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Good Work 

The director of Time Out, Laurent Cantet

Wednesday, Apr 17 2002
Photo by Robin Holland

IMAGINE: YOU WAKE ONE MORNING, a morning like any other, you drink your coffee, eat your cereal, brush your teeth, wash your body, dress, kiss your wife or husband or kids goodbye, then go to work. Or maybe you don't. Maybe, instead, you drive and you drive, nowhere and everywhere at once, as if you were living inside a car commercial where the road never ends, traveling an endless loop to freedom. Or what seems like freedom. In French director Laurent Cantet's gripping emotional thriller Time Out, the lead character, Vincent, spends his days and occasional nights touring the French highways, pretending to be something he's not -- employed. Vincent has lost his executive position, the kind that's provided his wife and three children a comfortable suburban house and a well-upholstered middle-class life, but he hasn't yet told anyone he's been cut loose. Initially, his silence comes across as evidence of shame and perhaps even moral cowardice, but as the story unwinds and Vincent puts more miles on his new life, it becomes clear that he doesn't fear life without work; he embraces it.

Cantet, a graduate of the Paris film school FEMIS, formerly named IDHEC, has made several prizewinning short films, a television movie and, in 1999, Human Resources, an auspicious first feature that won its now 40-year-old director awards at a number of international festivals. The story of a young man who returns to his town as a human-resources manager -- and subsequently aids in downsizing the factory at which his father works -- Human Resources is one of those rare political films in which human feelings are as crucial to fighting the good fight as ideology. A work of expressive formal beauty and intelligence, Time Out is yet another exploration of work and alienation, this time through a character who doesn't elicit easy sympathy. In the end, the film's most important revelation isn't what happens but the complexity of its director's own point of view: The struggle to retain one's humanity in the face of radical dehumanization, insists Cantet, isn't the exclusive provenance of the working class; it belongs to us all.

Given this, it is no surprise that Cantet, who was born in a town not far from Bordeaux, was raised in an activist home. "I remember I was always alone with my grandmother," he says of his schoolteacher parents. "They were always away demonstrating." Now, it is Cantet who finds himself separated from his children, Marie and Félix, as he travels the world promoting Time Out. It's this separation, he says, that has proved the most difficult part of being a filmmaker. (He cast his children in the film in order to spend more time with them. "It's nice to share that very intense moment when you shoot a movie," he says.) Since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last fall, where it received an award for excellence, Time Out has won acclaim at numerous other festivals, including Sundance, which is where I caught up with Cantet this past January. After he finished touring this part of the world, Cantet next planned to visit his parents in Haiti, where the two retirees were helping to train teachers.

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L.A. WEEKLY: Often the first thing Americans ask when you meet them is "What do you do?"

LAURENT CANTET: When you ask someone what he's doing, you're not asking, "What are you doing?" -- you're asking, "What are you?" That's significant. Even in France people have a problem with the film because there, there is such a religion of work. A lot of people want to read the ending as happy [wry laugh] because someone who has a job can't be a "loser." I thought that the way I made the film would erase this misunderstanding, but people still resist it.


I'm sure you're tired of this question, but isn't this based on a real case?

I don't say "based." I wanted to tell a story of a man who is trying to escape and can't manage to escape. Of course, we thought of Jean-Claude Romond, who managed to sustain this sort of fiction for 18 years. We just used a few parts of his story -- Geneva and the U.N. work he's supposed to do, that's about all. We didn't realize until after we'd finished writing that Emmanuel Carrère had written a book about the same case [The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception].


Romond killed his entire family?

Yes, he preferred to kill them rather than be judged by them.

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