When friends insist they don’t want to watch a French film because it’s certainly gonna be just a bunch of black-and-white shots of intellectuals smoking in cafés and gassing on about the impossibility of fidelity, they could be talking about Philippe Garrel’s latest, Lover for a Day. Or, hell, they could be talking about most of Garrel’s films, which since the late 1960s have obsessively mined this territory, leaving the hills of love cold and barren over time. Is there anything left there for Garrel to find? Well, not really. But examining this film through the lens of his extensive catalogue makes for an interesting exercise: Why would a director tell the same story again and again? Over the decades, can we see his growth as a filmmaker?
Lover for a Day seems at times almost a parody of Garrel’s work, a throwback to a time when a filmmaker’s artistry or hubris often excused, for many viewers, melodramatic characterizations of women, who in this kind of thing all too often threaten suicide or erratically burst into tears. In Lover, we get no less than two women trying to off themselves, both Jeanne (Esther Garrel), a recently jilted daughter who moves back in with her professor father, Gilles (Éric Caravaca), and Ariane (Louise Chevillotte), Gilles’s student-cum-lover. Esther Garrel, the director’s daughter, turned heads with her role as Marzia in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, and brings a similar jittery, juvenile energy to this film, only with more barbed edges. Her Jeanne paces, yelps in sadness, then quietly enjoys a glass of wine while talking of geopolitics. Yes, she’s a bit of a hysterical-woman stereotype, but the young Garrel revels in the role. She’s treated sympathetically, though that doesn’t solve the problem that her father/director has of stifling character development with insularity. Jeanne, for instance, doesn’t seem to have a job or interests. Her life is dominated by a need to love and be loved, which must grow tiresome for her. It certainly did for me watching her.
The director also goes to great lengths to make clear that Gilles isn’t one of those lecherous professors who runs after his young students. Instead, Ariane has chased him for months, and he at last relented. The scenario almost seems an apologia for the film’s own subject matter, crafted with the awareness that audiences have outgrown the May-December trope. She wanted him! Gilles is painted as almost helpless before the charms of the spritely Ariane. He’s a tired man grieving his dead wife, while Ariane is an insatiable sex addict who sleeps with every man she meets. Her sexual cravings forever threaten to blow up the little makeshift family the three of them have created, but there’s no rhyme or reason to them. Perhaps that’s Garrel’s point.
These characters are fixed. They have no arc. And Garrel seems to prefer them learning no lessons from the experience. For six decades, the director has eschewed conventional ideas of character development, stubbornly presenting his creations with the same well-worn problems of morality and monogamy. They’re unable to see past their own noses. So often in his films it is the introduction of a young, peripheral woman with boundless energy who gets closest to shaking the other characters from their doldrums. Here it’s the younger, female Garrel, as the lead, who comes nearest to knocking the director himself out of his stale routine.