Gravel: Full Time (2021)

Full Time, Eric Gravel’s second feature, was awarded both Best Director and Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival. Both plaudits are well deserved, since the film cements Gravel’s directorial vision, and turns on an extraordinary performance from Laure Calamy as Julie Roy, a woman trying to get to work in the midst of escalating public transport strikes. When we meet Julie, she’s a single mother living in a commuter town on the outskirts of Paris. Her ex-husband is behind on his alimony payments, she’s recently been made redundant from a marketing firm, and she has hired an older woman to nanny her children while she makes miminum wage working at a hotel in Paris. Everything in her life is stretched to its limits, so when the strikes hit, she glimpses total anarchy. Gravel is clearly working in the social realist, industrial relations mode, of the Dardennes and Stephane Brize here, but with a new level of precarity. It’s not just a question, now, of whether the main character can get work, but whether they can get to work, as holding onto a job is compounded by securing a commute.

While the film is driven by a mass strike, we don’t see this industrial action except insofar as it shuts down public transport, which has two main consequences. First, precarity breeds ingenuity, figured as all the different ways Julie gets to work, each of which captures the flux of connective commuter tissue in a different way. These strategies grow more contorted as the strike accelerates. Initially, it’s just trains, but buses and taxis soon join in, before people resort to their own cars in such vast numbers that petrol stations run out of fuel. In the last stage of this process, when Julie is carpooling, she realises that it’s now fastest to simply run to work. Yet for all this abnormality, or because of it, the strike also manifests as an intensified normality, as businesses double down and insist on business as usual. That makes Full Time a vision of capitalist realism, in which employers exist on a reality that no longer exists, and can do so only because late capitalism itself is now in a state of perpetual and normalised crisis.

This scenario is all the more unsettling in that Gravel opens by evoking a more naturalistic and introspective – that is a more stereotypically French – mode of cinema. The credit sequence unfolds against extreme close-ups of Julie’s skin, accompanied only by her breathing, but this quickly gives way to a slight beat, which peaks into a synth pulse as she just makes her train, and settles into surreal vistas of factories steaming against the dawn light. Paris here is primarily a commuter city, an exurban sprawl, a series of public transit nodes, which start to break down in this opening sequence, prompting another surge from the synth score. The pulse motif returns once more when Julie is allocating hotel duties, and reaches its apex with a montage of staff doing their work, preparing for the incoming guests.

Emerging out of this naturalistic opening, the synth pulse forms an alienation effect, and imbues the hospitality sector with an especially steely edge. We hear it next when a platinum guest arrives, and then across a series of almost science-fiction tableaux, including some comic speculation about whether it’s possible to “clean toilets by computer.” The naturalism of Julie’s bedroom gives way to the artificiality of the hotel bedrooms, constructed as so many immaculate mise-en-scenes for an alien clientele that we never see: “The rule is we’re invisible, unnoticed, unless the guest asks.” The most we get are the abject traces of these visitors, such as a smear of celebrity faeces that Julie has to wash off the wall of a bathroom.

While the synth pulse thus evokes the alienation of hospitality, it also captures the synergy between work and public transport. Much of the film is suffused with the strange sense of speed that comes when you catch a train just in time, when running to the platform segues into the immediate departure of the train. The brevity of the film, only eighty minutes, also feels part of the compressed temporality of precarious public transport connections. Gradually, Gravel folds both these features, and the synth motif that drives them, into Julie’s polyphasic sleep cycle, which forces her to have small pulses of sleep over each twenty-four hour period. She’s never quite asleep and never quite awake, and there’s no sense of sleep as a distinct or discrete activity. Instead, she leaves and arrives in the dark, while most of her home scenes are shot in the lurid yellow light of her bathroom, which doesn’t have any external windows, and looks the same regardless of the time of day and night. In one especially disorienting scene, she goes to bed, wakes up, thinks it’s night, and that she’s only had a power nap, only to realise that it’s morning after all, and that she has to commute again.

Without any clear sense between day and night, sleeping and waking life, Full Time feels perpetually jet lagged, caught in a neoliberal time loop. Gradually, the synth pulse becomes more frequent, eventually settling into a continuous substrate, forcing us to hear precarity as the intense of Julie’s commute blends into her work, and commuting becomes a second job in and of itself. Holding down both jobs is untenable, especially during the public transport crisis, which quickly becomes a crisis of middle-class mobility more generally. Julie is already positioned right at the cusp of that crisis, with a marketing job behind her, a hospitality job she’s barely holding onto, an interview at another marketing firm, but also the possibility of working at her local supermarket if all of that falls through. Caught between the quaternary sector and downward mobility, between working in short-term markets and in an actual supermarket, she has to spend more and more money to accommodate the strike. Even when she decides to have an interview at the supermarket, she’s told that she has no checkout experience, leaving the spectre of welfare, and working-class prospects, to haunt her future.

With so little prospect of even the slightest upward mobility, Julie, and the film, resort to talismanic or symbolic gestures, playing out the form of the good life even if it can’t be achieved in substance. Throughout the first two acts, Julie goes to great lengths to buy a trampoline for her son as a birthday present. Not only does she have to pay it off in instalments, but it’s a considerable physical effort, as a single mother, to transport it home, and then lug it into the backyard. This trampoline feels like a dream of mobility, and for a moment it works, ushering in the only daylit sequence at Julie’s home, which takes place on the weekend of her son’s birthday. No sooner has this occurred, however, than her child falls off the trampoline and breaks their arm, bringing this glimpse of mobility to a violent close. Similarly, while Julie glimpses a romantic relationship on this same weekend, it doesn’t really go anywhere, or at least isn’t enough to offset the sober bleakness with which the film ends.

Before we reach that point, however, Gravel offers one more gesture of reassurance – public transport itself as the last vestige of a truly public sphere. While public transport may be shrinking, and intensifying Julie’s precarity, that only makes it more precious as a tentative public good, much as this very precarity echoes the only genuine industrial solidarity that occurs in the film. Without even the “minimum services” of public transit, there is no public, as Julie glimpses when she is stranded along transport nodes and commuter corridors with no viable options. In the climactic scene of the film, and Julie’s most primal and uncanny encounter with public transit, she heads to her local railway station in the middle of the day. With everyone else at work, or having given up on work, there’s not a sound around, except for intermittent birdsong, church bells, and, finally, the distant cry of a non-stop train that screams through the station and recedes back into the silence as subliminally as it emerged. This is the public sphere in the film: there, suddenly, for brief moments, and gone as quickly.

Even then, these benefits of public transport are largely noticeable by their absence, since even the contingencies of the strikes don’t do much in the way of building solidarity. While waiting for a delayed train, Julie has a chat with a woman who she recognises as a parent from her children’s school, but gets a frosty reception when she asks about sharing a babysitter. Similarly, when she has to resort to hitchhiking, she develops a good rapport with the first guy who picks her up. Not only does this produce the first really humane conversation of the film, but starts to blossom into a romance when he comes over on her son’s birthday weekend. Yet this, too, just kind of fizzles, since the film seems too pessimistic to even affirm the fleeting connections that emerge when public institutions are thrown into flux. The mystical-vortical spaces of the Dardeness are here in all the voids left behind by public transport, but Gravel doesn’t seem as willing, or capable, of unlocking their magical-industrial intensity. Only the strikers, absent from the film proper, have leaned into that vibrant energy.

However, even the fantasy of the strikes is dissipated as the film reaches its climax. We hear that police are resorting to ever more violent strategies to get public transit operating again, while Julie is forced to jettison any illusion of solidarity with her own class as well. As transport dissolves, and the commute to work becomes an act of almost unimaginable individual labour, Julie adopts a more cut-throat approach, and becomes more adept at using people, or setting herself against people. At first, this seems relatively harmless, as when she gets trapped in the city, and forces her babysitter to stay the night, or sweet talks the doorman into hailing down one of the hotel’s coveted taxis for her. By midway through, however, she’s threatening her boss in order to broker a deal. Soon, Julie is coercing underlings, and barely blinks an eye when a young mother of two gets fired for grudgingly agreeing to use her ID so that she can attend a interview at a marketing firm for the position she is eventually offered.

On the surface, getting this job is a happy ending of sorts. But the interview for this job is the dystopian core of the film, as Julie is met by a PR agent who is so hostile, so aggressive, and so clinical about time, that it’s clear her problems are only going to accelerate, and that she’s simply trading one form of imprisonment for another. In the final scene of the film, she takes her children to a local fairground to celebrate, but her relief is offset by the manic movements of a vertiginous ride, which rises and falls in a shuddering and irregular manner, like a visual prediction of Julie’s future: destined to remain on the cusp of middle-class status, sometimes above it, sometimes below it, but never assured of its permanence. And this is the middle class in Gravel’s vision – a fantasy that can never be fully inhabited, a social group that only exists at its margins, or only exists as a memory for those who have left it, the vast majority of whom have headed in a downward direction. This fairground ride is precarity in a single image, and makes you feel queasy just to look at it – the last note of the film, as it turns out, since Gravel cuts to black before the rhythm of the ride resolves, leaving us marooned in a strange space between turmoil and stasis, in a nauseous hybrid of Speed and Jeanne Dielman.

About Billy Stevenson (848 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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