Occupational Hazards

Laurent Cantet's Work Ethic

Work—most people hate it, but can't live without it. Laurent Cantet makes films about it. The 40-year-old French director explores the way livelihood shapes identity; his latest feature, Time Out, is a psychological drama about Vincent (Aurelien Recoing), a recently unemployed executive who constructs elaborate fantasies about a glamorous new job. "A religion of work surrounds us," Cantet says. "We're all devoured by this idea that being out of work is somehow shameful. Vincent lies not only because he's ashamed of being idle, but also because he wants to stay that way."

Thin and intense, Cantet radiates the nervous energy of a militant activist, though in fact he's always been a cultural worker whose imagination is fueled by politics. After attending IDHEC, the state-run film school, he made a prizewinning short called Everyone to the Demonstration! (1993). Far from polemics, his films are complex investigations of family dynamics. His first feature, Human Resources(1999), built patiently to a brutal confrontation between a working-class man and his only son, who is hired by management in his father's factory to come up with a plan for restructuring employee hours. In Time Out, Vincent, whose father is a grand bourgeois, has inherited a place in the world of bureaucrats and administrators. "Vincent didn't struggle for his place in society," Cantet notes. "It was given to him because of his milieu. And so he had the continual feeling of being a usurper."

The film was loosely inspired by the true story of Jean-Claude Romand, a man who pretended for 18 years to be a medical researcher for the World Health Organization in Geneva, when in fact he had no medical degree or legitimate profession. In 1993, when his secret was uncovered, he murdered his wife, children, and parents. (Romand's case is the focus of French author Emmanuel Carrere's recently translated book, The Adversary.) For Cantet, it's the starting point for a meditation on double identity. At one point, Vincent visits an office of the United Nations in Geneva, where his family believes he's working. "I tried to show him as a ghost," Cantet explains, "moving through an unreal world of distant sounds and glass partitions." This abstract architecture, he says, is the physical embodiment of the immaterial labor taking place within it.

"Globalization gives us the impression that everything is happening so far away," he says, "that we're almost negligible in the midst of a huge, powerful machine. It makes it harder and harder for people to feel that they have a stake in society." Cantet thinks he's found an answer to the problem of alienated labor in the work of French economists who have proposed a guaranteed salary for everyone. "Society generates a lot of money. Why should income necessarily be linked to labor?" he asks. "Just by recycling the money spent on social services, everyone could be paid for living. My film is also a plea for that idea."

In Time Out, the nonprofessional actor Serge Livrozet plays an amiable crook, who tries to help Vincent out of his dilemma. In real life, Livrozet was a safecracker; after spending time in jail during the '70s, he met Michel Foucault, wrote books, and became a militant anarchist. Cantet was inspired by a line from his biography. "At 14, Livrozet wrote, 'When I began to work, they told me I'd be a plumber,' " Cantet recalls. " 'And I understood that day that I was condemned to forced labor for life.' "


Related article:
Dennis Lim's review of Time Out

 
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