The Elusive Executive

The hardworking hero of Laurent Cantet's haunting, remarkable "Time Out" ("L'Emploi du Temps") spends many busy hours behind the wheel of his car, on his cell phone, studying flowcharts or, like many another stressed- out white-collar bureaucrat, canceling plans with his wife and children. But what we gradually come to realize is that Vincent's (Aurelien Recoing) real work is maintaining the lie that he is working. In reality, he's lost his job as a corporate-affairs executive. Keeping this from his family, friends and in-laws becomes a full-time occupation as Vincent sets about constructing a fantasy that is both more terrifying, and in some perverse way, more satisfying, than his legitimate life had been.

"Time Out" has the mounting dread of a thriller, but the suspense is internal. It has the stately, well-crafted anxiety of a Hitchcock movie, except that the protagonist and antagonist are one and the same. A movie like this could never get made in Hollywood: Cantet thrives on ambiguity and nuance; he prefers questions to solutions. (Compare this with the Ben Affleck and Samuel Jackson psychological thriller "Changing Lanes," a tense, well-made corporate morality tale that seems facile next to the French film: all the moral issues have been predigested for the audience.)

In Vincent's fabricated life, he's a U.N. consultant on Third World aid with an office in far-off Geneva. He gets his friends to "invest" in his made-up business schemes. But to repay them he needs to make money, which leads him to Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), a con man who sees through Vincent's charade, and offers him work smuggling fake watches across the French-Swiss border. Where will all these deceptions lead? Cantet's resolution is unexpected and brilliantly double-edged.

Cantet is one of the few filmmakers whose subject is the workplace. His compelling first film, "Human Resources," was set in a factory, and had an almost documentary feel. "Time Out" is more stylish and hushed, at once suspenseful and melancholy. It can't be neatly fitted into a genre, just as its hero--played with devastating understatement by Recoing--can't be easily dismissed as a psycho or a villain. This is what makes Cantet's film so unusual and so unnerving: it refuses to pathologize Vincent. Smart, sensitive and resourceful, he could be anyone displaced in a world of meaningless work, desperately trying to create a life that makes sense. Except that Vincent is creating it out of thin air.

The Elusive Executive | News