'The Salt of Tears' ('Le Sel des larmes'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

Courtesy of G. Ferrandis/ Rectangle Productions Close up Films-Arte France Cinema RTS Radio Television Suisse
Laughs and Love, with a capital L.

The latest black-and-white meditation on love from French auteur Philippe Garrel premiered in Berlin in competition.

To some extent, with The Salt of Tears (Le Sel des larmes) French post-New Wave director Philippe Garrel continues in the familiar vein of his last three films, the intimate dramas Jealousy, In the Shadow of Women and Lover for a Day. It's shot in black-and-white, it looks at relationship issues surrounding fathers and lovers, and much of the same below-the-line talent has collaborated on this effort as well, from production designer Manu de Chauvigny to composer Jean-Louis Aubert. But there’s an element of light comedy — rather than the more familiar irony — that feels fresh and invigorating, even if Garrel doesn’t quite stick the landing. 

After its bow in a competition slot at the Berlinale, this will travel to other festivals based on the director’s reputation, with an outside chance of a slightly wider exposure given how it manages the complicated balancing act of being completely sincere about love from beginning to end yet giving audiences quite a few chuckles along the way. 

The film is divided into three unequal parts, as the happy-go-lucky protagonist Luc (Logann Antuofermo) falls for three very different women. When in Paris for a few days for an entry exam for the prestigious Ecole Boule for Applied Arts, where he wants to study joinery, Luc spies a girl at a bus stop that he just has to go and talk to. This turns out to be Djemila (Oulaya Amamra, doing a lot with very little). “You’re a very sweet boy,” she tells him when they go out together and when they meet again the next day, after his exam — a ridiculous two-minute affair that’s worth a few belly laughs — she confesses she was nervous for him.

This might seem odd, given that they met less than 24 hours earlier and they didn’t even sleep together. But the feeling seems to be mutual, as Luc tells her “I’ll never forget you,” in front of her colleagues when he drops her off at work before taking his train back home. These two people are clearly hooked on each other in an old-fashioned and very sincere way, or so it seems. 

The baggier midsection looks at Luc in his natural habitat, as he has returned to the provincial town where he lives with his Dad (veteran André Wils, touching), a simple woodworker who’ll take on any job, from a coffin to some wooden fencing. Luc runs into Genevieve (Louise Chevillotte, from Lover for a Day), his high school sweetheart, there. They almost immediately pick up where they left off six years earlier, when Genevieve moved away, which is to say they immediately have sex. That it occurs in the bathroom of a third family, for whom both Genevieve and Luc do some chores, is an absurd turn of events that gets a big laugh.

Unlike the connection with Djemila, which seemed more about interpersonal chemistry and feelings, the rapport between Luc and Genevieve is mainly physical. It is here that it becomes obvious that the tonality of the film is more complex than it might at first appear. Antuofermo, as Luc, has to be believable both as a man who can lose his head over a girl he barely knows and as a man who won’t pass up a chance for some nooky with an ex, which then blossoms into a relationship again because of Genevieve’s persistence.

Things come to a head when the jealous Genevieve then isn’t told that Luc has invited Djemila for a visit. In order to avoid a scene, he has to let one of the two women down and it slowly becomes clear that Luc prefers to go with the flow and always chooses the path of least resistance, even if that might mean he won’t get what he wants.

This makes Luc a complex, not necessarily immediately likable character. He’s capable of deep feelings that aren’t necessary compatible with his sexual urges and he has a tendency to avoid confrontation and responsibility. Antuofermo, a former acting student of Garrel’s, beautifully suggests how Luc tries to cover up his weaker characteristics with his charm and improvisational skills, even if that means not always telling his father everything. Especially in the first two acts, and again working with co-writers Jean-Claude Carriere and Arlette Langmann, Garrel manages to paint a sincere yet funny portrait of a man’s sentimental connections to those around him.  

There is, however, a third woman (Souheila Yacoub) waiting in the wings in the film’s third act. And she is a woman who might be Luc’s equal in that she wouldn’t mind having a steady relationship with Luc as long as she can also sleep with the duo’s temporary roommate (Martin Mesnier). Even if it contains some of the funniest bits, including the scenes with Luc’s fellow student and successful Don Juan Jean-Rene (Teddy Chawa), this segment feels more rushed and cluttered than the previous two parts. And toward the end the narrative is twisted into the equivalent of an awkward yoga pose to allow a clear parallel between parts one and two to be folded into the ending, which is finally abrupt and a little too melodramatic and lachrymose (despite the Tears in the title, Garrel is mostly direct and sincere instead of over-the-top).

Though set in the present, the grainy black-and-white images and Aubert's familiar-sounding, piano-led score again lend the story something timeless. This feeling is reinforced by the conspicuous absence of smartphones, with people writing each other postcards or asking others for directions in the street. It’s part of what makes Garrel’s films feel like they exist outside of time, contemplating issues that won't fundamentally change just because someone invented, say, a dating app.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Rectangle Productions, Close Up Films, Arte France Cinema, RTS, SRG SSR, Wild Bunch, Ad Vitam
Cast: Logann Antuofermo, Oulaya Amamra, Andre Wilms, Louise Chevillotte, Souheila Yacoub, Martin Mesnier, Teddy Chawa, Aline Belibi
Director: Philippe Garrel
Screenplay: Jean-Claude Carriere, Arlette Langmann, Philippe Garrel
Producers: Edouard Weil, Laurine Pelassy
Cinematography: Renato Berta
Production design: Manu de Chauvigny
Costume design: Justine Pearce
Editing: Francois Gedigier
Music: Jean-Louis Aubert
Sales: Wild Bunch

In French
No rating, 100 minutes