Credit: ND/NF / Film at Lincoln Center
by Ayeen Forootan Film

Full Time — Eric Gravel

May 3, 2022

Kinetic films that depict their restless women protagonists either in quenchless quest for their dreams or in non-stop endeavor to clear various obstacles should be familiar to dedicated viewers. Most recently, Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World and Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s Anaïs in Love offer two such examples of works that clearly capture their own idiosyncratic heroines in almost constant motion, and yet even those aren’t exactly comparable to the particular peppy energy of Eric Gravel’s sophomore feature, Full Time. The film follows Julie (Laure Calamy), a single mother and hardworking head chambermaid at a luxurious Parisian hotel who is both hopefully and anxiously looking forward to a new job interview, this as the transportation system undergoes a nationwide strike. Gravel, in an up-tempo, mostly continuous mad dash, commits his camera to capturing Julie’s everyday struggles within this present-day society. Whether in tracking her through the hotel’s corridors and sterile rooms, or in venturing out with her into the crowded, gloomy streets of a Paris in autumn, where she regularly boards trains and changes lines during her daily commute from the banlieues to the capital, one quality here is certain: just like its lead character, Full Time is breathless and incessant, an unstoppable character study that nonetheless expands its portrait to present a quite vivid vista of the world we live in.

But as much as Gravel’s efforts to deliver a sincere, social-realist perspective on the twined issues of full-time jobs, unfair workplace demands, and the nearly mechanized, repetitive mundanities of daily subsistence — and specifically with regards to these realities in the context of single motherhood — are empathetic and admirable, Full Time isn’t as successful at building depth into his film. It doesn’t offer much insight or vision in either substance or style beyond a basic distillation of what has already been accomplished in many similar, better-known films, with clear influence felt from the work of the Dardennes to Claire Denis’ Friday Night to the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems. Still, despite the obvious shared DNA, Gravel’s work maintains a freshness all its own, especially on the strength of its fast, frenetic pacing which keeps the film adrenalized. But in his commitment to this escalating tension, Gravel imbues the film with its most questionable elements: Irène Drésel’s score often feels overblown to the point where viewers will be forced to question the actual intensity of a situation versus what’s merely coaxed according to forceful sonic guidance, encouraging overwrought emotion as much as possible. But again, as is the case across the board, Full Time‘s weaknesses are only one side of the coin, and this repetitive, sometimes manipulative soundtrack also nicely blends with voices humming from radios and TVs and blurs with the urban soundscape to lend a certain woozy moodiness to the sound design, breaking with the conventionality of so many similar socio-political works.

This repetitiveness also extends to the film’s story shape: we follow Julie as she faces one misfortune after another — for instance, it’s easy to predict that a birthday party will be followed by crisis, and it does in the form of a broken arm — and it’s difficult not to feel Gravel the screenwriter in all of these imposed (and somewhat inorganic) inflictions, though at least there are instances in the script that seem like an attempt to counterbalance this penchant toward misery. On the other hand, the way that Gravel frequently strives to over-emphasize the film’s commentary is less appealing. Take for instance dialogue like, “If you no longer want to clean rich people’s shit, there is no place for you here”; or when a job interviewer asks Julie if returning to work after so long would worry her since she’ll see her children less, and she immediately replies, “I love them, but I’m not made to be a stay-at-home mom”; or one day when she misses her train back home and lands in a cheap motel room — after shaking a horny male on the street — where she lies awake mulling fears of an unforeseeable tomorrow while a sunny picture of the Eiffel Tower hangs on the wall, a shot which then cuts to trash bags and bins on the street. Instead of tackling such concerns via a broader and more complicated portrait, Gravel is too content to rely on a more-or-less familiar aesthetic expression and overly blunt thematic canvas. But thanks to Mathilde Van de Moortel’s taut and rhythmic editing, as well as Calamy’s controlled performance in realizing an admittedly relatable and fleshed-out character, the arthouse-inclined Full Time maintains a high enough floor. At the very least, it mostly avoids — or else better mitigates — the usual tasteless, suffocating miserabilism of so many similarly conceived films, which is a small victory in its own right.

Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2022: Dispatch 4.