Time Out (L’emploi du temps) (2001)



Reviewed by Emily Manthei


Laurent Cantent’s tightly wound psychological drama is a nerve-wrecking, heart-wrenching piece based on actual “stranger than fiction” events in France. Taking a horrific story of scandal and murder, Cantent’s sophisticated sophomore film explores the very human, very ordinary side of a story about the great lengths to which a man’s self-deception can lead him.


Aurelien Recoing stars as Vincent, a regular, middle-class Frenchman, calling his wife from the office to tell her he’ll be late. Only, he has no office from which to call; he has no job at which to stay late. At first, hiding his redundancy from his family and friends makes Vincent seem pathetic, insecure, ashamed – a man to be pitied. But soon, we see that his deceit is a sort of game that he plays, always pushing further towards the edge. At first, he begins to drop hints that he may be leaving his current job for a post with the U.N. in Switzerland; when pressed by his parents and his wife, he admits the job is already set, and eventually asks his father for a loan with which to buy a flat in Geneva. But as the lies multiply, his remorseless façade seems to penetrate his own consciousness, almost as if he is convincing himself of his own fabrications.


The weeks spent in “Geneva” away from his family do not give way to job-searching or even sight-seeing; instead, he spends his days aimlessly trolling around office buildings, driving endless kilometers, and calling his wife to tell her how he misses her. Upon return home, he invents projects about which to tell his father, creating hours of business-talk around the table. He gives his wayward son copious amounts of pocket money, in an attempt to buy some confidence from the kid. Eventually, with little effort, he develops a Russian investment scheme in which he asks some old school acquaintances to invest. Far away from home, in a nondescript hotel lobby, he schedules appointments in which he provides vague details and gives few answers to potential “clients” – yet he always steals away with their francs, and, with an expression neither happy nor sad, adds them to his growing pile of hard-unearned money.


Things finally come to a head when another patron of the hotel, Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), finds him out, and threatens to expose him. But instead, Vincent goes to work for Jean-Michel, who acquires and sells illegal imports. Finally, Vincent can be completely honest with someone – another criminal. His wife remains in the dark until, after a bizarre encounter with Vincent, a former colleague telephones her and reveals that Vincent had been fired some time ago. Vincent returns home, unaware of his exposure, and faces a firm inquisition from his wife and children, the results of which shape a chilling, decisive climax.


The careful, restrained style and long, melancholic shots seem to reveal a Hitchcock-like streak in Cantent’s work, building a thick layer of suspense that still manages to avoid a heavy hand. With such an unhurried pacing, it is a wonder that one could be on the edge of one’s seat during the entire film, but my heart was racing in anticipation. Everything about Vincent is spontaneous, un-premeditated, and therefore risky, as if the viewer were becoming more involved, more complicit, just as Vincent is, as the story progressed.


Vincent’s measured, ordinary appearance and personable demeanor make him an unlikely suspect for the cunning, merciless resolve he demonstrates in his schemes, making him slightly reminiscent of Joseph Cotton’s personable Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, to further take the Hitchcock comparison. In what I consider the most poignant scene of the film, Vincent reveals to his wife that he is struggling at work. While he exposes his entire catalogue of angst to her, she believes he is talking about his U.N. job. The pitch-perfect writing and utterly minimal acting deliver a chilling tone in this scene, which shocks with its honesty as much as Vincent has previously shocked the audience with his lies. 


Cantent’s subject matter, in Time Out as well as its predecessor, Human Resources (and eventually the hugely popular The Class in 2008), rests firmly in the ordinary, mundane appearances of life and the extraordinarily people that lie within this nondescript framework. Constructed within the brutal structure of reality, Cantent uses what seems like a documentary eye to envelop the viewer in this world; but, of course, what transpires is anything but ordinary, and his deliberate, careful approach assures the audience’s interest as much as the characters and scenario do.


Cantent’s first feature, Human Resources, was recongnized with a Cesar (French Academy Award) and selection in the Sundance Film Festival. Time Out received the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, as well as being selected for the Toronto and New York Film Festivals. His 2006 film, Heading South, was also a success at the Venice Film Festival, but it was his 2008 film, The Class, which won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Academy Awards that has catapulted him onto the international mainstream stage.