Time Out (2001)
a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
You know what it feels like to get up early and drag yourself to work on one of those beautiful days that just shouts “Vacation” at you. Right? You’ve been there, done that? If not… be grateful.
It is a sad reality of this life that we must work hard, often at jobs that are less than fulfilling. We watch the clock. We stare out the window. We sit in meetings and realize how much time is slipping down the drain, how much life is passing unlived. Some of us are fortunate enough to pursue our passions for a living. Most do not.
Time Out is a movie about work, and about the desire to be free of it. The film’s main character has had enough of the workday world. He has decided to pretend he can live without it. But this requires that he fool the rest of the world into thinking he’s still at work. Because the world will not tolerate a successfully work-free man.
Vincent is a liar. Worse, he is a liar who is slowly growing braver in his deceit. He’s fooling his friends, colleagues, and family. He’s got them all convinced that he’s happy and successful in his job, and that he’s considering a career change. He tells them he’s being offered a job with the U.N. But the truth is, he has been laid off. He’s unemployed. And even worse… or better, depending on how you look at it… he likes being jobless.
Vincent is growing addicted to his secret freedom. Every day is a new adventure of spontaneity and discovery. It’s the antithesis of a dull, bureaucratic office job. He spends his days driving around in the French countryside alone, watching people and taking naps in hotel parking lots. Occasionally he calls his wife to tell her about his busy day and his meetings; then he goes for a stroll and amuses himself spying on schoolchildren or buildings full of oblivious office employees.
Often, Vincent is confronted or questioned. Each time, he cleverly fills the conversation with confident speeches and informed questions, synthesizing a convincing persona based on his previous work experience. He seems completely serious. It is unsettling because we know he is making it up as he goes…and he’s enjoying the risk. One morning, on a whim, he sneaks into a busy office building and passes like a ghost, or like the angels in Wings of Desire, right past busy employees who don’t stop to wonder who he is. He knows how to look professional, so he fits right in. He presses his luck, going farther and farther in, to see how far he can go before he is stopped.
Vincent’s adventures give him more and more confidence, greater and greater thrills. He takes the next step. He starts using what he knows to manipulate people. After all, there are bills to pay and he needs the money.
While Vincent seems almost psychotic at times, the film’s brilliant trick is to make us envy him. He seems to have discovered a freedom, a perpetual vacation. By living a lie, he is able to voyeuristically enjoy the city and the highway, without the stress of a job, without real deadlines or pressures. One early scene crystallizes the quality of his happiness—he drives along in his plush sedan, parallel to a crowded commuter train, chuckling with smug satisfaction as he observes the crowded masses on their way to tedious day-jobs. The car is his bubble, his security. It gives him everything he needs and shields him from outside trouble.
And yet, as the film goes on, Vincent realizes that more and more he is looking at people through glass, as though the workers of the world, the marriages, and the families are exhibits in a bizarre zoo that he does not understand or desire to join. He is withdrawing from human contact altogether. Cantet’s film paints the world as a cold, forbidding place. There is glass everywhere, fog, and snow. It is as though Cantet is suggesting that we are not only insulating ourselves as individuals, but also as a collective…busying ourselves so that we deny our own insufficiencies.
In what will probably remain the scariest scene of the year, Vincent takes someone close to him on a stroll through the snow. The camera focusses on the back of his head as he walks… and walks… and walks… We are drawn to the edge of our seats. We know he is on the edge of doing something extreme, something dreadful. He’s getting braver and braver.
A man can only go so far living in such denial. As Vincent slowly learns the cost of his freedom, he is drawn dangerously near to the edge of madness. Actor Aurelien Recoing gives what will be remembered as one of the finest performances of the year, giving Vincent a variety of subtle twitches and false smiles that keep us on edge. Even when he’s draws from previous employment experience to fabricate his identity, we’re not sure if he every really worked anyplace at all. He’s one of cinema’s all-time great liars, and the story brings him to the inevitable consequences.
Some moviegoers may find it slow-going. Cantet takes his time, letting us become almost comfortable in Vincent’s presence, then shocking us with the audacity of his lies and his willingness to deceive his loved ones. But the film is not just about one man’s journey into denial. It is also about work, about the way that modernization drives us to tedious tasks and makes us feel unimportant. We’re left with a curious tension. We don’t want Vincent to succeed in his deception, because it is destroying his beautiful family and his friendships. But we don’t want him to confess, to shape up, or to get another job either—the workaday world is a nightmare all its own. Which nightmare is worse?
In this light, Vincent’s marriage and his children shine through as one of the last true things in the world. It is the only place where real love, where real connection seems possible. The only time in the film we see Vincent truly happy and enthusiastic is when he watches his son in a wrestling match. That’s life: meeting the challenge head-on and taking it to the mat. In our efforts to make ourselves safe and comfortable, how much of life’s nourishing challenge have we lost? We have built ourselves a world that is crowded and rushed, full of lonely people laboring all day long so that they can earn enough money to insulate themselves all the more.
Time Out is one of the most challenging films of the year. For those willing to consider its tough questions, it will become a rewarding experience.
Directed by Laurent Cantet; written (in French, with English subtitles) by Robert Campillo and Mr. Cantet; director of photography, Pierre Milon; edited by Robin Campillo; music by Jocelyn Pook; production designer, Romain Denis; produced by Carolini Benjo. Running time: 132 minutes. This film is not rated. Shown tonight at 6 and tomorrow night at 9:15 at Alice Tully Hall, at Lincoln Center, as part of the 39th New York Film Festival.WITH: Aurélien Recoing (Vincent), Karin Viard (Muriel), Serge Livrozet (Jean-Michel), Jean-Pierre Mangeot (Father), Monique Mangeot (Mother), Nicolas Kalsch (Julien), Marie Cantet (Alice) and Félix Cantet (Félix).
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