Time Out
directed by Laurent Cantet
(ThinkFilm, 2001)

Not every thriller has to have chases and breathless suspense. Sometimes, the very act of getting through life can provide all the thriller-style tension we can handle.

L'Emploi du temps (Time Out) is a 2001 film that is a thriller of sorts, in a quiet, everyday kind of way. Director Laurent Cantet, who co-wrote the screenplay with film editor Robin Campilo, looks at the impact on one man's life of refusing to admit he's totally lost his way.

The man in question is Vincent (Aurelien Recoing), who's been out of work for months, but still hasn't told his wife, family or friends. Instead, he's going on business trips that consist of driving around in his car and calling to check in every so often on his cell phone -- he's fabricating important client meetings and he's refusing any help from a former colleague.

Truth be told, Vincent doesn't miss his job all that much. He'll admit to a total stranger that the only part he liked was the driving around. But aimless driving doesn't make the boss very happy. Vincent has been sacked and can't bring himself to admit it. He's passing his days racing a commuter-filled train in his car (and easily being outdistanced), eating lunch in the park and singing along to pop songs on the radio.

Of course, this arrangement of overnight trips to Marseilles and sleeping in hotel parking lots is certain to be discovered, so Vincent invents a new job: a prestigious United Nations position. And he talks family members and friends, some of whom can ill afford it, to "invest" in his new connections to make money. It's a deal that just raises the stakes of Vincent's deception, but still, to him, carrying on is preferable to 'fessing up.

We all know it will collapse. We all can see the pressure in Vincent's face, the doubt mixed with hope of his wife, Muriel. You can read it in her actions: she senses something is wrong, but so wants to believe her husband. And Vincent nearly tells her everything, telling her about the pressure of his new U.N. job, his fears he can't measure up, the feelings of inadequacy.

He's telling her about his alter life, of course, but never really comes clean. Much of the film's atmosphere only serves to emphasize Vincent's isolation. When he watches his family, they're framed like a portrait in the window of his modern, expensive home.

Many of the scenes hold only Vincent, alone in his car or in corporate lobbies. Cinematographer Pierre Milon makes the most of them, surrounding Vincent with fog or snow, making him even smaller than he feels.

The opening shot is beautiful: just a car's interior, with the outside world slowly revealed as the windshield's sheet of frost slowly dissolves. It takes a few moments before we realize that there's a figure sleeping in the passenger seat -- our introduction to Vincent.

To carry the film, Recoing must make Vincent seem more than just pathetic, more than a figure to be pitied. And he captures Vincent's universality, that part of us that's sometimes tempted (momentarily or permanently) to create a parallel world to live in, to refuse to admit failure, to shun the helping hands of friends and love of family.

There's panic there, but also anger, well buried, at his father, and frustration at his inability to connect with his own son. And by the time Vincent's ruse is up (you know it can't last), you'll just cringe at the inevitability of it all. His last line is a heartbreaker.

It's just a thriller of a different kind, a movie of suspense wondering whether Vincent will make it through his crisis or be crushed by his lies. There are few thrillers more breathtaking than that.

by Jen Kopf
14 January 2006

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