Film festivals are by their nature notoriously cut off, isolated in such a manner they rarely function as the best place to fully appreciate or accurately evaluate the merit of new works. Laurent Cantet’s astonishing “L’emploi du temps” (“Time Out”) suffers from no such equivocation. It is a masterpiece, the best film shown in this strong festival.
Cantet’s debut feature “Human Resources,” distributed in the U.S. through the Shooting Gallery Film Series, was a marvel of political urgency, social verisimilitude and human conflict. Outlined with some of the same Oedipal struggles of that film, “Time Out” is a perfectly made, emotionally piercing and artistically accomplished examination of the desperation and despair of an essentially good and caring man driven to craven, absurd acts of self-delusion. With echoes of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger,” the movie presents a terrifying and gripping portrait of a man so alarmed at what he has become that he invents an idealized portrait to cover up his faults and limitations.
Vincent (the fantastic Aurelien Recoing) has the kind of body and face that seethes with contradictions, suggesting an eagerness to please and a strangely sunken passivity that heightens his own anonymity. He is a man without distinction. Vincent has been fired from his job as a consultant, information that he cannily withholds from his wife, Muriel (the equally excellent Karin Viard). He invents an extravagant counterlife as a United Nations operative with a new post in Geneva specializing in African aid and development. Overwhelmed by the demands of raising their three children, Muriel is excited by his apparent success, though clearly made uneasy by the vague details Vincent offers. Vincent finances his deceitful campaign through the unwitting support of his father (Jean-Pierre Mangeot), a man whose own privilege and success has clearly shamed the son.
Moving between Geneva, where he works out of a hotel lobby and an abandoned chateau in the snow covered Swiss mountains, and the family’s middle class French home, Vincent brazenly deceives his friends and former business associates. He devises an elaborate confidence game of securing cash for covert business speculation in Russia, promising outlandish dividends in return.
Cantet worked on the script with “Human Resources” editor Robin Campillo, and the first hour is a chilling portrait of social and cultural entrapment. In the first hour, the movie’s dominant image is glass, either the interior of the car where Vincent is frequently trapped, the architecturally beautiful office building in Geneva where Vincent engineers his scheme, or the dank and shoddy hotel where Vincent undergoes a perverse transformation.
Cantent is neither conventional nor a strict moralist, and the narrative trajectory is less concerned with the slow unraveling of his deceit than his symbiotic attachment to Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), a morally ambiguous businessman who exhibits a strange sympathy with Vincent’s plight, and helps with his own resurrection.
Cantet shows a remarkable affinity for the expressive properties of the cinema. Working with his excellent cinematographer, Pierre Milon, Cantet continuously reveals gradations of character and behavior. The camera pivots, hovers and dances around them, recording, observing, with discretion and clarity, the madness and desperation of lives desperately out of balance. Visually, Cantet creates fragments of startling, even sensual, beauty — the shot of Vincent’s car passing through the dark, with snow-lined tree branches as haunting as any image in recent cinema.
The subtext of both of Cantet’s feature films is the essential conflict between father and son. In “Time Out,” there is the powerful suggestion that the motivation of Vincent’s actions are to gain the love and support of his oldest son, a strong individualist in his own right who is the first to ferret out his father’s indiscretions.
For all of the film’s technical brilliance, visual skill and formal invention, what gives it a particular kick is the emotional depth between its characters. The movie ends with a poetic image of flight only to double back on itself and conclude with a devastating and ironic coda that occasions a new way of considering and contemplating what the movie has to say.
“Time Out” has also been programmed at Toronto, San Sebastian and New York. See it now; see it again. It is a special, transcendent work.