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Review: In the Shadow of Women

(Philippe Garrel, France, 2015)

The importance of love, the deceptive lure of political nostalgia, and the problems of two people in a room—what Philippe Garrel’s art lacks in variety, it makes up for in crystalline focus.

The principals of Garrel’s latest, In the Shadow of Women, are Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) and Manon (Clotilde Courau), a childless married couple in their thirties. He directs documentaries, though they share every aspect of the work save for the credit, an arrangement that she professes herself to be perfectly happy with. (As for the money, their bare apartment suggests there is little enough to go around.) The two are working on a doc about a venerable veteran of the French Resistance, who is seen at one point with his doting wife, and they hold hands together while toggling through archival film on a flatbed editing table, with every expectation of one day being that devoted old couple. A mutual friend comments admiringly that she has never even seen Pierre raise his voice, and they are the sort of team who are the envy of everyone who knows them, which means there’s something that everyone doesn’t know. In this case the secret is Elisabeth (Léna Paugam), an intern at that archive, with whom Pierre has begun an affair. This drives Manon into the arms of a lover of her own (Mounir Margoum), and eventually drives them apart—in the rather heartbreaking words of the omniscient narrator (Louis Garrel): “Without him wanting to or her wanting to, they split up.”

Aside from the narration, we hear one teasing snippet of internal monologue apiece from both Pierre and Manon. This is exactly as much as we need to hear and no more, and austere functionality is the guiding principle that Garrel follows throughout his film. The narrative is radically telescoped, and the film clocks in at 73 minutes with credits, and I would estimate that there are not 50 setups. Cinematographer Renato Berta films in 35mm black-and-white anamorphic widescreen, long Garrel’s favored format, and one that he peerlessly exploits. The breadth of the frame allows for splayed-out post-coital scenes, as well as a variety of studies in the ways that people cohabiting space can set one another on edge without saying a word—Pierre bobbing into the shot tying his shoes after a rendez-vous with Elisabeth, or isolated by a doorframe as Manon flitters back and forth through the room, her cheery patter disguising an unspoken suspicion that will grow and grow. As ever with Garrel, much of the pleasure of the film is in watching the eyes of the actors, trying to decipher who has decided what and when, searching for the telltale signs of someone changing their mind.

In the Shadow of Women

Diffident, remote, and preternaturally—almost infuriatingly—calm, Pierre belongs to a long lineage of passive-aggressive Garrel protagonists, though many of those in the past at least had opiates to excuse their condition. I cannot, however, remember another being condemned in the manner that Pierre is—the narration, like the moralizing authorial voice of a 19th-century novel, doesn’t hesitate to pass judgment on his masculine pride and hypocrisy. The screenplay is the work of Garrel, Caroline Deruas-Garrel, Jean-Claude Carrière, and Arlette Langmann, a frequent collaborator who began her career with Maurice Pialat. (Manon’s role as willingly subjugated assistant recalls Marlène Jobert lugging equipment for Jean Yanne in Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together, which Langmann helped to edit.)

There are only a handful of conflicts, but they have wide-reaching implications. Pierre finally raises his voice, and shatters their fragile truce. Later, Manon reveals that the Resistance “hero” Pierre has been filming was a self-aggrandizing bullshitter. It is typical of the film’s extreme simplicity that no questions are asked as to how she obtained this information; what’s essential is the fact of stubborn masculine vanity, and of the daily upholding of a shared fiction that kept that old couple together. This doesn’t make the film’s conclusion, as close to a “happy ending” as anything that Garrel has shot, any less touching, but it does give a glimpse of the long, treacherous road ahead, paved with necessary deceptions.

Nick Pinkerton is a regular contributor to FILM COMMENT, for which he writes the online column Bombast.