Captured by the Game


You are what you do. The phrase can evoke either Stakhanovite zeal or Bartleby despair. Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, a smoldering fireball of anguish and fury beneath its grave, chill facade, recasts the axiom as an unbalanced equation: What if your livelihood has absolutely nothing to do with who you are? The film’s premise offers a curiously liberating perspective. If the absence of work entails the erasure of identity, then so be it. You can always make up a new one.

When we first meet the fortysomething protagonist, Vincent (Aurélien Recoing), he’s driving around the south of France, goofy and gleeful as a kid playing hooky. He races a passing train, sings along to the radio, loiters in motorway convenience stores and on park benches. Occasionally he calls his wife, Muriel (Karin Viard), on his cell phone, asking after his three kids, reeling off the details of a day he never lived: long meetings, difficult clients. Vincent, it soon emerges, was fired from his consulting job a few weeks ago. But he decides to inform family and friends that he’s moving on to a swank new position at the United Nations in Geneva. As the adage goes, it’s easy to tell a lie but hard to tell just one. Before long Vincent is calling up old colleagues and soliciting get-rich-quick investments. He befriends a reptilian black marketeer (Serge Livrozet), who sees right through him, asking, “What’s true in your story?” Vincent himself, neck-deep in an ethical quagmire of his own making, barely knows the difference.

It would be reductive to read Time Out as a parable on the shame of unemployment. Vincent rejects several career opportunities throughout, legitimate and otherwise. A return to the workforce is inconceivable, the ultimate defeat. More to the point, his mounting anxiety notwithstanding, Vincent has earnestly reinvented himself as a petit-bourgeois life-actor, exulting in the thrill of spinning—and existing within—a fiction. But lying is desperately hard work—a bitter irony that does not elude the film. Aided by Cantet’s glacial pace, the actors convey the cumulative fatigue of concealment and willed denial. Late one night, a weary Vincent describes to Muriel the panic and dislocation that grips him on a daily basis. The emotions are unmistakably real but couched in entirely fabricated specifics.

Vincent is more a Ripley (who lives a lie) than a Billy Liar (who tells fibs), and Recoing’s meta-performance is an unemphatic marvel, his placid countenance stretched tight over telltale flickers: a quickly suppressed smirk of incredulous delight, a nervous twitch of chagrin, an abrupt pang of guilt. Viard, with much less screen time, tremulously suggests a tug-of-war between instinctive collusion and fearful curiosity. The domestic relations are indelibly etched, Cantet stressing Vincent’s role as a father and a son. His first feature, Human Resources, entangled a labor-management clash with an oedipal one; father-son interactions in Time Out are underscored by cash transactions and tinged with embarrassment.

Like Esther Kahn, Time Out is an existential thriller that generates suspense by heightening opacity. The social-realist clarity of Human Resources gets a luxuriantly moody makeover—an icy palette of slate and navy, a wealth of transparent and reflective surfaces—while Jocelyn Pook’s dolefully ominous string score approximates a shudder snaking up a spine. In its visual compositions, Time Out echoes the modernist anomie style, stranding its everyman in a succession of alienating physical environments. Vincent is most comfortable behind the wheel of his sedan (upgraded to an SUV midway through—the long shot that shows him off-roading, madly living out a Range Rover commercial, is perhaps the film’s giddiest interlude). Constant motion provides the illusion of freedom. What Vincent loves best, he says, is to be driving in circles, “thinking of nothing.”

The movie’s enormous sadness arises from its pall of inevitability. The viewer shares Vincent’s knowledge that he has told an unsustainable lie, and that each precarious new deceit takes him one step closer to eventual self-entrapment. Time Out opens with an extended take from inside Vincent’s car, early-morning condensation evaporating from the windshield and the outside world coming groggily into focus. The film ends with another sort of gradual dawning. The great pretender stares into the gray abyss of the rest of his life, and tells himself the most terrifying lie of all.

The train-wreck end product of the Damon/Affleck look-ma-I’m-making-a-movie TV series, Project Greenlight, Pete Jones’s Stolen Summer (Miramax, in general release) finds a Catholic cherub—in a cutely misguided attempt to convert neighborhood Jews—taking on a rabbi’s leukemia-stricken son. Made with no discernible craft and monstrously sanctimonious in dealing with childhood loss, it might as well be called Pray It Forward.

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Laurent Cantet’s Work Ethic” by Leslie Camhi