“When I first started working,” says Vincent (Aurelien Recoing), the wayward businessman at the heart of the mesmerizing new psychological thriller Time Out, “driving was my favorite part. The only thing I liked about the job was driving.”

The first time we see him, he‘s inside his car, snoozing, as the outside world becomes visible through steamed-over windows. He’s awakened by the twittering of his cell phone — it‘s his wife, Muriel (Karin Viard) — and he tells her about his long day at the office. Their conversation couldn’t be more banal. Except for one thing: Vincent‘s lying. His company actually fired him several weeks earlier, and though his family doesn’t know it, he now spends his days killing time — driving around, hanging out in shops and playgrounds, struggling to stumble across a new sense of self while ducking the necessity of landing another job. Eventually he arrives at an elegant solution: He invents a new life. Leaving his family back in France, he travels to Geneva and pretends to land a U.N. job aiding economic development in Africa (his parents are so proud). Lie by lie, Vincent digs himself deeper, the screws turn tighter, and we wait for him to get caught — or snap.

Time Out was directed by 40-year-old Laurent Cantet, who wrote the script with his usual collaborator, Robin Campillo. Cantet has won international acclaim for exploring the one universal activity that artists always seem to ignore — work. His previous movie, the 1999 Human Resources, was a hybrid of Freud and Marx, an oedipal tale of class struggle in which a young blue-collar kid goes to college and winds up a manager at the very factory where his dad is a union worker. It was a superb piece of filmmaking — smart, touching, politically savvy — but it left you wondering if Cantet would get trapped turning out admirable bits of assembly-line realism.

Not a chance. Although ideas remain largely the same, Time Out vaults his work to a new level, both socially and artistically. Not only has he raised his sights to the executive middle class, he‘s refined his style until it now rivals Hitchcock and Chabrol’s knack for being both mathematically precise and profoundly mysterious. This is a movie of wrenching formal beauty, from its sepulchral photography by Pierre Milon, to its telling use of soul-killing contemporary architecture, to the eerie chamber score by Jocelyn Pook, still in her Eyes Wide Shut mood. Cantet‘s storytelling moves as slowly as refrigerated molasses, yet far from being dull, the deliberate pace makes Vincent’s tale more enthralling. It sucks you in with the inexorable pull of quicksand.

In a sense, it‘s strange that we should care what happens to Vincent, for he’s not especially likable, nor is his quest for freedom as morally friction-free as it might be in a Hollywood picture. In order to pay for his family‘s middle-class life (he returns home on weekends to play the good husband and father), Vincent starts bilking his old chums with a confidence scheme; soon he’s hooked up with black marketeers. But he doesn‘t feel good about his illicit new freedom. Less an attractive rogue than a depressed ex-con who can’t stop missing his prison cell, Vincent could almost be the tragic French cousin of Albert Brooks‘ “dropping out of society” ad man in Lost in America. He’s more like most of us than we‘d probably like to admit.

The character is riveting by virtue of an extraordinary performance from Recoing, a famous French stage actor who looks a bit like a younger version of filmmaker Paul Schrader — his face suggests the same slightly pained sardonicism. This is Recoing’s first lead film role, and he transforms the bottled-up Vincent into an encyclopedia of emotional nuance: Microscopic tremors of regret give way to short-lived glints of exuberance as he tools around in his new, ill-gotten SUV; when his eyes well up with tears, he looks like a little boy who‘s just been scolded. Vincent knows that the jobs he’s fit for don‘t express his inner feelings or dreams. Yet even as he escapes into a secret life, he can’t escape his deeply ingrained need for the identity provided by being a middle-class breadwinner; he feels inadequate to the social ideas of manhood that imprison him. A heartbreaking figure, he‘s surrounded by doors and windows through which he always seems to be looking in or looking out — for him, life is always just over there — and his whole existence is a pathetic example of the narcissistic modern self in all its fidgety isolation. Even when he finds refuge in a snowbound Alpine cabin so perfect that it seems surreal, the idyllic setting only underscores his solitude.

While the people around him are benevolent, each of them confronts Vincent with some tricky psychological depth charge — the pressure to succeed, a desire to be loved, disturbing echoes of his own sad situation. His dad asks him whether he’s afraid to work. His naive, dropout friend Nono, with his indulgent wife and ill-fated dreams of becoming a songwriter, is poor but happy in a way Vincent both envies and disdains. If anyone could liberate him, it‘s the petty criminal Jean-Michel, whose slippery smile hides a startling compassion. He sizes up Vincent immediately, for as a dealer in Polish knockoffs of Western consumer goods, he spends his life walking the shadow line between the real and the fake. Played with droll conviction by Serge Livrozet (himself a real-life ex-con turned social activist), Jean-Michel has learned how to move back and forth between the criminal and the respectable, between what is and what seems to be. He’s learned to compartmentalize, or as he warns Vincent, “Doors should be opened or closed.”

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.

LA Weekly