Another sweaty French capsule of domestic apocalypse—somebody coin a regional genre label, quick— Emmanuel Carrére’s La Moustache begins with exactly the ridiculously mundane question that transforms the characters’ lives into an electrocuted horror: Should I shave my mustache? Marc (Vincent Lindon) asks as he’s lathering up in the bath before a dinner party; “Never seen you without it,” his wife, Agnés (Emmanuelle Devos), shrugs. He does, hides his face coyly, and then the unthinkable happens—she says nothing. His friends at dinner do not notice, his co-workers the next day (at a storefront design firm) are mute. Every conversation is an affront, because it’s a denial of the obvious. Agnés soon flips out—her husband never had a mustache. At first, Marc thinks it’s all an elaborate joke, then he wonders if he’s having delusions, both of which are happier scenarios than the last stop on this existential rail line to nowhere: that Carrére’s hero is in fact invisible, incorporeal, present but somehow irrelevant, a Kafkaesque “disappearance man.”
The big shave, indeed. A Raymond Carver tale nudged into everyday absurdism, La Moustache is all the more chilling because the marriage’s salvation is everyone’s priority—Marc and Agnés quickly reach critical mass, their relationship increasingly fragile under the onslaught of cognitive dissonance. After Marc returns from a midnight dumpster dive to retrieve his lost shavings, they fall into a rhythm of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Marc cannot insist on winning his case—by holding her down and forcing her to look at their old, lip-fuzzy vacation pictures?—because then he wouldn’t have a wife left. Come the eventual intervention and attempted sanatorium commitment, Marc lights out for the frontier, landing in Hong Kong (negotiating like a fallen alien just as he did at home) and getting more lost still.
Devos, she of the relentlessly fascinating Picasso face, never wavers in her conviction, and Lindon, thick-faced but lipless, with a natural frown and the worried eyes of an old dog, is perfectly cast as an average semi-macho schmo caught in the ultimate pre-menopausal nightmare. Only the presence of disaffected children would’ve ramped Carrére’s sweaty fable up toward the homunculus d.t.’s of It’s a Wonderful Life‘s penultimate act. As it is, the film’s evocation of the perceptual chasm between husband and wife is sharp and wounding, suggesting even a collision of two parallel universes, their vectors crossing in one moment of toiletry nonchalance. Is it science fiction? A successful novelist and restrained actor’s director, Carrére makes the transformation of a silly marital argument into a cosmic upheaval look easy, and profound as well.