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Philippe Garrel’s Lover for a Day is the closing part of a trilogy that also consists of Jealousy (2013) and In the Shadow of Women (2015), with all three clocking in at under 80 minutes and shot, in grainy black-and-white, in just 21 days. Each story explores love and its adjacent emotions, such as jealousy, lust and fidelity, often while focusing on its female leads. Though not as strong as the other two titles in the trilogy, this story of a fiftyish educator, who falls for one of his students who happens to be as old as his daughter, is nonetheless a frequently fascinating minor Garrel that should again appeal to festivals and small pockets of arthouse patrons at home and abroad.
After having collaborated with his actor son, Louis, seven times, the writer-director has now cast his actress daughter, Esther, in her first lead role in one of his own films (she earlier had a supporting role in Jealousy). She plays the twentysomething Jeanne, who, after a disastrous ending to her relationship with her first great love, shows up one evening with a tear-streaked face and a large suitcase on the doorstep of her single father, the philosophy teacher, Gilles (Eric Caravaca). At least, she thought he was single, but a makeup bag left on his kitchen table seems to suggest things might have changed. Audiences will already know what’s up because the film opens slightly earlier with the professor still at work, where he manages to have a quickie between classes with one of his students, the befreckled and open-faced Ariane (theater actress Louise Chevillote, making her film debut).
The film is ostensibly about how Jeanne feels about Ariane and the fact that a woman her own age has come into her father’s life. But by starting with a scene that doesn’t include Jeanne, the narrative initially misleads audiences somewhat, suggesting Gilles might be the lead when he’s really just a supporting character. That said, the screenplay — like In the Shadow of Women written by the director with Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, Arlette Langmann and Garrel’s wife, Caroline Deruas — is very good in its many observational scenes, which here are more straightforward and less laced with irony and dark humor than in Women. They include the lovely, somewhat guarded first meeting of Jeanne and Ariane, which happens the next morning, after Gilles has already left for work. Dad’s new girlfriend asks whether it’s a problem that they are both more or less the same age, which Jeanne denies.
But clearly, things aren’t that simple. More drawn-from-life domestic scenes illustrate the problem: Ariane wants to have sex with Gilles, who’s afraid his daughter, who is sleeping in the living room next door, might hear them. And Jeanne is miffed when Gilles comes home from work and kisses Ariane before he greets his own daughter with a kiss. Father and daughter also go for a nocturnal walk that’s pure Garrel, with the characters talking about issues such as fidelity in a way that doesn’t necessarily sound like natural dialogue but that cuts directly to the core of the material.
Faithfulness is a recurring theme in the trilogy and here it is a frequent topic of conversation too, like in a throwaway tete-a-tete in which Arianne explains to Jeanne that the only thing that men can’t stand is when women are unfaithful in the same careless way as men are. This explains an earlier scene in which Ariane sleeps with another student and then leaves him a laconic and darkly humorous lipstick message on his mirror as she leaves: “Never again”.
The two women are also bound by a secret they each know about each other, though Garrel and his screenwriters struggle a little to make this perfectly symmetrical setup feel entirely organic. Indeed, all the little problems that finally keep Lover for a Day from greatness have to do with the narrative’s structure. Garrel follows all three characters at different moments, for example, which makes it unclear where the film’s sympathies lie and sometimes even how we are seeing the characters. Is this an omniscient tale, as the presence of the narrator — a Garrel hallmark — suggests, or does it side with the younger protagonists, perhaps because the narrator, Laetitia Spigarelli, is also a woman? The amount of closeups Swiss cinematographer Renato Berta gives the women seems to suggest they are more important but then again, perhaps this has to do with Gilles’s somewhat withdrawn and more contemplative stance? This uncertainty makes the story feel a little hollow at its core, with all three characters properly developed but the film finally struggling to articulate a singular and coherent point-of-view.
Blessed with the same impressive jawline as her brother and her father, Esther Garrel cuts a striking figure here and she has no problems holding the audience’s attention, even in her big emotional scenes. Caravaca, probably best known stateside for his role in Patrice Chereau’s His Brother, is a more subdued presence, though he still manages to convey the idea that his feelings for Ariane aren’t just part of a midlife crisis but are indeed more serious and genuine. Newcomer Chevillote also impresses as the most insouciant of the trio, though she, too, has a darker side.
Production companies: SBS Films, Arte France
Cast: Eric Caravaca, Esther Garrel, Louise Chevillote, Laetitia Spigarelli
Director: Philippe Garrel
Screenplay: Jean-Claude Carriere, Caroline Deruas, Arlette Langmann, Philippe Garrel
Producers: Said Ben Said, Michel Merkt
Director of photography: Renato Berta
Production designer: Manu de Chauvigny
Costume designer: Justine Pearce
Editor: François Gedigier
Music: Jean-Louis Aubert
Sales: SBS International
No rating, 76 minutes
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