Death of a salesman

As one persona expires, a new one feigns its place.


directed by Laurent Cantet with Aur鬩en Recoing, Karin Viard, and Serge Livrozet opens April 26 at Metro

I’VE NOW SEEN two of what I suspect will be among my 10-best titles this year, and they couldn’t be more different. Mexico’s Y Tu Mam᠔ambi鮼/I> is all sun, sex, and sass before it slaps you with a stinging mortal coda. Now, from France, Time Out is drenched in gloom, dread, and unease as you wait for a final catastrophe. What’s the similarity, if any, between these two imports? It’s not giving anything away about Time to say that it, too, doesn’t end as you expect. And, like MamἯI>, it absolutely rivets your attention all the way to a haunting postscript that will also provoke discussion long after you exit the theater.

Not so talkative is middle-aged consultant Vincent (Aur鬩en Recoing) who, at first glance, is a weary road warrior catnapping in his car while on some tedious business trip. His cell phone chirps on the dash, and he speaks lovingly to his wife, Muriel (Karin Viard). Soon we meet her, their three kids, and Vincent’s wealthy parents. They have a nice house near Grenoble, and things seem normal enough.

Would that they were. Previously the director of Human Resources (which played SIFF last year and is well worth seeking out on video), Laurent Cantet gradually reveals that Vincent’s hectic schedule of meetings, conferences, and client calls is only as real as his telephoned reassurances to Muriel. It’s all made up. He’s just driving around aimlessly all week, enjoying the countryside and sleeping in rest areas. When he returns home, it’s with a clean shave and suit; his family is completely fooled.

Why the ruse? It later emerges that Vincent was fired some three months before. Subsequently pressured to talk about work by his too-proud parents, Vincent lets slip that he might take a new job; then evasiveness leads to suggestion and suggestion to a snowball of lies in a frighteningly short time. Before long, he has everyone believing he’s a high-level official at the United Nations (just over the Swiss border). He borrows a significant sum from his father to buy a pied-୴erre in Geneva (none exists) and begins conning old friends in a bogus investment scheme to pay his family’s bills.

HARDLY A CROOK or a psycho to look at him, Vincent has that very nondescript, anonymous quality of the (employed) office workers he frequently studies through windows. They belong. He doesn’t. Being on the outside doesn’t seem to bother him so long as he can maintain appearances to his family and only-son status to his father. In one of Time‘s best and eeriest sequences, Vincent sneaks past security into a sleek, glassy Geneva high-rise, then cases the joint. He’s just looking for clues about the existence he’d like to project. He picks up a few brochures on the U.N.’s Third World business development programs, then later systematically recites them to himself—almost as if, beyond a cover story for others, he needs to internalize the reassuring facts and statistics for his own security.

Lending to our insecurity, however, is the constant fear that Vincent is going to snap—not just that he’ll be discovered and disgraced, but that exposure could trigger something worse. The tension is almost unbearable, and Vincent bears it better than we. When he finally surrenders to the urge to confess, it’s to a kindly professional smuggler, Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), who befriends and later employs him. “I love driving,” Vincent explains of the job he lost because he could no longer get out of the car. “Maybe it was easier to just keep going.”

Even as his well-meaning friend Jeffrey warns Vincent that the journey must inevitably end, our hero remains unconvinced. Time appears to conclude with an unspeakably sad shot through the windshield (which bookends its very first scene), but Vincent proves stubbornly resourceful. What others might call checkmate is, for him, the occasion for a new move.