Every couple of years, Philippe Garrel turns out a black-and-white tales of love and (in)fidelity among Parisian intellectuals. His detractors contend that he always makes the same film; his defenders say that’s the point. Like seeing a singer play two shows, the pleasures are found in subtle changes and rearrangements, noticing what they emphasize in this set as opposed to the last. In any case, “Lover for a Day” is unlikely to change anyone’s perspective.
There is one major departure: Instead of casting his son Louis Garrel, who either starred in or narrated his father’s previous five features, the director has gone with his daughter, Esther Garrel (of the Sundance sensation “Call Me By Your Name”). She stars as Jeanne, a young student experiencing her first pangs of heartbreak. Kicked out by her now ex and with nowhere to go, Jeanne ends up moving in with her father, university professor Gilles (Eric Caravaca). But there’s another young woman in the picture, Gilles’ student Ariane (Louise Chevillote), who’s been living with her professor-boyfriend for the past three months.
The always-understated director never mines the domestic situation for excessive melodrama, instead opting to step back and wryly examine the three leads’ contradictory impulses. Jeanne has trouble squaring her own emotional volatility with her father’s apparent tranquility, and what’s more, tranquility found with a girl her own age. For her part, Ariane struggles with the constraints of monogamy, unable to decide if she prefers the stability of waking up with same (older) partner every morning or the vicarious thrill of taking a (younger) lover for a day. Finally there’s Gilles, old enough to have been through this all before, smart enough to know exactly how it will end, and powerless enough to stop himself.
Garrel’s previous films were “In the Shadow of Women” and “Jealousy;” you could easily slap on either title here. His obsessions haven’t changed, and neither have the means with which he pursues them. Which is to say, there’s a whole lot of scenes where the characters stroll around Paris debating what does it mean to be ‘true’ to your partner, or sip coffee comparing the relative benefits of singlehood. It’s all so familiar that any anomaly is amplified: There’s a minor role to played by an iPhone, and it feels like an anachronism in Garrel’s black-and-white Paris where it’s always a figurative 1968.
In fact, his last film to that was specifically about youth, 2005’s “Regular Lovers,” was explicitly set in 1968, the period when he was a student. And in his own little way, Garrel uses “Lover for a Day” to tease out the cultural differences between his generation and that of his daughter. At one point, a veteran barman offers his measured justification for France’s 1950s conflict in Algeria, and group of students assembled at his bar look at him as if he speaks a different language. A couple of scenes later, Jeanne tells her father that she and her friends got to talking about the war. When asked which war, she simply responds, “the next one.”
But don’t get too far ahead. Despite those small touches and the fresh energy brought by actresses Garrel, who had never headlined a film before this, and Louise Chevillote, who makes her feature film debut, this is still the same “Love: can’t live with it, can’t live without it!” movie the director has been making and remaking for a decade. While that doesn’t necessarily make “Lover for a Day” a bad film, it hardly makes it a necessary one.
“Lover For a Day” is screening at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival in Directors’ Fortnight.