Baby-faced yet haggard, aloof yet mopey, Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) is a token lady-killer. Slim physique, perfectly fitting denim, and pointedly unkempt blond hair aside, his sullen face and infrequent speech make the women he targets simultaneously want to take care of and deconstruct him. A struggling documentary filmmaker, Pierre’s silences are equally enthralling to his subjects; when shooting normally tongue-tied WWII resistance fighters, he indirectly urges them to fill in the void.
Socially, Pierre is rather boring, inarticulate company, but as a lover, he keeps his romantic interests constantly on their toes trying to figure him out. Naturally, women are willing to look past his lethargy. Yet, just as naturally, enigmatic rakes like Pierre tend to have a deadly dark side, and ultimately end up alone.
Pierre’s Achilles’ heel — and the pivotal theme of Philippe Garrel’s superb psychoanalytical melodrama In the Shadow of Women — is a certain chauvinistic jealousy, not to mention entitlement. On the surface, Pierre and his wife/business partner Manon (Clotilde Courau) are an enviably drama-free couple. (“He never raises his voice,” one character notes, to which Manon responds with mock-modesty, “I do the yelling for both of us.”) But after a few of Garrel’s stark setups (mostly single shots of Pierre loafing on the mattress as the feistier Manon scampers about their cramped apartment), we start to see some fraying. Manon resents that Pierre never wants to accompany her on social outings; Pierre resents her encroachment. After one such spat, he ends up bedding the comely film archivist Elizabeth (Lena Paugam).
Filmed in lustrous black-and-white, In the Shadow of Women stages these trysts in equally gloomy and erotic fashion. It is a cad’s dream to have an adoring, maternal, lifelong companion and a cheerfully commitment-free conquest just across town, and the audience feels Pierre’s need for — and justification of — this arrangement. (The omniscient narration, the film’s one large flaw, isn’t necessary to convey all this.) Elizabeth says outright that she is aware of Pierre’s married life, his limitations. But it isn’t long before she’s spying on him, rendered insecure by the coziness of his union with Manon. When she happens to catch Manon cuckolding Pierre one afternoon, and relays the information to Pierre, he finally reveals the chinks in his armor. It is, in his words, a “male notion” to cheat — we are never told whether Pierre has had past dalliances, though this is highly likely — and how dare she do the same!
The static, wide-shot camerawork — no jittery hand-held movements, no filling the screen with actors’ anguished faces — only serves to make Pierre’s undoing all the more wrenching and unnerving. He gets rougher with both women, grabbing their hair, shoving their consoling hands off his shoulders. He can’t keep a lid on his resentment; his observations that Manon is too flirty with men, once kept private, start to leak out. He even resorts to public stalking.
When he does, indeed, raise his voice for the first time, it is a truly frightening moment. In response, Courau, the finest performer here, runs through, in a matter of seconds — and in the same prolonged shot — a range of despondent moans and weeping that will turn your mood as bleak as her and Pierre’s dimly lit abode. Courau somehow brings energy and conviction to actions that could easily have come off overwrought: hiding in despair for hours under a blanket, or half-choking her spouse.
Merhar is a marvel, too, mostly for the way he remains so locked in to his character’s churlish stoicism. That said, there’s something halfhearted about Garrel’s denouement, which regards as laughable and inconsequential the situations that in the film’s first two-thirds he treated with such weight. But Merhar saves In the Shadow of Women with the simplest of gestures: a smile. When this sulky misanthrope unleashes an ear-to-ear grin, without warning, it’s almost as scary as his first shouting fit.