But Vincent is incapable of embracing the new life that Jean-Michel offers -- he can‘t quite commit himself to anything. Even when he tries to live free, the old bourgeois fears and guilt keep spilling in. At one point, he breaks down before Muriel and spins a yarn about how he fears failing at his job in Geneva -- “I’m afraid I‘ll disappoint,” he moans. While the feeling is painfully true, the story itself is false and makes it impossible for Vincent to accept any comfort his wife could offer. A warm, loving woman, Muriel has an inkling that her husband is up to something in Geneva, and at first seems willing to go along with it, up to a point; she, too, may not be wholly content with their middle-class life. But as her husband’s lies proliferate, their relationship grows more and more precarious, culminating in the film‘s most emotionally ravishing scene, when she and Vincent go hiking in the snowy barrens around the mountain cabin. As the snow starts blowing, the visibility dwindles toward whiteout, and suddenly he’s filled with panic that he‘s lost the person he cares about most.
“Life is first boredom, then fear,” wrote Philip Larkin, the poet laureate of glum ordinariness. “Whether or not we use it, it goes.” Vincent’s attempt to use his life -- or at least create a freer and more magical fictional life -- is not without a desolate sadness of its own. His story is very loosely based on the notorious real-life escapades of one Jean-Claude Romand, who spent 18 years pretending to work for the World Health Organization in Geneva, and then, when discovered, murdered his family. (His crime is the basis of Emmanuel Carrere‘s book The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception.) Cantet is too talented a filmmaker merely to mimic such a grim scenario, and he gives Vincent’s tale an unexpected turn. Although we know that things can‘t possibly end well, the film’s chilling coda offers us a vision of the modern world both milder and more terrifying than anything suggested by the Romand case. As we gaze at Vincent‘s desperate face -- a kaleidoscope of tiny pains, dishonesties and ambivalences shot through with suffering -- Cantet movingly shows us how, in our modern world, there are circles of hell of which Dante could never have dreamed.