'In the Shadow of Women' ('L'Ombre des femmes'): Cannes Review

L'ombre des femmes In the Shadow of Women Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

L'ombre des femmes In the Shadow of Women Still - H 2015

A deeply felt infidelity drama shot through with irony

Clotilde Courau and Stanislas Merhar headline this ironic tale of infidelity from French veteran director Philippe Garrel

Infidelity is something of a national pastime in France, at least if the movies are any indication. In the latest film from post-New Wave veteran Philippe Garrel, In the Shadow of Women (L’Ombre des femmes), a married couple gets emotionally muddled when both partners start cheating with people who offer them physical pleasure, but not necessarily emotional connection.

Initially somewhat wispy-feeling, this 72-minute feature transforms in its final reel from an ironic divertissement to a work of considerable feeling and intensity. Shot in handsome black-and-white on 35mm, though projected digitally at its Directors’ Fortnight premiere, the widescreen feature represents another respectable addition to Garrel’s filmography. It won’t break the bank, but it’ll be admired on the festival circuit and in niche release.

Manon (Clotilde Courau) works with her hubby, Pierre (Stanislas Merhar), a documentary filmmaker currently preparing a film about the French Resistance. Their Parisian apartment, with its peeling wallpaper and improvised gas stove (which the cranky landlord suggests is a fire hazard), visually suggests not just the fact that they don’t make a lot of money, but also that the concept of upkeep is something with which they’re unfamiliar.

That disarray also extends to their relationship, as Pierre is not interested in accompanying Manon to soirees anymore, instead preferring to stay home or — later —chat up a woman, Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), who works at a film archive.

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The offscreen voice of the director’s son (and frequent collaborator), actor Louis Garrel, occasionally comments on the action, suggesting early on, for example, that Manon — contrary to the title — lives in the shadow of her husband. The voiceover recalls the films of the French New Wave that clearly continue to inspire Garrel senior, and also supplements what the audience needs to know about Pierre, who, as played by the somewhat stiff Merhar, is the kind of stone-faced macho man who doesn’t seem to have any feelings at all. When he discovers — from Elisabeth of all people — that Manon is also seeing someone else (Mounir Margoum), it becomes clear that Pierre is the type of guy who’s quick to judge others but can’t bear to look at himself in the mirror.

This is the first time Garrel has filmed a script co-written by veteran screenwriter and frequent Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, and the wicked irony typical of some of the Bunuel-Carriere projects can be felt here — and proves  a welcome antidote to Garrel’s tendency to play things straight and low-key.

Some observations about the way men treat women also feel relatively fresh and contemporary in the world of Garrel films (in one scene, Manon’s mother, played by the wonderful character actress Antoinette Moya, tells her offspring that “no man is worth sacrificing your life for”).  

Offering moments of mirth that help keep the film from becoming too serious, Carriere, Garrel and their fellow screenwriters employ sharp humor to highlight how a couple’s true feelings are not necessarily compatible with the established mores surrounding fidelity and marriage. The film’s last two sequences, inside and then outside a church where the funeral of a minor character is taking place, are impeccably executed, with a pitch-perfect Courau suggesting her character’s loneliness, desire to stay strong and real sentiments for Pierre through a couple of precise movements and glances. Everything then clicks into place for a deliciously ironic happy ending that wraps up the story perfectly while driving home its main themes.

Garrel’s production and costume designers, Manu de Chauvigny and Justine Pearce, have again come up with a world that looks and feels like it is suspended somewhere in time between the late 1960s and today, with a single glimpse of a mobile phone, some 20 minutes in, playing almost like a kind of “gotcha!” gag for those wondering when exactly the story is set. Renato Berta’s lightly grainy yet always crisp cinematography rounds out the solid technical package.