I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie that takes mass transit as seriously as does “Full Time,” a drama set in and around Paris by the Canadian director Éric Gravel. It’s the story of a hotel chambermaid named Julie Roy (Laure Calamy) who commutes by train between her job in Paris and her home in an unnamed small town at an unspecified long distance from the city. Even under the best of circumstances, Julie’s life is complicated: she’s the divorced mother of two young children whom she’s raising alone. There’s very little leeway in Julie’s schedule: she gets the kids up before dawn and hustles them over to the nearby house of an elderly woman, Mrs. Lusigny (Geneviève Mnich), their caregiver before and after school. Then Julie rushes to the local train station, goes to work, takes the train back to her town, picks up the children, brings them home, gets them to bed, falls asleep, and starts again the next morning.
Next time you rush for a train, think of Julie. Consider why you’re running late, why it matters that you catch this train rather than the next, why you expect that the train will show up promptly and get you reliably to your destination, what the consequences to you and others will be if it stops running—or doesn’t show up—and you’re late. Imagine all the working people and the functioning equipment that it takes to keep the whole system running, to keep your job and your life in order. One’s own place in the system, “Full Time” shows, is the tip of an immense iceberg—which is, rather, all tips, each individual’s perspective and participation in the mass affecting the lives of the others, albeit as invisibly as if submerged beneath the ocean’s surface. In “Full Time,” Gravel dramatizes the iceberg from the point of view of one tip. The film’s meticulous realism, both at the intimate level of Julie’s personal life and at the over-all societal one that knocks it off balance, lend it the excitement of a thriller; tiny perturbations of daily routines and large-scale disruptions of mass transit converge to yield high drama.
As the title promises, “Full Time” is centered on work. It’s one of the best recent movies about work, and it approaches the subject with sharply analytical specificity. As for Julie’s private life, it’s nearly blanked out: she’s treated largely like a cinematic lab rat whose temperament and tendencies are underplayed in order to emphasize her functioning in her environment, which is one that’s carefully constructed—and Julie’s character is carefully constructed to bring it to light. For starters, she’s created as a French stereotype, the identity of no identity—a straight white person of unspecified ethnicity and religion. She doesn’t display any outside interests or hobbies; what she reads or listens to during her commute is unspecified, and her radio at home is tuned to the news—because that news is of immediate import in her daily life.
The prime disruption that her tightly scheduled life endures is a very French one: strikes, of the sort that the country is currently experiencing, and for very similar reasons, a proposed increase in working years in order to reduce government spending. Their effect sends shock waves through Julie’s life; they come at a critical moment in her life—and her work. Julie is a liminal figure, a manual laborer who’s also a supervisor. She’s the head of the staff of chambermaids—the all-female, crisply uniformed staff that’s responsible for the physical order of all of the hotel’s rooms. She’s also, it turns out, the holder of a master’s in economics, a former market-research specialist in the retail food industry, who, after years at the hotel, is now applying for a corporate office job in her former field—and attempting to schedule her interviews around the demands of her job, a series of maneuvers that turn into high-pressure adventures because of the strikes.
Yet before Julie dashes off to an interview, Gravel depicts, with a remarkable specificity in a conventional format, the essence of her work and that of her colleagues: “Full Time” carefully defines manual work as being largely mental. The film snippets the hotel staff’s daily rounds into a hectic montage of a familiar sort, but one that makes clear how intensely detail-oriented, memory-centered, and perceptually demanding the job is: envisioning the ideal of pristine cleanliness and precise order that’s expected, noticing the multitude of fine points on which this ideal depends, knowing and executing the techniques to realize them, having a sense of mental organization to move efficiently and effectively from task to task without fail or delay. The work may be routine, it may be exhausting, it may be boring, but it requires discernment and dexterity along with organization and focus. It’s fiercely demanding of mind and body alike—and that’s even apart from the nearly medical level of physical intimacy that it requires, because of what guests do in (and with) their rooms. (There’s a crucial scene in which the staff is required to clean shit from walls, an occurrence so familiar that the staff has a nickname for it.)
For all the rules and regulations, standards and specifications that the job imposes, the lives of workers—their negotiations with the demands of the job, with one another, and with management—are built around ruses and evasions, deceptions and lies that force open personal room for maneuvering amid the rigid strictures of the workplace. One of the crucial dramatic observations of “Full Time” is the gap between official regulations and actual behavior, the little favors and little payoffs, the manipulations of a system to personal ends that create, in the routine of everyone who works, a sort of rule-debt: an ever-mounting collection of broken rules that may or may not go unnoticed or unrecorded but that, individually, could result in discipline and, taken together, could get more or less anyone fired. It’s a vision of mental precarity, of perpetual fear, that goes beyond the usual depiction of economic precarity to reveal the underpinnings of a society that subjects workers to ever more intrusive forms of surveillance and documentation. (One of the movie’s key plot points involves the time stamps left by a magnetized I.D. card.)
And economic precarity, the movie shows, is no less real, endemic, and urgent—and no less a matter of a carefully ordered system that inevitably gets disturbed. Julie gets harassing calls from her bank because she’s behind in her mortgage payments and at risk of overdrafts—and she’s behind because her ex-husband is behind in his alimony payments. Her fear of losing her job, as she lives from paycheck to paycheck, dominates the film like a silent scream. (American viewers may, however, note with dismay her low-stress dealings with the medical system.) The underlying precarity, though, is time-precarity: the interdependence of transportation, work, school, family, child care, and whatever remains for social life and private life. Indeed, the very concept of private life is shown, in “Full Time,” to be a fiction, an unreal abstraction, because it’s inseparable from the practical relations and political circumstances of a person’s world. The strikes, with their large-scale shutdowns of public transportation, throw Julie off her schedule and, so, also disrupt her children’s lives, the life of Mrs. Lusigny, and the lives of her co-workers and supervisors, and their troubles, in turn, blow back to Julie in a tensely accelerating cycle. The pressures that she faces, as something of the crux of this network of relationships, risk becoming untenable, both practically and emotionally. One twist, and a total breakdown—personal and collective—looms.
In the course of the film, the strikes—largely unseen, making themselves felt in their effects—become increasingly widespread and give rise to violence. Organized opposition to government policies turns into protest against endemic conditions—and in one telling, albeit underplayed twist, the shutdown of the transit system (and, in other cities, the docks) also leads to protests in “the projects,” prompting a news reporter to wonder whether they’ll “catch fire again.” 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 the flashpoints of contention go unexpressed. Rather, the movie depicts, with no comment but plenty of fervor, the conquering of the masses that emerges from these divisions. Separating those who work from those who don’t, the working poor from the nonworking poor, those in the city from those in the country, sparking conflict on the basis of religion and race all come off as strategies from above that deflect and impede the effort to contest the ways of power. The working many are pitted against one another to prevent them from uniting politically.