Time Out

The real-life basis for Time Out, Laurent Cantet's masterful study of a white-collar businessman in decline, is the infamous case of Jean-Claude Romand, a wealthy Frenchman who claimed he was a doctor for the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. But Romand was actually leading a double life: He had never graduated from medical school, hadn't held a job in two decades, and was living off the savings he'd bilked from his parents, his in-laws, and his mistress. On the verge of being found out, he killed his wife, his two children, and his parents, then burned his house to the ground, rather than simply confessing the truth. Many filmmakers would have heightened the tabloid horrors of this story, but Cantet removes them entirely, focusing on an ordinary guy so overcome with feelings of shame and inadequacy after losing his job that he chooses to bury himself in an avalanche of lies. Beautifully played by Aurélien Recoing, who looks uncannily like middle-management material, Cantet's protagonist isn't a scoundrel or a killer, but a man whose entire sense of identity and worth is bound tragically to the workplace. In many ways, Recoing mirrors William H. Macy's character in Fargo, another low-level suit who hatches an impossible scheme and scrambles desperately to keep it afloat. Both films derive extraordinary tension and dread from the inevitable moment when their protagonists' plans fall to pieces, but Time Out burns more slowly and methodically, achieving its effects through a greater fidelity to the everyday. Cantet follows the rough outlines of Romand's story—the nature of his deception, his commute from northern France to Geneva, his survival on other people's savings—but changes the details to bring it down to earth. Three months after getting fired from a post he'd held for 11 years, Recoing is still traveling on "business trips," driving aimlessly to get away from his family and sleeping in parking lots on the passenger side of his car. To buy himself time, he claims to have a job with the U.N. in Geneva, and he scams his former business associates into phony investments in emerging markets around the world. For extra cash, he gets mixed up with a crooked bootlegger (Serge Livrozet) who smuggles knock-off merchandise from Eastern Europe. Recoing can only go so long before his wife (Karen Viard) and investors begin asking questions, yet it's remarkable how patiently Cantet raises the stakes until he reaches the breaking point. Aside from Recoing's outrageous deception and denial, Time Out could be the sad story of any businessman who loses his job and stares down the resulting humiliation, insecurity, and despair. By pruning the sensational aspects of Romand's story, Cantet makes his hero's psychosis all too recognizable.

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