I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie that takes mass transit as seriously as Full Time, a drama set in and around Paris from Canadian director Eric Gravel. It’s the story of a hotel maid named Julie Roy (Laure Calamy), who travels by train between her job in Paris and her home in an unnamed small town an indeterminate distance from the city. Even under the best of circumstances, Julie’s life is complicated: she is a divorced mother of two young children who she is raising alone. There is very little leeway in Julie’s schedule: she picks up the children before dawn and takes them to the nearby house of an elderly woman, Mrs. Luzini (Genevieve Mnich), their before- and after-school caregiver. Julie then rushes to the local station, goes to work, takes the train back to her town, picks up the kids, brings them home, tucks them into bed, falls asleep, and starts again the next morning.
The next time you’re rushing for a train, think of Julie. Think about why you’re late, why it’s important to catch this train and not the next one, why you expect the train to be on time and get you safely to your destination, what the consequences will be for you and others if it stops running – or doesn’t appears – and you are late. Imagine all the working people and working equipment needed to keep the whole system running to keep your work and life running smoothly. One’s place in the system, Full Time shows, is the tip of a huge iceberg—which is rather all the advice, each individual’s point of view, and participation in the mass affecting the lives of others, though as invisible as if submerged beneath the surface of the ocean. In “Full Time,” Gravel dramatizes the iceberg from the perspective of a single peak. The film’s meticulous realism, both on the intimate level of Julie’s personal life and on the overall societal level that throws it off balance, gives it the thrill of a thriller; small disruptions to everyday life and large-scale disruptions to mass transit add up to great drama.
As the title promises, “Full Time” is focused on work. It is one of the best recent films to work on and approaches the subject with sharp analytical specificity. As for Julie’s personal life, it’s all but blanked out: she’s treated largely as a cinematic lab rat, whose temperament and proclivities are downplayed in order to emphasize her functioning within her carefully constructed environment—and the character of Julie is carefully constructed to bring light. For starters, she’s created as a French stereotype, an identity without an identity—a pure white person of unspecified ethnicity and religion. She exhibits no outside interests or hobbies; what she reads or listens to on her commute is unspecified, and her radio at home is tuned to the news – because that news is of immediate relevance to her daily life.
The main shock to her tightly planned life is very French: strikes of the kind the country is currently experiencing and, for very similar reasons, a proposed increase in working years to reduce government spending. Their effect sends shock waves through Julie’s life; they come at a critical time in her life – and her work. Julie is a liminal figure, a manual laborer who is also a supervisor. She is the head of the housekeeping staff – the all-female staff in clean uniforms who are responsible for the physical order of all rooms in the hotel. Also, it turns out that she’s an economics major, a former market research specialist in the food retail industry who, after years in the hotel industry, is now applying for a corporate office job in her previous field – and trying to schedule her interviews as her job demands, a series of maneuvers that turn into high-pressure adventures due to the strikes.
But before Julie rushes off to an interview, Gravel depicts, with remarkable specificity in a conventional format, the nature of her work and that of her colleagues: “Full Time” carefully defines manual work as largely mental. The film cuts to the hotel staff’s daily rounds in a fast-paced montage of a familiar kind, but one that makes clear how intensely detail-oriented, memory-focused and perceptual the work is: a representation of the ideal of pristine cleanliness and meticulous order that is expected, noticing the many fine points on which this ideal depends, knowing and applying the techniques to realize them, possessing a sense of mental organization to move efficiently and effectively from task to task without error or delay. The work may be routine, it may be exhausting, it may be boring, but it requires insight and dexterity as well as organization and focus. It’s extremely demanding on both mind and body – and that’s even apart from the almost medical level of physical intimacy it requires because of what guests do in (and with) their rooms. (There’s a crucial scene where the staff have to clean shit off the walls, an event so familiar that the staff has a nickname for it.)
Despite all the rules and regulations, standards and specifications that the job imposes, workers’ lives—their negotiations with the demands of the job, with each other, and with management—are built around tricks and evasions, deceptions and lies that open up personal space for maneuver among strict workplace restrictions. One of the key dramatic observations of “Full Time” is the gap between official regulations and actual behavior, the small favors and small profits, the manipulations of the system for personal ends that create in the routine of everyone who works, a kind of rule-of-duty: continuous a growing collection of broken rules that may or may not go unnoticed or unrecorded, but which individually could result in discipline and, taken together, could more or less result in anyone being fired. It is a vision of mental insecurity, of constant fear, that goes beyond the usual depiction of economic insecurity to reveal the underpinnings of a society that subjects workers to increasingly intrusive forms of surveillance and documentation. (One of the film’s key plot points involves the time stamps left by a magnetized ID card.)
And economic insecurity, the film shows, is no less real, endemic and urgent – and no less a matter of a carefully arranged system that inevitably breaks down. Julie gets harassing calls from her bank because she’s behind on her mortgage payments and at risk of an overdraft—and she’s behind because her ex-husband is behind on his child support payments. Her fear of losing her job while living paycheck to paycheck dominates the film like a silent scream. (American viewers, however, may note with horror her tenuous relationship with the medical system.) The main uncertainty, however, is the uncertainty of time: the interdependence of transportation, work, school, family, childcare, and whatever remains of a social and personal life. Indeed, the very concept of private life is shown in Full Time as a fiction, an unreal abstraction because it is inseparable from the practical relations and political circumstances of the human world. The strikes, with their widespread shutdown of public transportation, throw Julie off her schedule and thus disrupt her children’s lives, Mrs. Lussini’s lives, and the lives of her colleagues and supervisors, and their problems, in turn, strike back at Julie in a tensely accelerating cycle. The pressure she faces as something of the essence of this web of relationships risks becoming untenable, both practically and emotionally. A reversal and total collapse – personal and collective – is looming.
Over the course of the film, the blows—largely invisible, giving a sense of their effect—become more widespread and engender violence. Organized opposition to government policies becomes a protest against endemic conditions—and in a telling, if understated, twist, the shutdown of the transit system (and in other dock towns) also leads to protests in “the projects,” prompting a news reporter to to wonder if they will “rekindle”. In Full Time, the divisions of society – and of the working population – are built into the action. Julie doesn’t say a word against the strikes or the strikers and has a charming encounter with one of the strikers, a neighbor; her position on flashpoints remains unstated. Rather, the film describes, without commentary but with much fervor, the conquest of the masses resulting from these divisions. Separating those who work from those who do not work, the working poor from the non-working poor, the urban from the rural, fueling conflicts on the basis of religion and race, all come as strategies from above that divert and hinder efforts to challenging the paths of power. The working many are pitted against each other to prevent them from uniting politically.
The lack of culture – political, religious, aesthetic – is something of a catch in itself, not only because there is no one in real life who has as little of it as Julie, but also because these are the mechanisms themselves of the mind which not only subdivisions. They also provide the energy and pretext for action, whether of sheer endurance or of organized reactions. By erasing everything but Julie’s economic and emotional relationships, her work, and her family, Gravel pushes the rifts to the fore and offers little solace, little distraction, little relief from the material stresses and emotional demands of modern life—and little chance for people overwhelmed by their practical problems, to look beyond them to their political causes.
And that’s not even considering the class divide that underlies Julie’s own life and livelihood. Although nothing is known about her youth or her family background, she lived a bourgeois life until four years ago she disappeared from the field of market research and took her current job. The effort to return to one’s area of expertise, to re-enter the corporate world and managerial ranks, is itself a struggle that requires its own wiles and deceptions, in the face of other forms of surveillance. Yet the main crisis facing Julie is eminently practical; her struggle to get to and from interviews, during her work day at the hotel, amid a transport standstill, makes for some of the film’s most stressful, high-tension, fear-inducing scenes. Along with the particular sympathy for her situation that the film evokes, it adds another, dark and serious: the enormous difficulty of looking for another job implies the heavy inertia of staying in the same one. By making Julie the heroine, Full Time suggests that simple subsistence has been turned by the modern economy into a savage struggle, and that the progress promised by society as a whole is far from the normal course of things, it is the exception—the province of extraordinary audacity, valor, insight and luck. ♦