone. In signaling that aloneness, again Julien is a key figure because Julien avoids his father, then rejects him. Muriel is searching for him, looking into that recessive face, going over his body, trying to find a truth she can respond to.

It's worthwhile to see 'Time Out' as a riff on a theme rather than a pedestrian recreation of the true story it's based on - whose dramatic ending Cantet has removed. The movie doesn't just tell a story, though it's full of the suspense a good story contains. It's a disquieting mood piece that shows how we're all groping toward identity - often feeling like we're frauds - and how modern office workers are detached from anything real. Cantet's previous movie, 'Human Resources,' was about a factory strike and dramatized the conflicts between a working class father and his well educated son who, as a manager, is expected to supervise his own father's early dismissal from a lifetime spent at the factory. Not many directors could have made such a social issue both so intellectually clear and so emotionally fraught. This time Cantet has continued his study of labor issues but carried them to a philosophical, indeed existential, level, and 'Time Out' is a more original and thought provoking movie than 'Human Resources.' Its dark, mournful vision creates a disturbing aftereffect. Instead of murdering his family, as the real-life original of Vincent did, or simply disappearing, as he seems about to do, this Vincent reappears seven months after his firing to be offered a plum job at a new firm. We know he will not like this job. It's a terrifying 'No Exit' finale, very upbeat and absolutely depressing.

June 3, 2002

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