He’s V.P. of Nothing, And That’s a Consuming Career

Though Time Out ( L’Emploi du Temps ) is only Laurent Cantent’s second feature film, he’s already been hailed in The New York Times as “France’s foremost cinematic poet of the workplace,” an accolade he is reportedly reluctant to accept for obvious career reasons. Human Resources (1999) dealt more directly with the activities of the workplace itself, and the gut-wrenching tensions between workers and employers. By contrast, Time Out , written by Mr. Cantent and Robin Campillo, is virtually Kafkaesque in its tortured story of a suddenly unemployed mid-level executive choosing to pretend to his family and friends that he has simply changed jobs. This strenuous imposture stretches into weeks and months, and as usually is the case with such grand deceptions, our antihero Vincent seems to work harder at the pretense of gainful employment than he probably ever did at a real job.

Vincent is played by Aurélien Recoing, a leading French stage actor, with a curiously inscrutable style, masking his deepest feelings with the practiced half-smile of an eternally accommodating bureaucrat. Since he lives in a French town near the Swiss border, Vincent hits upon a plan to cover his tracks by claiming to be working for the U.N. in Geneva on an ambitious project to reduce poverty and suffering in Africa. He is thus supposedly always on the move from one conference to another.

In the meantime, he has to provide some real money for his wife, Muriel (Karin Viard), and their two children. For this purpose, he devises a Ponzi scheme handling imaginary investments, and entices his circle of friends and acquaintances with promises of enormous profits.

Vincent does, however, display a trace of conscience when an old friend without too much success in life wants in on the deal by investing his meager savings. This is the first scene that suggests that Mr. Cantet wants to have it all: a swindler bucking the system and fighting for survival amid his own chicanery, but still with scruples. His other friends ensnared in his web can presumably afford to be taken.

At the point at which Vincent’s scam seems about to unravel, he encounters a charming thief and smuggler named Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), who sees in Vincent the stuff of a partner with nerves of steel. With the money Vincent harvests from expertly organized criminal activity, he is able to return all the money to his scammed victims with a little interest added.

Unfortunately for Vincent, his deception has been discovered at home. His wife and father are prepared to forgive him, but his son feels betrayed and humiliated.

Mr. Cantet reportedly got the idea for Time Out from the real-life case of Jean-Claude Romand, who for 18 years masqueraded as a doctor with the World Health Organization. Facing exposure, he murdered his entire family, including his parents. Mr. Cantet has stated in interviews that though he was inspired by the double-life theme suggested by the Romand scandal, he did not want to explore its pathological elements. Instead, Mr. Cantet insists: “My character is very, very common. He looks like us and he has the same dreams. I wanted people to identify with him. The film is the story of someone who’s lying just to invent a way of living that fits him. I think we all dream of changing our lives, but Vincent actually tries it.”

The film is strongest with the maneuvers Vincent undertakes to kill time while he’s pretending not to be unemployed-he’s constantly driving from one non-destination to another and taking occasional naps in the car in between. There are always suspicious guards at office buildings and parking lots to remind Vincent, and the audience, that our unauthorized presences are always being monitored. Mr. Recoing endows Vincent with the necessary poise, plausibility and resilience to endure any number of near-humiliations that would throw a lesser pretender into panic and confusion.

I must say I felt a little short-changed dramatically by the manner in which Mr. Cantet muffles the climactic obligatory scene with Vincent’s family-and particularly his father, who had previously been conned into lending Vincent a large amount of money to purchase a nonexistent condo in Geneva. Talk about chutzpah!

Still, there is more than a subtext dealing with the spiritual inadequacy of most jobs. There have been a few American movies-mostly independents-that have dealt with this issue, but at a time when the average pay of C.E.O.’s is estimated to be 500 times that of their employees, I would think that there would be more workplace malaise on American movie screens. Where, for example, is the rush to make a movie on the Enron debacle? Playboy has already sent out a call for Enron’s female employees to pose in their bikinis. Yet the new bottom-line movie moguls are conspicuously uninterested in this biggest corporate scandal in history.

When Robert Redford urged the Oscar audience to take risks, he was greeted with thunderous silence. Perhaps Mr. Cantet can be persuaded-despite his disclaimers-to undertake an Enron film, with or without subtitles. On the other hand, François Truffaut once remarked that when he worked in a factory in his youth, the last thing he wanted to do at night was to go to a movie about people working at a factory. Perhaps we should treasure Time Out for what it is, and preserve it just in case there will not be many movies like it in the future. After all, the way of the realist in the cinema has always been a hard one.

An Auteur To Remember

Billy Wilder (1906-2002) was perhaps the last of the surviving master writer-directors of Hollywood’s classical studio period. His films provide his best epitaph, and here are my 10 favorites:

1. The Apartment (1960)

2. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

3. Love in the Afternoon (1957)

4. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)

5. Double Indemnity (1944)

6. The Major and the Minor (1942)

7. The Lost Weekend (1945)

8. Some Like it Hot (1959)

9. Ace in the Hole (1951)

10. Tie: Kiss Me Stupid (1964) and Stalag 17 (1954)

He’s V.P. of Nothing, And That’s a Consuming Career