Coaxing intimate drama from the everyday minutiae of frustrated lives, French writer-director Marion Vernoux examines the deadening effect of unemployment on two married adults whose friendship turns casually into love. “Empty Days” starts out intriguingly, setting up an interesting dynamic between the two main characters and subtly conveying their loss of purpose and self-esteem. But despite its intelligent approach, the overextended exercise becomes as lethargic and unfulfilling as the protagonists’ existences and looks unlikely to follow festival duties with anything but minor commercial engagements.
A similar subject was given no less delicate but much more affecting treatment a few years back in Aki Kaurismaki’s superb “Drifting Clouds,” which created a sense of desolation and empathy with the story’s jobless couple that are only dimly echoed here.
Meeting one afternoon in a supermarket, Marie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and Pierre (Patrick Dell’Isola) discover they both worked for the same multinational firm and both have been laid off. Marie lost her low-paying menial job 14 months earlier while Pierre was fired from his executive position the previous month. By unspoken agreement, they grasp onto each other as a way of escaping the surplus of time to kill. Before long, their shopping trysts are taking place on a daily basis, but neither of them tells their respective spouse of the blossoming friendship.
While there is never any doubt about the romantic developments to come, their initial exchanges are almost formal, with just a timid hint of flirtation. Pierre and Marie appear to be on different wavelengths, but their shared sense of idleness and uselessness makes them fit oddly well together. The intimacy between them grows almost imperceptibly until his hopes are dashed over a potential position, and the resulting despondency draws them together as lovers.
Not much happens beyond the sputtering development of Pierre and Marie’s relationship, which is followed over the course of several months. And while this initially is compelling enough, the script by Vernoux and Santiago Amigorena soon makes all of its points and has nowhere left to go. Visually, also, the film gets locked into a corner; Dominique Colin’s agitated widescreen camerawork and awkward closeups begin to seem mannered once the characters and mood are established.
Bruni Tedeschi is sympathetic, though the actress has played too many of these nervous, embarrassed, uncoordinated types in both French and Italian productions, and needs to tackle roles that broaden her range. Playing a colder, less likable character, Dell’Isola effectively captures Pierre’s humiliation and loss of dignity with understated anger.