As Time Out begins, middle-aged white collar worker Vincent (Aurelien Recoing) has been out of work for weeks. He spends his days driving aimlessly through the countryside, chasing trains and napping. He stops now and again to call his wife Muriel (Karin Viard), telling her about the day’s business meetings and explaining why he won’t be home again that night. He sleeps in parking lots, dropping in to see his family just often enough to keep up the pretense that he’s still employed.
At first, Time Out appears to be a companion piece to Human Resources, director Laurent Cantent’s debut film about labor struggles in a downsized factory. The story suggests a similarly gritty, realist exploration of the desperation and shame of unemployment, and Cantent plays with genre expectations: how long can Vincent go on before he loses his home and family? Will he ever regain his dignity, working or not? Soon enough, it becomes clear that Cantent has precious little interest in social issues and that Vincent is anything but an everyman humbled by the lack of a job. Free of the bondage of a forty hour week, he struggles to protect his newfound leisure.
His initial lies seem innocent enough, attempts to spare his family any worry. As the film goes on, however, his stories grow both more elaborate and riskier. Before long, he’s convinced his friends and family that he’s taken on a new position with the United Nations in Geneva, one which requires him to stay away for weeks at a time and borrow money from his father (Jean-Pierre Mangeot) to buy an apartment. He puts far more effort into maintaining his lies than he does in seeking out new work – work that his powerful father could easily obtain for him – and eventually develops an investment scam, using the cover of his imaginary new job to bilk old school chums.
Cantent and his co-scenarist Robin Campillo aren’t particularly interested in spelling out the psychological motivations for Vincent’s lies. This portrait of passive aggression is built through accumulated details of performance rather than exposition: the grim, rigid smile Vincent wears like a death mask in every conversation, the darting glances to avoid making eye contact with his wife in bed, and, most telling, the relaxed slump of his shoulders as he drives, alone and content. Family tensions are sketched in but never used to explain away his behavior. His father, intrusive in his kindly devotion to his son, turns stern and reluctant when he’s asked for money, and Vincent suddenly adopts an adolescent whine as he presses his case. Recoing captures the postures and pinched tone of a man who is deeply uncomfortable in his own body, who’d rather be anywhere than with the people around whom he has built his life.
Cantent is a restrained director, drawn to deliberate rhythms and delicate performances scaled so small that the tiniest inflections become crucial. In Human Resources, his discretion kept a potentially ludicrous story from lapsing into melodrama. His approach is less successful here, pushing past calm and into torpor. Though Recoing is an astonishing actor, capable of making scenes in which nothing at all happens mesmerizing, the film finally requires too much of him. He unearths dozens of tiny ways to register discomfort and barely suppressed rage – the film is worth seeing if only for his brutal, heartbreaking final scene – but he’s playing a character defined by evasion and inaction. For all his efforts, Time Out finally feels underdramatized, too subtle by half.