by Jeff Reichert
In the Shadow of Women
Dir. Philippe Garrel, France, Distrib Films
Philippe Garrel’s pint-sized In the Shadow of Women, like so many of his films, tells the story of two lovers falling apart. This is a narrative he’s examined as far back as his 1972 psychedelic rant La cicatrice intérieure, for which he filmed himself and his then-lover Nico wandering through empty desert expanses, screaming at one another while actor Pierre Clémenti, sporting bow and arrow and not a stitch of clothing, rides frantically around on horseback. His cinema has mellowed considerably since then—austere, completely silent seventies experiments with fractured portraiture like Les hautes solitudes (1974) and Le bleu des origines (1979) resolved into similarly fragmented, but more recognizably narrative-driven eighties films like Liberty at Night (1984) and She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps (1985), which in turn gave birth to the Garrel of today, who, especially in his most recent run of films, Frontier of Dawn (2008), A Burning Hot Summer (2011), Jealousy (2013), and, now, In the Shadow of Women, seems intent on whittling his craft down to the barest essentials, and his narratives down to the most essential of bits.
Thus his cinema is now one where only simple glances or gestures are necessary to convey multitudes. This kind of description has been applied to many filmmakers, but few directors are as pinpoint accurate as Garrel. This may have something to do, I suspect, with his obsession with the play of expression on human faces in close-up and the implications of minute movements of the body, as evidenced by his seventies works, laboratory films with which he experimented how much he could convey with so little, how much meaning can be wrung from two shots of faces cut against one another. His earliest films, like Freudian fever dream Le révélateur (1968) and his Jesus Christ parable The Virgin’s Bed (1971), showed a young man’s fascination with and overuse of the kinds of long tracking shots and complicated maneuvers that would be horribly out of place in a film like In the Shadow of Women. Ascetic but not cold, Garrel’s newest is a work in which the hand of a wife placed atop her husband’s while he works suggests a marriage in despair and the later hint of a smile and excitement in her eyes when her husband approaches her sexually lets us know just how long it’s been since they’ve shared intimacy.
The mid-forties couple under Garrel’s gentle scrutiny in In the Shadow of Women is Manon (Clotilde Courau) and Pierre (Stanislas Merhar). He is an unsuccessful documentary filmmaker, she an adoring partner convinced of her husband’s genius who left behind a potentially lucrative career as a Chinese translator to work with him on his films. They live together in something approaching poverty—Manon is introduced drying herself after a shower as her landlord barges in, observes the decrepit state of the apartment and demands the rent. Garrel has haunted crumbling, cramped Parisian apartments throughout his career (see how the cozy lover’s nest of Jealousy turned into a cage over the course of the film), but rarely have any of them looked so grungy, so much like a place of squatting rather than domesticity.
When Manon later meets Pierre brooding on a street corner, she’s clearly energized by being in his presence, but his distracted aspect suggests looming troubles. These manifest in the form of much younger Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), whom Pierre meets while working with Manon at a film archive. While on a smoke break, he observes the younger woman struggling with a handcart laden with 35mm reels and offers to help. Garrel, ever economical, keeps the meet cute brief, but we recognize its import via the filmmaker’s introduction of an uncharacteristically romantic piece of scoring, a swooning bit of finger-plucked acoustic guitar. Soon after, Pierre begins lying to break plans with Manon so he can sneak over to his younger lover’s apartment, and then back into his own like a thief. Pierre and Elisabeth’s giddy early relationship lovemaking is elided by the camera, which tastefully pans away from the pair in bed to briefly hold on a windowpane. It’s a clichéd move that suggests In the Shadow of Women might be something like Garrel’s rejoinder to the contemporary romantic comedy.
Manon and Pierre seem destined for heartbreak. He presents his unsuspecting wife with flowers and meets her gratitude with confrontation: “You never liked flowers, now you do.” Even so, she’s delighted; though in the past flowers have signified to her the committing of adultery, she now trusts Pierre completely and tells him so. Garrel’s too smart a filmmaker to let this bit of easy irony lie—he has a reversal up his sleeve, revealed to the audience soon after by the film’s droll narrator, Louis Garrel. Elisabeth, after stalking Pierre at home and getting a glimpse of Manon, later sees her out in a café canoodling with her own lover, played by Mounir Margoum. When this news reaches Pierre, Manon agrees to break up with her paramour instantly; Pierre, believing his own affair secret, continues to see Elisabeth for a time. The narrator reveals his rationale: “He thought, ‘Don’t blame him for being a man.’” Men in Garrel’s films continue to be simultaneously self-obsessed and completely uncritical.
Pierre eventually tires of Elisabeth and attempts to recommit to Manon, but jealousy gets the better of him. The tender stare he gives her in the night after their sexual reconciliation leads to interrogation: “Did you fuck him like that?” He spies on her uncontrollably, and exhibits those flashes of barely contained masculine rage that Garrel has become so expert at marshaling. Merhar’s performance here recalls his role as Simon/Marcel in Chantal Akerman’s La captive, with his obsessive, haunted pursuit of control over the person of Ariane/Albertine. Manon, played by the Diane Keaton-esque Courau as breezy and charming in the film’s first half, enraged and cornered in the second, soon grows tired of Pierre. Forgiveness doesn’t seem to be waiting in the wings for either of them.
Thus, like so many of Garrel’s couples, Pierre and Manon, without seeming to want to, break up. Pierre, near dead in their interactions earlier in the film, and only somewhat more energized by his trysts with Elisabeth, is left shaking by the exchange in his apartment. What have they done? A year passes, the two live apart—Garrel gives us quick shots of each alone: Pierre industriously painting the walls a new place, Manon dropping her bag in her new apartment. In terribly rom-com fashion, a funeral, for the subject of their last documentary, brings them back together. He was a resistance fighter who presented himself as a hero, but his death revealed his whole story was a lie. The electricity between them is immediate; they leave the funeral, first to continue the argument that led to their breakup, but then to passionately reunite. Pierre, smiling for the first time in the film, tells her: “You’re the love of my life, you know.” We’ve seen all we need of the two of them to understand that this is true. They stroll off together plotting their next film projects. Love, life, cinema, truth—In the Shadow of Women captures so much, in so little time. It’s Philippe Garrel, in a nutshell.