By Ray Pride
The latest sweet shimmering sliver of romantic regret from sixty-seven-year-old French master Philippe Garrel, “In the Shadow of Women,” plays out in an efficient seventy-nine minutes, filled more with pause than with plot. But its restraint, its quiet virtues, are feats of maturity and mastery. Garrel shares screenplay credit with eighty-four-year-old Jean-Claude Carrière (“Belle de Jour,” “Every Man For Himself,” “Birth,” “That Obscure Object of Desire,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”), and the silken severity of the widescreen black-and-white images is by seventy-year-old Renato Berta (“Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000,” “Full Moon in Paris,” “Au Revoir Les Enfants”).
Old guys! But the characters are younger, young-ish, caught within timeless trappings of the heart, in modern, urban, bourgeois society. (Garrel’s work began in bohemia but this is now his milieu.) In contemporary Paris, a thirtysomething couple, Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) and Manon (Clotilde Courau) make small-scale documentaries, including one about the Resistance activities of an aging raconteur. Pierre and Manon have an apparent emotional equilibrium in both life and work, but Pierre is taken by a young trainee, Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), and starts to see her on the side. Pierre thinks he can hold onto both women, until the unexpected twist of Elisabeth discovering that Manon herself has a lover, which she tells Pierre, which leads him back to his wife. But…He cannot contain these minor multitudes, he demonstrates through jealousy that you only ruin yourself.
The film’s essence is contained in gestures, moments, a heightened naturalism in reaction to irrational reactions of the heart. In a handful of interviews since its debut at the 2015 New York Film Festival, Garrel has again impressed the defining, containing aspect of his filmmaking practice: he shoots on 35mm, but each and every scene, many in extended or geometrically agile framing-reframing, is shot a single time. No endless repetition, repetition as in digital filmmaking. The actors may rehearse variations with Garrel for months on end, but once the camera rolls, there’s only one chance. However this heightens the emotional stakes for each of the actors, there’s a discernible offhand character in performances alongside the sleek formal control, an unusual balance that makes the most potentially melodramatic of reactions into splendid efflorescence of the heart itself. In suicide-fixated movies he made before the turn of the century, Garrel’s work had a physical beauty that belied the morose workings of the characters’ psyches. But with his recent run of movies—“Regular Lovers” (2005), “Frontier of the Dawn” (2008), “A Burning Hot Summer” (2011), especially “Jealousy” (2013) and “In the Shadow of Women,” there’s a behavioral lightness that’s like hypnosis for both the characters and a ready audience.
Take even the opening shot: A kinda-handsome man, blonde, un mec ordinaire, slouches back against a nondescript wall, reading a note, biting audibly into a fresh baguette. His swept bangs; his understated, dark shirt, open, atop a light t-shirt; in only sixty seconds sketches a man who takes a world, his world, the world for granted. Themes emerge through the flickering of mobile faces, as well as an original score by Jean-Louis Aubert that is equally effortless-seeming.
When the women enter and exit his life, he is all consternation and confoundment. Not a boy. A grown man who misses a truth Garrel hopes to explore: “The subject is: the female libido is as powerful as the male libido. For me,” Garrel says in the press kit, “’In the Shadow of Women’ is a film about the equality of men and women in as far as cinema can achieve this. Which meant providing enormous support for the female character, and going against the male one: cinema was designed by men and it is always them who determine our portrayals, our ways of seeing things and telling things, even though, fortunately, there are more and more women making films. Most of the time, when women express themselves on screen they are speaking words written by a man, which I tried to resolve by working in a team of four, two women and two men. But I think that cinema functions in such a way that even when you put the male and female characters on an even footing, it tends to reinforce the man’s position. To counterbalance this, I wanted the film to be in defense of the woman and weighted against the man. And in the end, Pierre doesn’t come off too badly, he and Manon in fact have an equal balance of power. All the same, the film is probably made from a man’s point of view, but a man who goes to see what is happening from a woman’s point of view.”
“So why play games?” Manon asks after another roundelay of fuckup-upon-fuckup. “Because I’m stupid.” Manon’s face registers an impossible range of emotions, open to the potential of a shared world ahead. Their next lines are simpler, but hold out the same blunt hope as the last line of Stanley Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut”: “Fuck.” Their crumple into embrace is just as hopeful as that “fuck.”
“In The Shadow Of Women” opens February 12 at Siskel. The trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.