Laurent Cantet, whose debut film “Human Resources” (1999) was one of the most incisive studies of the working world ever committed to celluloid, returns to the same territory even more successfully with his sophomore feature. “Time Out” is a brilliantly executed picture, part psychological thriller and part domestic drama, about a man who keeps the fact that he’s lost his job secret from his wife, children and parents. But he doesn’t merely mislead them; creating a fictitious position for himself with the United Nations, he in effect lives as though he actually had it, financing his imaginary life by extracting money from his father, friends and acquaintances through lies about his future income and pitches for fraudulent investment schemes. Eventually he takes up with a smuggler who catches him in one of his scams, and whom he presents to his family as a colleague from the U.N. But suspicions about his fabrications eventually arise.

One can imagine this scenario being played out in all sorts of ways–as goofy comedy, as sappily polemical melodrama, as mawkish soap opera. What Cantet does is to fashion it as a suspenseful character study. Working slowly and methodically, he gradually builds tension and a suggestion that the protagonist’s dangerous game may well end in an explosion. Some might call the result Hitchcockian, but what “Time Out” really resembles are the novels of Patricia Highsmith, in which cleverness of plot matters less than the acuity with which character is explored and gradually revealed under stress of danger and revelation. There’s much in the film that recalls “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train,” to mention two of Highsmith’s works that were beautifully translated to the screen, but other, lesser-known of her novels are apt comparisons, too. There’s also a good deal of similarity with Dominik Moll’s superb French thriller “With a Friend Like Harry” (2000), though in the present case it’s the threat of violence, rather than its actualization, that’s always simmering below the surface. (That film, of course, was also wonderfully like Highsmith.) And while one doesn’t want to spoil things by revealing too much about the denouement, suffice it to say that Cantet has come up with a close that’s at once psychologically dead on, morbidly funny and emotionally shattering.

Much of the success of “Time Out” rests on the shoulders of Aurelien Recoing, whose turn as Vincent, the dour, deceitful but oddly sympathetic fellow who can stand neither his job nor the lack of one, is a triumph of understatement. Looking curiously like Kevin Spacey from certain angles, Recoing manages to be both touching and more than a trifle frightening. Everyone else is distinctly secondary to his stunning performance, but Karin Viard invests Vincent’s wife Muriel with a deep sense of wounded dignity, and young Nicolas Kalsch pulls off the difficult role of his newly-independent, angry son with surprising nuance. As Jean-Michel, the canny smuggler with whom Vincent links up, Serge Livrozet proves an adept scene-stealer, clearly relishing the oversized personality Cantet and co-writer Robin Campillo have provided him with (Jean-Michel, we learn, has a very checkered past indeed).

It must be reported that “Time Out” runs for over two hours, and some may find its pace too stately and its style overly dry. But if you attune yourself to its carefully calibrated tempo and its austere emotional tone, you’ll find it almost hypnotically fascinating and savor every minute. With “Human Resources” and now this film, Cantet has become a cinematic poet of the failings of capitalism, and while that’s not a theme that will appeal overmuch to profit-minded Americans, it’s superbly depicted and realized here.