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Family Values 

A new French film brilliantly questions our ability to know those closest to us

Time Out, a quietly powerful film from France, concerns an upper-class business executive, Vincent, who's been dismissed from his job. He does not tell his family he's been fired, however. Instead, he gives them the impression he's away on business, leaving the house every day to go off by himself, killing time. We watch, wondering what he's thinking, but the movie gives little away. Like its main character, the film is stoical and casually enigmatic, without ever seeming capricious. Its surface is unruffled naturalism, but any minute it seems that it could turn completely surreal. These imminent overtones charge the movie with anxiety, so that despite its stodgy exterior, it plays like a thriller.

The film is based on a real case, chronicled in Emmanuel Carrere's compelling true-crime story The Adversary. For many years, Frenchman Jean Claude Romand posed as an upstanding medical researcher, when in fact he had dropped out of school, and never held a job. It's unclear how he supported his family, though his wealthy and generous parents often gave him money. When the charade at long last began to unravel, Romand shot his parents to death and killed his wife and children, then burned down their home. Only he, somehow, survived the fire.

Afterward he spoke of his crimes in tones of patient, courteous rationality, offering detached, apologetic explanations, but he was clearly as puzzled by what had happened as the investigators were. What seemed missing from the account were the motivating factors of rage or passion. Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe the bureaucratic rationalizations of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Romand's case appears to reverse the formulation: It's a study in the evil of banality.

Time Out adapts the premises of this case, but though the threat of violence lurks mysteriously in every crevice, it resists the horror-show trappings. The movie is interested not in extremes but in norms, and it understands that what's most fascinating about this case is not its gruesome outcome but its ordinary, systematic mode of procedure. Its real precedent, perhaps, is Hawthorne's "Wakefield," a tale in which a man one day abruptly leaves his family and moves across the street, where he lives, undetected, for decades.

All these stories are about the vagaries of intimacy, the mysteries of unknowability. They explore the possibility that our intimates can be both fathomless and empty. Whole lives can be built on pretense, these stories suggest, and even if the inexplicable pretenses soon become ordinary routines, they must still have primal emotions lurking behind them, so difficult must they be to sustain, with so much at stake.

Hawthorne makes motivation paramount in his version by appearing to ignore it. It's as if we're meant to understand, without explanation, why Wakefield should be so eager for escape. Motivation is the primary mystery of Time Out, too, enforced in the movie's precise, cumulative, oblique methods of exposition. Approximately the first third of the movie shows us, neutrally and systematically, the rounds of Vincent's daily cycles. Because the film's rhetoric is so calm, little seems amiss at first. Only gradually do questions mount, and we begin to piece together the false notes. Why is Vincent sleeping in his car? Why does he tell his wife, in regular calls from his cell phone, that he's at a meeting, when we see that he's in a park? Yet he seems, in the domestic scenes, such an ideal husband and father, presiding lovingly over family dinners, enthusiastically attending his son's sporting events. The ripples disturbing the calmness of surface are small. We're shown, at length, how Vincent elaborates his fundamental lie, but we're not shown why, unless we can extrapolate the reasons from the methods.

The film is directed by Laurent Cantet, whose previous film, Human Resources, also dealt with work and family. In that film, a young student returns from Paris to work for the summer as a management intern in the provincial factory where his father is a laborer. The student abrogates the union to push through a well-meaning referendum, thinking it's in the workers' best interests, but the owners use it to justify downsizing, and the bitterly disillusioned student angrily joins the strike that follows.

Like Time Out, Human Resources reaches a quietly shattering conclusion. Both films register the difficulty of social change by presenting a return to the status quo as the ultimate tragedy, and reaching it in a series of terse, economically drawn scenes with little wasted motion. In Human Resources, Canet lingers briefly on images of the father at his work, stamping holes in plates at a rate of 700 per hour. The father is proud to have achieved such efficiency, and Cantet, straightforwardly humane, wants to take this pride seriously: It's the reward the worker has been able to find in his own labor. A more typically Marxist view of the alienation of such labor would expose this pride as false consciousness, as an attitude that keeps the worker subordinated.

Cantet's take on work would be fairly standard anti-capitalism if not for how he makes the theme implicate family. Those lucky enough to think they like their work, in Cantet's world, are little more fortunate than those whose work is clearly soul-killing and futile, and coerced by nothing but a need that is also coerced. When the son and the father finally clash in Human Resources, we're not sure whose side to take, and Cantet's films give the lie to right-wing family values. What the right thinks it wants to preserve, it destroys in its unbridled commitment to the expansion of capital, and the more we have to work, Cantet's films attest--as if we needed to be reminded--the less time we have.

But perhaps we do need to be reminded: Considering how much more we've all had to work in this country in the last 25 years, it's striking how few recent American movies have dealt with the theme of work. Striking, but not, of course, surprising. Our movies--themselves products of strange forms of labor--serve precisely to allow us to miss, or to refuse, opportunities to meditate collectively on our attitudes toward labor. In its way, Time Out, too, pursues a fantasy of escapism. Vincent is lightened by his pretense--we're not even always sure he knows it's a lie--and he is unburdened from work, if weighed down by lies. Aurelian Recoing, whose soft, waxy, ductile face sometimes suggests Kevin Spacey's, is perfect in the role of Vincent because he can project anxiety and buoyancy at the same time. The film's lush but austere score--by Jocelyn Pook, who scored Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut--contributes beautifully to the film's effect of mixing trepidation and lightness.

In the end, we realize, the anxiety was mostly our own, and Cantet's major achievement is to play on audiences' ambivalent attitudes toward work so artfully. Who doesn't want to get away from work? Yet we can't help wanting Vincent to go back--it would be so easy--and to drop the destructive pretense. Having built the plot so laconically, Cantet ends the film with a long, witty but mournful close-up that makes us see we only thought we wanted that. By any ordinary measure, it's a happy ending, and it will break your heart. EndBlock

  • The new French film, "Time Out," questions just exactly how well we can ever know those closest to us.

More by James Morrison

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