Laurent Cantet’s “Time Out” is 132 minutes of very dour, very French character study, the character being a middle-aged man who finds himself unemployed and can’t admit the fact to his family. Tomb Raider it ain’t. The thing is, the film is damned exciting in its own fastidious fashion. The ways in which we allow our work to define us, to dictate the terms of our self-esteem, isn’t exactly a Hollywood mainstay. That’s why God made French cinema.
Aurélien Recoing plays the utterly bland Vincent, a freshly unemployed middle-management type (he used to be a “consultant,” a vague term for a vague man). Now Vincent has created a new gig for himself: driving all over France while calling his wife (Karin Viard) on his cell phone and relating to her the details of his latest hard-nosed business negotiation, his latest juicy opportunity to get fabulously rich. On his return from these “business trips,” his family naturally wants to know more. At these moments Vincent becomes the picture of caginess, divulging not a single detail.
Vincent can only keep adding floors to his house of cards for so long, though. His problem is that he seems to enjoy this “line of work,” and soon – as far as his family knows – he’s working at no less than the United Nations, fostering investment opportunites in Algeria. Recoing’s masterfully subtle performance lets you in on just how precarious Vincent knows his position to be; his tragedy is that he can’t help himself. Admitting his unemployment to his family would be suicide – playing his little game is like being reborn daily. But when he finally attempts to buy his son’s love outright, we know he’s gone too far.
“Time Out” strings us along more than any film has a right to with the simple question: Is Vincent trying to do right by his family, or is he simply a pathological liar? Is he honestly trying to invest in his future, or is he just buying time? Quiet and slow-paced, as all the finest French films are, “Time Out” modestly redefines the psychological thriller.