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Time Out / L’Emploi du Temps (PG-13)
Director: Laurent Cantet
Producers: Nick Dodet, Cellin Gluck, Garet Gluck
Written By: Robin Campillo, Laurent Cantet
Aurielien Recoing, Karin Viard, Serge Livrozet, Jean-Pierre Mangeot, Nicolas Kalsch

Rating: out of 5

The movies have long been a breeding ground for characters with secret selves. Witness the startling profusion of troubled souls leading double lives in a wide variety of films during the past year alone: Memento, The Bourne Identity, Mulholland Drive, A Beautiful Mind, Waking Life, Moulin Rouge, Spiderman, Minority Report, even the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader in Attack Of The Clones.

The reasons vary from amnesia to schizophrenia to the sudden onslaught of superpowers you would prefer not to reveal to your friends. Some characters go underground by choice, others by force. The root causes may differ, but the hidden gardens of the self often seem surprisingly parallel. These characters are what they hide and hide what they are. Cinema, which blends the real and the unreal, provides a refuge for such stories to flower.

Consider the undercurrents in this conversation between Vincent (convincingly acted by Recoing) and his son Julien:

Vincent: Why aren’t you going with us [on a family outing]?

Julien: I made other plans.

Vincent: What other plans?

Julien: With friends…

Vincent: Where are you going?

Julien: To the movies…

What secrets could be lurking in this familiar exchange? You know what teenagers are like. And you can understand his father’s concern—unless Vincent spies on Julien from afar, how can he really know where Julien is going? Kids always have something to hide. They’re always “going to the movies.” We never do discover Julien’s true destination. But then, the “caring” father has a secret that has penetrated the conversation like a slow-acting poison. In fact, this is one thoroughly contaminated tete-a-tete.

Just how sick is it? Julien has no idea that his father has also “made other plans.” Vincent lost his job as a business consultant over three months before. Afraid and ashamed, terrified, in his own words, that he “will disappoint”, simply pretends that he makes the long commute to his job as usual. The only part of his job he enjoyed was commuting. One day he realized that he didn’t want to get out of his car to go into the office at all. Since Vincent could no longer impersonate a team player, his boss lets him go.

We’re in on the secret from the beginning, as the film opens with a day in the duplicitous life. As Vincent drives down endless highways, he chats by portable phone with his increasingly suspicious, but still ultimately clueless, wife, Muriel ( Viard) about non-existent meetings and business trips. The universal availability promised by cell phones has never seemed more sinister, an essential tool for deception.

Vincent pushes his fantasy to the next level. It is no longer sufficient to pretend that he still works in his old job. Now he claims to have been hired by a branch of the United Nations in Switzerland, a country notorious for its neutrality and lack of national character. Unfortunately, in order to finance his secret life, he embezzles money from various friends. These trusting souls unwittingly participate in a metaphor that reveals the hidden truth of Vincent’s life: He has created his own dream factory to revitalize not only his bank account, but the fantasy world of his under-nourished, marginal self. Of course, there is ultimately no profit in it, even for him.

The most fascinating character in Time Outmay not be Vincent, but a man called Jean-Michel ( Livrozet). Vincent is cutting one of his bogus deals in a hotel lounge when the observant businessman deduces—as no one else in the film has—that Vincent is lying. Jean-Michel, a mover of counterfeit goods, offers Vincent a job, knowing perfectly well that he will hide that from his family too, and he never blows Vincent’s cover. In fact, he’s not above creating a fictional identity for himself and creeping out the audience in the process. When he comes to Vincent’s house for dinner in a hilarious scene, he drolly claims to work for the government’s “anti-fraud division” and lectures Julien, whose father comes in his own legitimate and black market versions, about the difference between real Nikes and their knockoff versions (the ones he sells for real). Jean-Michel is played with total conviction by Livrozet (an actor who did time for burglary in one of HIS earlier lives) in the film’s fullest performance.

Time Out , interestingly enough, has its own double life. On the one hand, Time Out superbly reveals, through subtle, stealthy dialogue and several heart-breaking scenes, just how fraudulent social life is—everyone trying to balance who they are with the expectations of others. On the other hand, Time Out frequently lets the elegant French arthouse tradition spell everything out for you. The endless shots of dark and rainy highways, the claustrophobic camerawork trained on lonely public spaces like rest stops and grassy medians, the aching score played by a lugubrious, but of course highly skilled, string quartet—all these elements signal to you, over every scene of Vincent’s self-imposed exile, that this is a tragedie moderne with a capital T and a capital M. SEE modern alienation! WATCH as Vincent drives on, haunted and alone! LOOK at what the soul-crushing work world has done to him! Even the pristine cinematography has an incurable case of the blues, as the filmmakers saturate virtually every scene with melancholy variations on the color of sadness, just in case you’ve missed the point. You know you’re in a classy film when the alienated hero’s hiding place is a remote, perfectly lit cabin perched in photogenic snow.

In fact, Time Out is consistently sleek and chic, all of a piece, controlled and complete. By the end of the film you may still feel curious about Vincent’s fate, but his situation has become numbingly familiar due to the film’s relentless esthetic consistency. Perhaps this explains why, in the end, the film does not know what to do with Vincent. In fact, it makes the mistake of deviating too drastically from the real-life story of the original “Vincent,” Jean-Claude Romand. Romand told family and friends that he was a successful doctor working for the World Health Organizaton, a fabrication that he pulled off for 18 years. On the brink of being discovered, he slaughtered his wife, children, and parents and burned his house to the ground.

Sticking more closely to the fascinating original may have resulted in a different set of problems for the filmmakers (bloody serial killers are not exactly fresh meat on the film scene) and we could all use more penetrating, incisive studies of what it really means to work and what it means to fail and to be afraid. But by turning Romand’s story into an elegant social message film in a swanky gift box and Romand himself into a middle-class everyman, I can’t help feeling that we’ve lost out to the urge to respectability yet again.

The film’s buzz as a virtual masterpiece may have more to do with movie critics’ dreams about their jobs as sensitive art-mongers than with the film itself. Not that I am beyond such circumstances. Perhaps this review is no more than a projection of my desire to impress you with my inability to be impressed. I guess you’ll have to make up your own mind.

—Ellen Whittier


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