A lie supersedes life in `Time Out'

May 24, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC


*** 1/2

Pundits chalk up the widespread middle-class desire to get something more or different out of life to a celebrity culture that exaggerates the importance and availability of fame, power and outrageous wealth.

But writer-director Laurent Cantet, in the remarkable new French import Time Out (opening today at the Charles), knows that proper folk can grow dissatisfied when reality simply doesn't live up to their thoroughly bourgeois dreams of comfort and safety. His film homes in on the disappointed expectations that underlie white-collar anomie -- the yearning of a child for cozy protection and of an adult to provide it for his or her spouse and children.

The result is a deceptively low-key character study that brings you as close to the deceits of an appalling and pitiable individual as the needle on a polygraph. Vincent Renault (Aurelien Recoing), a financial consultant who lost his position after 11 years on the job, doesn't tell his wife Muriel (Karin Viard), or anyone else, that he was fired. Instead, he pretends to be a man on the move, calling home on his cell phone to report on overextended meetings in one far-flung boardroom after another.

Cocooning in his car, he appears to be a voyeur of his own life, checking in on Muriel and his three children long-distance while watching other men's children go to school. There's an odd, youthful feeling to his bland, round, but not fat face. As he watches a train hurtle past him, it seems his mind is racing in it or against it. He smoothes out his suit and squares his shoulders and marches into a high rise as confident as any of the employed. Director Cantet isn't coercive toward us and is in tune with his character. At first, Vincent's musings are as snuggly as security blankets.

But Vincent's underlying desperation emerges in all its vainglory. He concocts a master lie that he hopes will hide his multiple prevarications for several more months: He says he's in the process of switching jobs to a United Nations agency in Geneva. And then he declares that he's done it, going so far as to ask his father for the dough he needs to set himself up in Switzerland. This story permits him to play out his dream of being a worldly paterfamilias like his own blustery, successful dad -- and, better yet, covers him in a patina of prestige and virtue denied to his father, a mere businessman. It allows him, perhaps for the first time, to argue with his dad as an equal, even a moral superior. And it permits Vincent to release a spurious yet emotionally real enthusiasm that his previous job denied him.

Vincent loves the idea of being a well-off guy with three kids and a more-than-presentable wife; indeed, he's now able to comfort her, albeit in a condescending way, when Muriel complains that she is unfulfilled as a grade-school teacher and also feels like a domestic drudge. One of the movie's triumphs is that it permits you to share Vincent's sad romanticism about his fake status as a family leader. You sense his surge of satisfaction when he and Muriel see their eldest son hone his judo skills through a practice-room window in the twilight, as if the kids are on an illuminated stage and Vincent has supplied the lights. And though Muriel may be stuck in denial as thoroughly as Vincent is in deceit, Viard and Cantet provide moments of grace that suggest authentic feelings being squandered. When she touches the hair on Vincent's neck, the gesture's unexpected tenderness makes the hair on your own neck rise.

Time Out, with a steady suspense, takes you through the devolution of Vincent's pose. To keep it up for the outside world, he must con old school friends out of their nest eggs or investment money; to keep it up for his family, he must take over an empty chalet when Muriel wants to visit Switzerland, and make up for his absences with shopping trips and a cash gift as inappropriate as a giant tip. In a way, the deterioration of his bogus business mirrors the downfall of many a real business.

If the movie has a flaw, it's that the working out of Vincent's psychology is too perfect. Vincent's most unconventional and least wealthy friend is a house-husband happy to let his wife earn their daily bread while he takes care of the children and composes music. You're geared to think, "Ah-hah -- at last a fellow who won't allow work to define him." But to offset that brief flare-up of goody-goodyism, there's the character of a seductive crook (Serge Livrozet) who sees through Vincent immediately and wants to enlist him in his business: smuggling and selling knockoff goods. In a sense, he wants Vincent to accept Lenny Bruce's precept -- "Grow up and sell out." Vincent's tragedy, if you can call it that, is that he'll always feel like a boy sent on a man's job.

Time Out

Starring Aurelien Recoing and Karin Viard

Directed by Laurent Cantet

Rated PG-13

Released by ThinkFilm

Running time 127 minutes

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