Time Out

May 15, 2002 at 12:00 am

For many of us, work is a rental agreement. For pay we grant our employers a certain use of our bodies and our minds. Vincent (Aurélien Recoing) has failed to live up to those terms assumed in the employment contract. Dispatched for client meetings, he overindulges himself in the sole pleasure among his duties — driving.

“Alone in the car thinking about nothing ... I could go on for hours,” he explains as he chauffeurs hotel owner and smuggling entrepreneur Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet) across the Swiss border through the deep snow of a heavily wooded road illuminated only by his headlights. “That ended up turning against me. It felt so good in my car, I had difficulty leaving it.”

Vincent drives hundreds of kilometers forgetting his turnoffs and missing his appointments. His boss becomes annoyed with his “lack of company spirit” and he is fired — or as Vincent puts it, “Negotiating my departure was easy.”

But departing the company isn’t easy for Vincent. Excommunicated, he becomes a stuffed shirt without a company. His white-collar identity has been stripped away and forfeited with his title. Beneath the dark suits (that he continues to wear in denied mourning for 10 years of his life) is a traumatized little boy. His inner child doesn’t act out his abandonment issues with an imaginary playmate, but by creating an imaginary consulting position in Geneva, Switzerland, with the United Nations. His family and friends unwittingly play along.

Soon Vincent is gleefully carving the dirt of an abandoned lot with a Land Rover purchased with money he’s conned from his father for an apartment in Geneva. He replaces his salary by making shady deals with former schoolmates.

As Vincent drives us through the French and Swiss countryside, we slowly arrive at a realization: A quiet desperation ironically fueled by his profound emptiness drives him to conceal his unemployment regardless of the costs. His character fills the term “stuffed shirt” with implications deeper than the Swiss snow.

External forces — from his well-fitted business attire to the loving touch of his wife Muriel (Karin Viard) — almost solely define him like the wrappings of the Invisible Man. Without them he comes undone; he’s a nobody. He carefully creates and crafts his make-believe job, an investment-opportunity scam, and pores over United Nations documents he’s appropriated from the Geneva office, memorizing them by heart as if his life depends on it.

And it does for him. When Muriel comes to Geneva to see his fictitious apartment, he performs a sleight of hand with their travel plans diverting her to an abandoned chalet outside of town for a romantic weekend. Losing her in a blizzard (its blanking whiteness a Hitchcockian symbol of dissolution), he looks like a lost little boy, an orphaned child.

Business is not a new cinematic subject, of course. Melodramas such as the Hollywood blockbuster Wall Street (1987), last year’s independent feature The Business of Strangers and the bitterly ironic In the Company of Men (1997) come to mind. But power — its exercise and abuse — beats in the heart of these films. Time Out, however, is about the powerlessness of alienation.

We ride with Vincent on cruise control looking through the safety glass darkly as everyday life (meals with family and friends, office work, children’s after-school events) passes by outside on the way to what seems to be some kind of understated modern tragedy. Time Out isn’t Death of a Salesman: It downsizes the dramatic flourishes of that plot to present a bottom line of real pathos. It’s more The Unraveling of a White Collar.

The alienating aspects of labor was also the theme of writer-director Laurent Cantet’s last film, Human Resources (2000). Though the focus of that effort was on the class struggle between workers and management, Cantet approached his melodramatic plot with an affecting realism that seems more maturely and subtly honed in Time Out. With this film, Cantet may be fast-tracked for promotion as the auteur of work.

Showing exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].