Among moviegoers who try to keep up with French cinema, the more recent pictures made by post-New Wave avant garde-type Philippe Garrel tend to inspire either passionate defenses or impatient eye-rolling, with not much in between. Perhaps the biggest lightning rod is Garrel’s frequent casting of his son, Louis Garrel, an actor with a magnificently floppy tousle of hair and a sullen pout worthy of a disgruntled Roman god. Louis starred in his father’s 2005 romantic drama Regular Lovers, playing a super-serious poet swept into the life-changing current of May ’68, an echo of a role he’d played a few years earlier in Bernardo Bertolucci’s sensual and sorely underrated romance The Dreamers. Louis is good at playing disaffected youths, but a little goes a long way, and his father definitely pushed those limits with the 2011 A Burning Hot Summer, casting Louis as a brooding painter bored with his marriage to movie star Monica Bellucci. If that’s not a world’s-tiniest-violin problem, I don’t know what is.
But Garrel père and fils have made a near-miraculous recovery with Jealousy. Jealousy works because it’s not trying to do too much: Rendered in lustrous black-and-white by veteran cinematographer Willy Kurant (who shot Masculin Féminin for Godard), the picture feels intimate and concentrated, less fluttery than some of Garrel’s other pictures—it’s right at the intersection of direct and oblique, like a good haiku. Louis plays a young actor—also named Louis—who walks out on his partner, Clothilde (Rebecca Covenant), leaving her to care for their young daughter, Charlotte (Olga Milshtein, adorable in a fetchingly matter-of-fact way). In the opening scene, a tearful Clothilde begs Louis not to leave, but he has his heart set on shacking up with Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), a failed actress with a seductively throaty voice and not a centime to her name.
Claudia is trouble all right, stalking through the movie on a great pair of stems, and it’s not long before we learn that she has a rather elastic notion of sexual fidelity. Louis suffers, oh how he suffers! But he has good reason, and the younger Garrel keeps his mooning to a minimum as he shapes the contours of this character’s heartache. He’s particularly striking in his scenes with the young Milshtein. She’s so unstudied and vibrant that she sets something free in him: He’s relaxed and a little goofy, less preoccupied with carrying the onerous weight of actordom. She’s the authority figure here, giving him permission not to take himself so seriously. Maybe his dad will take note.