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S few years back there were stories in the media about Japanese "salarymen" who could not reconcile themselves to the reality of being fired from their jobs. Every morning they would dress up, pack their lunches, kiss their wives, and travel to the city, where they went to the library and read magazines or just sat in the park – unable to admit either to themselves or to their families that they no longer had their jobs. Our eyebrows went up: ah, those mysterious Orientals -- their regimented society, their ideas of shame… We are different. We go to councilors, our families understand, etc.

What about Vincent, the hero of Laurent Cantet’s new film Time Out ("L'emploi Du Temps")? He drives around eastern France without aim or purpose, stopping by rest areas to call his wife and tell her that, no, he won’t make it in time for dinner. The client was a pain in the ass, but tell the kids I love them… Instantly, we see a man torn between duty and shame. Or, rather, a man stuck in his role as a provider and unable either to go back and find another meaningless business-consulting job or to make a clean breakaway with his past. He needs his anchor, a solid family life with all its accouterments – a clean well-lit home, a pretty wife who is also a perfect mother, family meals, PTA meetings, dinners with friends, his elder son’s judo competition. So Vincent lies, but his lying is not completely effective: he overdoes the details and doesn’t control the circulation of his lies. Thus, when he mentions to his wife that he is taking another job, across the border in Geneve, the story instantly spreads, and he is cornered. He has to come up with more lies, elaborate upon them, embellish them.

Cantet does a superb job of maintaining tension in this un-thriller-like plot. When Vincent actually goes to Geneve and enters another faceless glass-and-steel office building, there’s a glimmer of hope – perhaps he really means it; he will apply for a job and cut short his lying. But no; once again he wanders aimlessly through the building’s endless surgically clean hallways, picking up promotional booklets, eavesdropping on meetings – to the point where a (rightly) suspicious guard asks him to leave.

Vincent finds an abandoned house in the Alps (the scenery is the only given here, always gorgeous to a fault) and pores over the booklets, researching the arcane world of UN and NGOs and international aid and investments. Once again, we are puzzled: why? Just to back up his stories at home? Indeed, Vincent’s descriptions of his new job become more elaborate. He describes his co-workers, his work-related problems, even his belief, and his sometime doubts, about the imaginary projects he is involved in: we wonder which world he thinks he lives in – the real one of the house and family or the imaginary one? He is so convincing that plans are being made about a possible move, and his father, without much prodding, writes a check for 200,000 francs ($30,000) to help him buy a pied-a-terre in Geneve.

Perhaps it is this ease of getting money that sets Vincent on a different course. He calls up an old friend and offers to invest his money in an "emerging economy fund." The line is crossed – we know there is no fund – but Vincent maintains his glad-handing persona so well, his pitch is so psychologically sophisticated, the antithesis of a gushing bond salesman, that once again he leaves us wondering: what’s going on here? Doesn’t this guy realize…?

The focus seldom moves: Vincent is in the frame all the time. Aurélien Recoing, a veteran French stage actor, inhabits the part with astonishing complexity. We seem to know his character well: a perfect salesman with an easy, pleasant smile and a ready, firm handshake. You’ve seen this guy floating through hotel lobbies and airports, between sales calls and business meetings, always on the phone and online at the same time. He is completely fluent in business argot: words like "restructuring" and "optimization" sound as natural coming from him as "cut the taxes" does from a politician's stump speech. As we watch him sink further in his pyramid scheme, we ache for him because we know that’s not what he wants. He hurts as he hurtles down the slope; but by now he’s so convincing that his refusal to take another friend’s piggybank is considered a personal insult. His good reputation becomes his undoing. In Recoing’s eyes, the torment never subsides, but because he’s so flawless in crossing back and forth from reality to his made-up world, we never really know what to expect. This is the kind of guy who is equally capable of taking your last money and then saving your life – and that unpredictability provides a delicious frisson to the film’s impact. Finally, the crossing acquires a physical aspect – he gets involved with smugglers who cross real state borders (a bravura cameo from Serge Livrozet, another veteran stage actor) – but can he take a life of real crime over an imaginary life of a management consultant?

Recoing is the jewel of this film, but Cantet sets it well. The direction is crisp and precise. No scene goes for a second too long or feels redundant. The score by Jocelyn Pook (Eyes Wide Shut) is most exquisite: in turn eerie and sentimental, it is a player in its own right. One may take issue with the ending, but in a movie so unpredictable, it is one of many the filmmaker could have chosen. In the course of two hours, you develop trust towards the director, and he lives well up to it. One thing you can say about Cantet’s ending: he does not look for easy outs.

Another curious aspect of the ending: the film is based on the story of a Jean-Claude Romand, who spent 18 (!) years (as opposed to 8 months in the film) leading a double life and ended his lies tragically in 1993. Cantet has good sense not to use the standard "Based on a True Story" alibi. As I said, he is not looking for easy outs.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]