It can start with a peculiarly quiet breakfast, an unshaven afternoon, a gesture of affection shrugged off or rejected. La Separation follows a trajectory many will find familiar–the downward spiral of eroding intimacy. Pitiful and disgusting, the ends of relationships are a staple of European arthouse cinema–Rossellini and Bergman weighed in with classics of the genre. French director Christian Vincent (La Discrete, 1992) takes a stab at greatness with this wrenching portrait of the senseless disintegration of a household, and comes up short, but delivers fine performances from two big stars–Isabelle Huppert and Daniel Auteuil–who give their all to the pettiness and ugliness of la vie a deux.
”I knew there was something wrong,” Pierre (Auteuil), a children’s book illustrator, says about Anne (Huppert), a businesswoman, ”when for a fortnight she didn’t nag me.” La Separation is most disturbing in its vivid portrayal of the bickering and daily abuse that binds couples when it doesn’t break them. No one looks particularly pretty–neither the perennially self-pitying Pierre nor the blindly narcissistic Anne, who thinks she can philander while maintaining a cozy home life with Pierre and Louis (a/k/a Loulou), their adorable toddler son.
Innocent bystanders are particularly unbearable–Pierre’s friends, self-involved intellectuals, spout idiocies, in the guise of advice or consolation, about how ”people once mated as they pleased” or ”all couples have their crises.” A real estate agent’s spiel about the ”communicating rooms” of a country house in Normandy underscores the larger theme here–this pair’s inability to attend to each other and to make themselves understood. ”I don’t have anything specific against you,” Anne says to Pierre. ”I just met someone who listens.” Perhaps that’s why much of the dialogue falls flat, and why Huppert and Auteuil are most affecting when, with eyes averted or cast into a coffee cup, a moment of silence is among the few remaining things they share.
Subtly, the film is skewed toward Pierre’s perspective. The intense focus on tiny slights, the sly glances at Loulou’s winsome young baby-sitter, the sense of rage and helplessness are his. And so it also suffers from the cloying claustrophobia of his oddly passive personality; he never really fights the loss of his family, he just rails at Anne and privately mourns her. Anne’s emotions (and her work) remain strangely opaque, and the world beyond their household barely exists. Is this a flaw in the narrative or a symptom of modern alienation? Either way, it’s part of a horror story that’s simply all too real.