Ebbing and flowing on the buzz of one all-night conversation, French director Zabou Breitman‘s “The Man of My Life” sketches the blossoming relationship between two fortysomething men: the happily married Frederic and his unattached, gay neighbor Hugo. And though occasionally its strength is sapped by heavy-handed symbolic gestures, “The Man of My Life” is a surprisingly unsentimental take on somewhat dubious character types. Just when it seems like Breitman’s made another case study in how much the free-spirited homo can teach the sheltered hetero, the director actually manages to free her two main men from the burden of most cliches.
Neither sanctified nor disparaged, Charles Berling‘s Hugo is an unabashed cynic, doubtful of the possibility of love, not so much resolutely single as mystified by the lasting relationships of others, whom he is convinced are living out deluded lives. Living alone in the Provence countryside, Hugo becomes increasingly drawn to the married Frederic, played with eminent likeability and nuance by the soft-eyed, sensitive Bernard Campan. Breitman doesn’t provide easy arcs or resolutions for Hugo and Frederic, allowing their friendship to accrue meaning while also refreshingly circumventing it with highly elliptical editing. Alone together on Frederic’s veranda after his wife, Frederique (Lea Drucker), has gone to bed, the men continue an early-dawn conversation that threads throughout the entire film. “Man of My Life”‘s inciting event as well a fractured, dreamlike evocation of desire, this unassuming chat, perched between night and day, places the entire film within a liminal state.
Breitman seems to have a genuine fascination with these two men, playing at unspoken attraction yet letting their sense of self and propriety dictate their actions. Even as the two men, who also become jogging partners, running through the thick forests that connect their homes, show an obvious hunger for one another, their sexual feelings are never foregrounded. It’s an unpredictable approach for a film that seems to be heading towards more obvious revelations or emotional fireworks–and while Breitman’s strengths as a filmmaker seem to lie more in the natural interplay of her characters than in the deployment of her many magical-realist flourishes (ghostly winds rattle the doorway of Frederic’s house; Hugo outfits his home with a glass floor that makes a naked sleeping man look like a floating angel), she nevertheless manages an intriguing interplay of the otherworldly and the lifelike.
“Relationships are a trap,” claims Hugo, whose dour outlook belies a certain romanticism. Berling, whose pursed eloquence has often been used for treachery (“demonlover,” “Ridicule“), is here a cunning figure, shirking responsibility by creating his own moral parameters, but also prone to whimsy. Hugo’s psychological conundrum may well be the point of attraction for Frederic: it’s to Breitman’s credit that we are never completely sure, even though she herself might not understand their ultimate bond. A scene of Hugo carrying an ankle-sprained Frederic home through a dandelion field makes for a lovely cinematic idea, but it’s a bit overt and strained in its expressivity. More successful is an earlier moment: at one point during their early morning talk, Frederic, longing for a touch, fixes a protruding tag on the neck of Hugo’s sweater. Breitman doesn’t overplay this as some sort of sublimated sexual expression–instead the men create momentary friction and move on
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]