Like his 1999 critical breakthrough “Human Resources,” the indignities of unemployment are again a central issue in Laurent Cantet’s soberly intense second feature, “Time Out,” which reflects on the thought that some people simply are not built to function in working environments. Inspired by the tabloid case of a family man leading a double life after losing his job, Cantet and co-scripter Robin Campillo desensationalize the real-life events, substituting physical violence with the crushing hollowness of inner defeat in a final act that bristles with powerful understatement. While it’s overlong and demanding, this elegantly directed, insightful drama — which won the Lion of the Year award for the Cinema of the Present category — should be propelled by critical support from festival berths into arthouse niche situations.
Factual basis is the widely chronicled case from the late 1990s of Jean-Claude Romand, a Frenchman whose elaborate deceit to hide his unemployment ended, upon his discovery, with him killing his family. Director Nicole Garcia (“Place Vendome”) is in production on a more faithful version of the story titled “L’Adversaire,” starring Daniel Auteuil. Cantet and Campillo, who also edited, have eliminated the pathological side of their central character, instead focusing on both the duplicity and the self-entrapment of a man whose life becomes a carefully constructed performance.
Having lost his job in corporate affairs but unable to tell his family, Vincent (Aurelien Recoing) continues to leave for work each morning and even takes business trips. Living the experience in a contradictory state of anxiety and liberation, he sleeps in his car and hangs out in parks and diners during the day. Creating a trap that seems to control Vincent as much as he controls it, he fabricates a new job opportunity as a U.N. consultant involved in Third World aid for a Swiss company. He borrows a large sum from his father (Jean-Pierre Mangeot) to purchase an apartment in Geneva, while his loving wife, Muriel (Karin Viard), and their three kids remain in France.
With his basic lie requiring increasing layers of shading and elaboration, Vincent gathers information, walks the corridors of the imposing chrome-and-glass corporate offices where he supposedly works, even studies fact sheets and company literature while camping out in an unused mountain cottage. But the need for cash forces him to concoct an investment scheme, which he convinces some former business school colleagues to buy into. This works for a while but creates conflicted feelings when another old friend, Nono (Maxime Sassier), learns of the investment opportunity and insists on entrusting his family’s meager savings to Vincent.
The fascinatingly detailed setup of Vincent’s ruse makes for absorbing drama, not least of all because unlike most scams, it’s more an act of survival and dignity than of trickery and gain. When the deceit starts becoming impossible to sustain, the film takes on a quietly wrenching quality of controlled pathos.
This begins with small humiliations such as Vincent being asked to leave the office building by security or ordered out of a hotel parking lot where he’s sleeping in the car. It continues with awkward moments when he attempts to placate his investors, when he forces Nono to take back his cash or answers his sharp-witted father’s questions about work. Most painful of all are his efforts to keep Muriel from knowing.
Climactic stretch is beautifully calibrated, building to an emotionally raw but dramatically restrained confrontation with his family in which Vincent registers Muriel’s hurt, the bitter anger of his teen son (Nicolas Kalsch) and the uncomprehending but judging looks of his infant kids (the director’s own children, Marie and Felix Cantet). Particularly affecting is the final coda, in which a solution is found with the help of Vincent’s father; while the outcome appears tidy on the surface, it clearly represents just another kind of deadening trap.
Keeping most of his conflict and desperation inside, theater veteran Recoing is utterly compelling. Both the script and the resourceful, subtle actor provide enormous insight into the troubled character, especially so in a scene in which Vincent describes the hypnotic pleasure he found in driving to work and the disappointment of arriving in the office, or his confession to Muriel that he fears not being up to the (phantom) job.
Insight also is subtly provided by reflection and comparison when Vincent meets and briefly goes to work for Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), a seasoned trickster who traffics in fake luxury goods and himself a fascinatingly drawn character. The only cast member frequently seen in French films, Viard is extremely moving, conveying how scared and unnerved Muriel is with only the quietest outward displays of emotion or distress, and making her inability to confront Vincent entirely plausible.
Camerawork and editing are simple and sharp, with zero visual distractions to compromise Cantet’s very measured, focused approach. Sole embellishment comes from Jocelyn Pook’s well-utilized, mournfully sonorous string score.