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Five minutes into Time Out, we’re aware that something’s amiss with its main character, middle-management businessman Vincent (Aurelien Recoing). He’s sleeping in his car, surviving on convenience-store junk food, and cell-phoning his wife, Muriel (Karin Viard), to report a hectic schedule of nonexistent meetings and conferences. He sneaks into a corporation office building, sits in a visitors’ lounge, and pores over the company’s publications before being discovered and thrown out by a security guard. Exhausted, he returns home to Grenoble for brief visits with Muriel and their three children before hitting the road again.

Vincent’s dilemma, confirmed halfway through French director Laurent Cantet’s screenplay—co-scripted by Robin Campillo—is that he has lost his job and doesn’t want his family to know. Frightened and adrift, he concocts the fantasy that he’s been hired by the United Nations headquarters in Geneva to develop economic systems for Third World countries—a more meaningful occupation than his previous, paper-pushing position. Convincing his family of this fabrication encourages him to attempt a risky income-seeking strategy: sweet-talking former classmates into phony investment schemes. The success of his deceptions emboldens him to take an even more desperate measure; he teams up with Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), a career criminal who smuggles and distributes fake designer goods. Aware that he’s running out of time before the truth about his situation is exposed—and feeling increasingly guilty about cheating his old chums—Vincent is eventually ensnared in his own duplicity, in a denouement that is simultaneously redemptive, ironic, and heartbreaking.

The antithesis of Hollywood’s summer slate of action-hero adventures and comic-book adaptations, Time Out is a finely calibrated, richly ambiguous examination of an adult theme. Although we never see Vincent at his former job or learn whether he was fired or merely a victim of downsizing, Cantet implicitly suggests that his bogus new existence is more creative and fulfilling than the position Vincent lost; his humiliation becomes a kind of liberation. Muriel’s situation is nearly as complex. Although she’s justifiably skeptical about the yarns Vincent spins, she’s also feeling less than fulfilled—an attractive, intelligent woman forced to accept the constraints of schoolteaching and parenthood. She turns a blind eye to her husband’s increasingly implausible lies, at least partly because he seems to be escaping the frustrations she lives with. Similarly, Vincent’s friends freely give him their money not only in the hope of payoff but also because his glamorous, idealistic U.N. career contrasts so boldly with their mundane pursuits.

An accomplished classical stage actor in his first feature-film leading role, Recoing gives an extraordinarily sensitive performance. He reveals Vincent’s tormented soul to the camera’s unblinking eye with reactions so subtle that the people Vincent encounters fail to discern them. Present in nearly every shot, Recoing creates a fully fleshed character driven by emotions and desires that that character only partially comprehends. Although allotted less screen time, Viard is equally resourceful, often expressing affection, confusion, and resentment in a single glance. And Livrozet, who served prison time in his youth, seems to draw shrewdly on his own experience as the smooth-talking Jean-Michel.

Cantet’s restrained visual style—muted colors, long takes, unobtrusive editing—showcases his protagonist’s predicament. The rare cinematic flourishes are carefully woven into the film’s fabric. In an extended tracking shot, Vincent observes workers toiling in the rectangular cells of an office building, envious of their employment yet relieved to be exempted from their world. During a tense discussion that threatens to explode into an argument, Vincent and Muriel pass a picture window, tinted blue, that reveals a group of young men—including their eldest son—practicing martial arts. Having traded his car for a shiny SUV, Vincent giddily wheels his new vehicle through an open field.

Few discriminating moviegoers will deny that Time Out is a work of uncommon seriousness and substance. Yet Cantet’s self-indulgent pacing makes the film unnecessarily taxing. At over two hours, the film feels protracted; there’s barely a sequence that wouldn’t benefit from discreet pruning. Had Cantet been willing to sacrifice some of his artful but dilatory footage, he could likely have reached a wider audience than this worthy but rather exhausting film will attract. But viewers patient enough to accept its painstaking tempo will be handsomely rewarded. CP