Legendary director Phillipe Garrel has been making movies for 50 years, though his more recent output exists in a class of its own: From 2004’s “Regular Lovers” to 2013’s “Jealousy,” Garrel has been churning out spare, intimate romances, often starring his son Louis and generally shot in black-and-white. “In the Shadow of Women” relegates the younger Garrel to a voiceover role but otherwise meets the usual expectations with mostly endearing, if somewhat underwhelming, results.
Garrel’s lighthearted portrait of a documentary filmmaker whose work is complicated by an extramarital affair never goes anywhere and says anything fresh. But with its luscious 35mm photography and playful depiction of passionate lovers reaching a breaking point, the swift 72-minute drama delivers a satisfying riff on moody, intimate material Garrel has mined to richer effect many times before.
Initially, the movie looks like a rumination on the creative frustrations of documentarian Pierre (Stanislas Merhar), who’s developing a project about the French resistance during WWII with his wife Manon (Clotilde Courau) in the wake of Pierre’s resistance fighter dad’s recent death. A few scenes in, however, the story shifts to an unexpected fling that develops between Pierre and Elisabeth (Lena Paumgam), an internship at the archivist where he researches his project. While he keeps the relationship secret from Manon, she gradually picks up on his changing demeanor, while harboring a clandestine affair of her own. Their dueling suspicions form an intriguing contrast that probes, but never resolves, whether or not they belong together.
As Pierre grows divided between his allegiances to the two women, Garrel introduces a gently witty tone by showing the paradoxes of his dueling affections: on the one hand, he’s cheating on his wife; on the other, he’s paranoid that she could treat him the same way. While this scenario ultimately holds less intrigue than the more complex situation involving Pierre’s project that sets the stage for the story, “In the Shadow of Women” cleverly shows the capacity for neurotic, confusing romantic problems to hijack other priorities. Just as they overtake Pierre’s life, they overtake the movie.
Still, “In the Shadow of Women” never digs too deep into its scenario, and Louis Garrel’s perfunctory voiceover shows the extent to which much of the exposition feels like something of an afterthought. But Garrel’s two leads turn the material into a marvelous showcase of romantic discord: Merhar’s stern expressions belie the internal struggle he endures depending on which women he’s around.
But while ongoing conflict endows the proceedings with the air of a deadpan comedy, Courau takes them into much darker territory. Her despondent character, at once at the mercy of her husband’s whims and fighting to push beyond them, lands more than one impressive scene in which her anxiety erupts into credible bouts of rage. Paumgam’s role calls for little more than her ongoing adoration of Merhar’s character, though her one-note nature enhances the impression that the shallow Pierre views her as little more than a prop.
Unfortunately, these ingredients erupt into a series of enraged confrontations that fizzle in the closing minutes. Garrel cycles through a series of obsessive impulses before tidying things up with a shrug. There’s just enough there to recognize the bigger picture that could have been, in spite of the filmmaker’s apparent disinterest in doing more than the fairly minor achievement in play.
“In the Shadow of Women,” a title that could easily apply to any number of the older Garrel’s movies, doesn’t concern itself with big questions surrounding the relationship woes at its center. Instead, Garrel is content to offer yet another sketch of interpersonal problems. The fixation hasn’t quite outstayed its welcome, but like the couple at the movie’s center, suffers from the whiff of staleness.
“In the Shadow of Women” opened Directors Fortnight at Cannes this week. Distro Films will release it in the U.S.