Don’t Stop Me Now
By Susannah Gruder
Dir. Eric Gravel, France, Music Box Films
While it’s certainly a thrill to watch a car chase under an elevated subway line or the careful choreography of a heist operation, the everyday adrenaline rushes on display in Full Time provoke even more anxiety than the average action movie. In Eric Gravel’s propulsive, perfectly paced second feature, running to catch a train or waiting to see the words “payment accepted” after swiping a credit card are treated as life-or-death situations—and for Julie (Laure Calamy), head chambermaid at a five-star hotel in Paris and single mother of two, they practically are.
Full Time captures a high-pressure week in the life of a woman on the verge—of being fired from her current job, of losing the nanny she relies upon, and of missing another mortgage payment. She’s also miraculously landed an interview for her first full-time office job in four years, as a market researcher for a large retail firm, which she desperately hopes will improve her family’s life. Making matters much worse, all this is happening during one of France’s mass labor strikes, which are known to shut down the majority of transportation and send the country into chaos. For Julie, who lives in a distant suburb, lack of transport is not just a temporary inconvenience—it could mean losing everything she has, as well as the opportunity of a lifetime, as she struggles to get to work on time and sneak out to job interviews, all while trying to plan a birthday party for her young son Nolan (Nolan Arizmendi).
Gravel, who lives in a small community about an hour and a half outside of Paris, was interested in the commuters he would witness on his train rides into the city, and how their lives might be affected by a mass strike. Julie chooses to live far away so that she can have more space for her children, even if it means more travel time for her, and more trouble when unexpected obstacles, like strikes, arise. France has a long history of mass strikes, which have mostly been lauded as an empowering force of social change, and a (sometimes successful) way to put pressure on politicians to bend to the will of the people. The country’s most recent strike, against raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, is one of the largest in decades, with over one million people taking to the streets, shuttering much of the public transport system along with 100 schools, and even the Eiffel Tower itself.
From the American perspective, this may seem admirable. When I was living in Paris during the 2010 pension reform strikes, however, most French people I spoke to rolled their eyes whenever the strikes were mentioned, claiming that while they appreciated the effort to enact positive change, on a practical level they detested them and the difficulties they caused. The strikes, or manifestations, are meant to throw the country into disorder. But when schools and transportation shut down, it often hurts the very people the strikes claim to help: workers who can’t take part in the marches for fear of losing their jobs, who can’t telecommute to work when their trains aren’t running, or who can’t pay for childcare when school is canceled. For Julie, no public transit means long alternate routes, carpooling or hitchhiking with strangers, and even spending the night in a dingy hotel.
Full Time is largely about the labor that continues in the shadows of a labor strike, and the non-union workers living outside Paris whose lives are overturned when the city shuts down. Julie is not a Norma Rae-esque heroine interested in organizing for the greater good—she’s just trying to keep herself and her family afloat. The film is firmly rooted in Julie’s perspective, following her 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as she fires on all cylinders trying to make ends meet. Irène Drésel’s urgent techno score, somewhere between Tangerine Dream and Steve Reich, and Mathilde van de Moortel’s clever editing, push the action swiftly forward as Julie pieces together solutions to the never-ending series of crises she faces. To simply make it to a second interview later in the week, she must convince a coworker to secretly validate her ID card, beg the hotel valet to hail her a clandestine taxi (taxis are on strike too), pay three times the cab fare in cash, buy a new suit (since she had to stay in a hotel the night before), all while dodging calls from the bank, trying to reach her flaky ex who’s neglected to send alimony this month, and reassuring her disgruntled nanny, Madame Lusigny (Geneviève Mnich), that she’ll be home on time.
You can see why she wants this new job so badly. In her current position she’s forced to kowtow to her exigent manager, as well as to the hotel’s “platinum” guests, even if it means dealing with what the maids call a “Bobby Sands” incident in one of the bathrooms (named after the IRA prisoner who smeared his own feces on the walls of his cell). While the striking workers aim for ultimate visibility, it’s the maids’ role, according to Julie, to be invisible. She emphasizes this fact as she instructs the newest hire to get a good deodorant. “You smell,” she matter-of-factly informs her. Calamy has often brought slapstick sensibility to roles as the boisterous, jilted “other woman” in the popular series Call My Agent or the film My Donkey, My Lover & I (2020), for which she won the César Award for Best Actress. Here, she brings a more subdued charm to her role, seeming to effortlessly embody Julie in each of her changeable modes—the breathlessly exhausted mother, the fiercely determined long-distance commuter, the meticulous head chambermaid, and the serious job candidate. She switches so quickly from one persona—and one place—to the next that we can hardly keep up.
The camera never strays from Julie’s side, following her swift movements through Paris. Cinematographer Victor Seguin uses long focal lenses to achieve close-ups with shallow depth of field as she runs through the streets or tries to catch a replacement bus, a technique that can feel both intimate and distancing, like the camera is eagerly attempting to locate her in a crowd. Slow zooms augment the tension as they zero in on Julie making a hotel bed or quickly shoveling food into her mouth between tasks, as if the forces around her are closing in to the point of suffocation.
Once the weekend hits, there’s a little bit more breathing room—though not much. Julie’s been so busy all week that we barely get to know her outside of work, interviews, and anxious commutes. It slowly emerges that she may make her life more complicated than she needs to. After all, she doesn’t have to buy a giant trampoline for her son’s birthday, rent a small truck to deliver it home herself, jury-rig an amateur pulley system to get the enormous box out of the trunk alone, and assemble it the night before Nolan’s party. Nor does she have to kiss her carpool buddy, Vincent (Cyril Gueï), simply because he offers to fix her hot water heater.
Julie’s not used to people helping her when she asks, let alone offering to assist, so it’s easy to understand why she’s so taken aback when Vincent lends a hand. She’s generally surprised when things work out for her, or when she gets a second to breathe. The moments Julie manages to find time to be alone, then, without a place to go or someone to be, stand in stark contrast to the film’s unrelenting dynamism. The opening shot offers a close-up of Julie’s skin as she sleeps, her breath soft and steady. When Julie pauses momentarily to catch her breath in front of her work locker, or while waiting for her interviewer to show up, we feel an overwhelming respite from the film’s energetic pacing. By the end of the film, Julie has found her way into the center of the frame as action swirls around her. She’s alone again for a moment, and has received a sudden burst of good news. As tears well up in her eyes, a mix of shock, joy, and sheer exhaustion, we wonder if it was worth the arduous journey she took to get here, and what trials await her on the other side.