Good Work

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.


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.  


We sometimes use the expression "time out" to describe isolating children who have been bad, putting them in a corner, as it were.

The problem is that I don't want Vincent to be considered a victim, or as someone who's punished. He's just on the edge.


You don't want Vincent to be a victim, but how do you see him?

For me, he's sort of a hero, because we all dream of changing our lives, but we just dream. He decides to act, and I think it's quite heroic even if it's quite impossible. At the beginning, I think, he's acting like a hero. After that, of course, the story is more complicated. I think he's pretentious enough to think he will be able to master what will happen. He's like a writer who's writing the screenplay of his life and everything's supposed to be perfect and, of course, it's not.


Do you pity him?

No. I don't think he needs pity. I don't like him, but I am with him. The fact is that a lot of people can recognize themselves in him. They recognize their own dreams, their own frustrations and the bad things they could do.


How did you meet Serge Livrozet, who plays Vincent's criminal mentor?

I saw him on a talk show. He was a burglar, then went to prison, wrote a lot of books and became a militant. When he came out of prison, he met Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault, and he created a prisoner action committee and participated in the creation of the newspaper La Liberación. A lot of people know him, especially people who were in their 20s during '68. I didn't know him, I was too young, but I called him and he was happy to meet me, especially since he'd seen Human Resources.


A lot of Human Resources is set in a factory. Although some critics were surprised that you switched to a middle-class milieu for Time Out, what I like is that your sympathies are simply with people who work.

Both films are about the alienation of work. Even if they're very different contexts, they're the same. In Human Resources the father is very proud of his machine -- you have to find something to be proud of. In Time Out, when Vincent meets Fred, the first man he takes money from, this guy tells him, "If I'm not involved I get bored, and if I get bored it's worse. So I have to be involved in my job." This obligation to your work is something that is terrible to leave, I think.


Vincent's relationship with his father is very interesting.

The relationship you have with your father, with your mother, is certainly the one that forms you the most. I like to film families, because the family is a social structure, but a very small one. It's more difficult than everything else because it's not just power, frustration and exploitation, it's also love. There is one part that Vincent knows how to play, the part of the good father, who gives money. He's tender when he needs to be, tough when he needs to be, and he had a good model -- his own father. It's the only relationship that is clear in his life. With his wife it's very difficult, because he's lying, she's lying, and they know that they are lying together.


Having Vincent work at the U.N. allows you to make political points.

It's a way to put together the fiction of his lie and the fiction of work, that work especially, since it's so immaterial and you don't see the effects.


In the scene where Vincent looks into offices at other people working, it's as if he were trying to find a place to sit at the table.

He's in that world but not exactly. What I like especially in that moment is that he's an impostor. I think everyone can feel that way. When he's in that building, he realizes he just needs to have the sign of work on him -- the jacket, the way of walking.


Do you think of yourself as a political filmmaker?

I don't feel like a militant, but I'm involved in the world and what's happening. My films show feelings about things, not ideals. They're not very didactic, but Time Out is quite radical in its political meaning because it's revolutionary to try to think of a world without work.  


What would that world be like?

I don't think the world can be without work, but I think some people who won't ever find their place in work should be allowed to live without work. I think people could choose to work for a while, then take a while to just think about what they want to do.


Do you and your friends talk a lot about that -- about work and its pressures?

I have two friends who were in the corporate world for 15 years. They had high positions, one in advertising, the other in computers, and they realized that their work didn't give them what they had expected. They had money, they had social position, but it was nothing they had expected, and both decided to stop and find another way of living. One is trying to write, and the other one is just trying to find what he can do.


You're not alienated from your labor.

I think it's a great privilege, making movies. Perhaps that's why I make them. I wouldn't have been able to stand the normal worker's life.

"We all dream of changing our lives, but we just dream."


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