Few filmmakers explore the mysteries of coupledom as touchingly as post–Nouvelle Vague maestro Philippe Garrel, who specializes in mapping out romantic triangles (whether acute, obtuse, or oblique). The rich enigmas of his latest movie, about a husband and wife, both in their forties and each unfaithful to the other, start with its evocative title — and its anglophone amendment. The French original, L’Ombre des Femmes, which directly translates as “The Shadow of Women,” is open-ended, with shadow not confined to one meaning. The preposition added to the English renaming, however, narrows down the multivalent term, conjuring a source of light and the silhouette it casts. But, in so shrewdly exploring the illusions — namely (self-) deception — required to keep a dyad functioning, Garrel shows just how much we all remain, consciously or not, in the dark. Penumbrae are, quite literally, everywhere in this film, which was shot in velvety, high-contrast black-and-white 35mm by Renato Berta. (Though In the Shadow of Women was also edited on celluloid, it will be screened digitally.)
The opening scene magnifies the well-wrought opacity even more. We see Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) leaning against a wall and nibbling on a baguette. He clutches something in his hand — a photograph, maybe — and looks down at it intermittently. But mainly he stares off into the distance; he’s either lost in thought or completely zoned out. And yet despite Pierre’s unfocused gaze, ours remains resolutely fixed on the actor playing him: Among their many enchantments, Garrel’s films are populated by faces to get lost in, striking visages marked by beautiful planes and angles.
Though this odd beginning may seem like a throwaway moment, it points to a bit of sly gender role reversal, at least as far as traditional heterosexual coupling in cinema (especially French movies) goes: It is Pierre who is inscrutable, not his wife, Manon (Clotilde Courau), whom we first see smiling slightly to herself as she blow-dries her hair in the cramped, shabby-chic Paris apartment she shares with her husband.
Their lodging may feel even more claustrophobic owing to the fact that they share too much intimacy. Pierre and Manon are partners not just in life but in work, collaborating on a documentary about a Resistance fighter; their union has been labeled “amazing” by at least one admiring friend. “Sharing projects together — that’s love,” Manon tells her skeptical mother (Antoinette Moya), who, decidedly not a fan of nonfiction filmmaking, laments that her daughter never became an interpreter.
Whether Manon, acting as script supervisor and editor on the documentary, considers herself Pierre’s equal in their artistic pursuit, however, is another matter. “Manon seemed to be in her husband’s shadow, pushing him into the spotlight,” is the offscreen narrator’s take on their creative alliance, a remark that curiously skews the film’s title. Crucially, that voice, which offers brief commentary throughout the movie, belongs to Louis Garrel, Philippe’s son, who has starred in his father’s four previous films. In two of those, Regular Lovers (2005) and Jealousy (2013), the tousle-haired Adonis commands with charismatic melancholy; in Frontier of Dawn (2008) and A Burning Hot Summer (2011), he is an unbearably petulant presence. That Louis is consigned to being only heard, not seen, is just one of the many wise decisions that Garrel père has made in his latest.
Another is forgoing the solemnity that has weighed down some of those earlier movies, especially Frontier of Dawn, which tracks the doomed romance between a photographer and an unstable actress, who kills herself and returns as a menacing apparition. Sorrow unquestionably pervades In the Shadow of Women, especially after Pierre and Manon learn about each other’s affair, but self-pity — and its corollary, overweening self-regard — isn’t countenanced. In fact, one of the more noxious strains of this type of behavior, male entitlement, is clearly (though not didactically) denounced: Never does Pierre’s hypocrisy seem more repellent than when he castigates Manon for her infidelity (“He couldn’t be cheated on,” the narrator notes); never is he crueler than during his assignations with his younger lover, Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), a slightly gangly intern at a film archive.
Though Pierre, a broad smile breaking his poker face, will redeem himself somewhat in the final of the film’s brisk 73 minutes — about the duration of a typical extramarital tryst — there’s no doubt that In the Shadow of Women is aligned more closely with Manon. (Garrel’s movie treats Elisabeth with great compassion, too, particularly when she discusses her family with Pierre under mussed-up bedsheets.) Manon’s ardor for the detached Pierre may be unfathomable, but she is not self-abnegating, seeking out someone who will, in her words, make her “feel alive” when her husband can’t — or won’t.
As he has with most of his films, Garrel wrote the screenplay for In the Shadow of Women with others, here working with previous collaborators Caroline Deruas (who is also the director’s wife) and Arlette Langmann (best known for the scripts she wrote with Maurice Pialat) and, for the first time, Jean-Claude Carrière, the erstwhile confrère of Luis Buñuel. Whether the even gender split of this foursome led to the complex treatment of a well-trod topic is interesting to consider for a minute, though the question may be a bit reductive. Much of Garrel’s work — his recent films especially, which appear to take place in the current day, even though our portable wireless fetish objects are rarely visible — operates out of time. But the themes he returns to — love and its elations and miseries — are eternal.
In the Shadow of Women
Directed by Philippe Garrel
Opens January 15, IFC Center and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center