In 1993, Jean-Claude Romand, a doctor for the World Health Organization, killed his wife and their two children. He then shot his parents, swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills, and torched his tony suburban Geneva mansion. Unfortunately for him, the suicide attempt failed, and he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison. Sensational as the crime was, it was the apparent motive for his rampage that captivated the public: Romand, it turned out, had never been a doctor, much less worked for the WHO. For 18 years, he had kept up the deception, piling lie upon lie until the money ran out—which is when he decided to take his family’s life, as well as his own.
Time Out, a new movie by French director Laurent Cantet, takes its inspiration from the Romand case, but its trajectory differs crucially from its source. Cantet is more interested in the circumstances that produce someone like Romand, rather than the murderous pathology of a desperate individual. A surpassingly rich and urgent movie about the way we live now, Time Out takes as its starting point the lie that a lost soul tells his family and friends to preserve his place in his bourgeois milieu. Awful as the lie is, the rot, the movie makes clear, isn’t just in the liar: it’s also in the world that makes him.
The liar’s name is Vincent (Aurelien Recoing). Slightly pudgy and somewhat stolid, Vincent is a familiar, middle-aged, middle-management type: a wife, three kids, a smart home in the suburbs. Amplifying the sense of domestic security, his affluent parents live close by, if perhaps a little too close for comfort. There is an air of despondency and defeat in Vincent when we first meet him, and we find out why soon enough. Fired a couple of months earlier, Vincent has yet to tell anyone. He spends his days wandering the French highways and countryside, telling his wife that his jaunts are business trips.
The lies grow. Forced by his pushy father to spill details of a mysterious “job opportunity” in Geneva, he concocts a glamorous consulting position at the U.N. Cramped for cash, Vincent starts enlisting old college friends into what they think is a lucrative investment scheme via his new post. In the midst of all this, he meets Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), a hotel proprietor who moonlights as a trafficker of smuggled goods. Recognizing a kindred spirit in Vincent, Jean-Michel takes him under his wing, employing the increasingly hard-up Vincent in his smuggling operation.
Paced like a Chabrol film and just as riveting, Time Out initially presents Vincent as a rambling prole bereft of structure and community once he’s been evicted from his cubicle. A particularly affecting scene has him sneaking into an office building and wandering pathetically through the familiar sterility of a corporate space. Peeking in at meetings and rifling through stray documents, Vincent puts on the show of a man at work. Always watching others from behind windows and glass doors—some images recalling Tati’s Playtime—Vincent is also aware that he isn’t the only one doing the watching. His story is pervaded by paranoia, as his fear of being observed, of being found out, heightens with each new prevarication.
Predicated on Recoing’s ingratiating smile and inscrutable mien, the movie explores how work and identity have collapsed into one another. Halfway through, Vincent reveals that he had, in fact, courted his firing. He confesses to Jean-Michel that the only thing he liked about the job was driving to it; he liked it so much that some days he just kept driving. It’s a stunning revelation, and recasts all that preceded it. What seemed pathetic now takes on the edge of rebellion—the man who wasn’t there, it turns out, didn’t want to be there at all.
It’s easy enough to blame corporate culture for the woes of the world, but Cantet refuses such strident moralizing. Its hushed surface belying an indignant core, Time Out subtly depicts the everyday intercourse of business as a fatuous charade. In their insulated, gleaming boardrooms, businessmen are the exemplars of empty “globalization,” juiced by talk of open markets and investment returns. Their discussions of Third World business ventures smack of Western arrogance and willful ignorance of real world complexities. It’s the kind of hollow discourse that allows a scam like Vincent’s to work: meaningless communication generates meaningless transactions.
This pessimistic worldview casts a pall over the movie. The liquid sadness of Vincent’s eyes portends the inevitable collapse of his scheme. Driving down the drab highways of eastern France in winter, at once liberated by and trapped in his car, Vincent is literally a man adrift. Cantet frequently shows the dimly lit road from Vincent’s point of view, underscoring our sense of a man feeling his way through the dark. The movie’s penultimate scene elaborates on this visual motif, as a distraught Vincent swerves into a field and walks out of his car, into the darkness, where the headlights can’t catch him.
Chafing at the demands imposed on the breadwinner, Vincent fabricates a carefree lifestyle that doesn’t surrender the perks of his bourgeois background or his position as the benevolent paterfamilias. Early in the movie, there’s a touching scene between Vincent and his wife, Muriel (Karin Viard), where she complains about the rut she’s in. Vincent sympathizes with her completely, and tells her that his new job will allow her to quit hers so she can pursue her long-sought degree. The impulse behind Vincent’s offer is oddly sweet and utopian—the fact that there is no new job doesn’t stop him from offering her a glimpse of liberation.
As in Cantet’s debut feature, Human Resources (2000), the dynamics of a father-son relationship form a significant subtext in Time Out. Vincent lives forever in the shadow of his father. This insecurity is apparent in Vincent’s relations with his eldest son, whom he spoils with generous handouts. An impromptu gift of 500 francs to his son brings to mind a check that his father has previously written for him. When Vincent buys an SUV, one gets the sense that he does it as much for his son’s approbation as for his own enjoyment. (The son promptly shoots down the purchase as less extravagant than that made recently by a friend’s father.)
A keen sense of inadequacy—as a man, father, and son—underlies Vincent’s quiet, momentous insurrection against the working world. It’s not for nothing that early images of Vincent feature random kids running around in the frame—they’re subliminal emblems of the freedom he desires. His own childishness becomes clear when his story finally catches up with him, at home, in front of his family. Trying to avoid a talking-to from his father, he climbs out of a bedroom window, a poignant evocation of his regression.
But Time Out doesn’t end with Vincent’s escape. In a shattering coda, we see a “rehabilitated” Vincent getting back on the horse for another go. He oozes confidence and eagerness for a new job, in an interview arranged for him by his father. Vincent tells his prospective employer, “I’m not afraid,” but his faltering smile barely masks the falsity and the familiarity of the sentiment: it’s the forced enthusiasm for a job one doesn’t want. Time Out may start with a lie, but it ends with a bigger one. The tragedy, Cantet suggests, is that it’s a lie we all, sooner or later, will have to make.