“I thought you were different.” A condescending (and clichéd) rejoinder during a lovers’ quarrel. Demeaning and unfair when said to a wife from a husband who cannot fathom her infidelity, despite his own unfaithfulness. The barb comes from an emotional confrontation at the center of “In the Shadow of Women,” Philippe Garrel’s poetic meditation on the age-old subject of l’amour starring a most egocentric male, also found at the center of “Right Now, Wrong Then.” Though of a different tone, setting, and style, Hong Sang-soo’s film shares in the depiction of narcissistic men, leaving the women to bearing the brunt of their follies.
The husband is Pierre (Stanislas Merhar, stoic) a documentary filmmaker, his better half the glowing Manon (Clotilde Courau, breezy and alluring). Together they live and work — an ideal, Manon tells her maman. She dotes, though not obsequiously, on her husband, who is so prone to recumbence that he is often seated or supine, as if it would disgrace him to stand. Meanwhile she mills about their flat, its decrepit charm soon bordering on worrisome, setting fresh flowers, cooking meals, worrying aloud. He betrays so little distress about an impending eviction, that at first one wonders if he even lives there.
The real trouble begins when he strikes up an affair with an archival intern, Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), further complicated when she twice happens upon Manon with another man. The film observes how men and women react different to infidelity and the blurring emotions. Louis Garrel provides third party narration and the Paris streets supply a nondescript and timeless feel. The photography is black, white, brilliant.
Elisabeth feels dirtied in her involvement with a man whose wife is already unfaithful, as if Manon’s infidelity devalues her illicit fun of the affair with a married man. She pouts pensively while the loaded information pinballs around in her brain and rests on the tip of her tongue. Upon its release, Pierre questions thoroughly her confidence in his wife’s identity, and admonishes Elisabeth for snooping, undoubtedly as distraction from his wounded pride.
While Elisabeth faces Pierre’s growing impatience, Manon encounters his selfish perplexity. “I’m discovering you,” he says to her in his plain way, after they meet a male acquaintance on the street. The potentially romantic line is distorted into caustic insinuation, “Discovering how you talk to men, how you look at them,” filled with misgiving. By night he hovers over her in her sleep, sniffs her neck. Will the crook of her elbow hold the answer? Manon awakes abruptly with equal curiosity. It’s a scene at once humorous and sad, and representative of Garrel’s undemonized depiction of Pierre. His behavior after all is appalling; he is a lout and lousy husband. Yet we delay total condemnation, holding out for explanation from Pierre who has not yet stated his case. His thoughts are his own, unknown from his impenetrable expressions, those wolfish eyes. Deferring from language and denied a voiceover for three-quarters of the film, he is spoken for instead through his actions to the women, and is defined in relation to them. The irony found in the title implies obscurement for Pierre, outnumbered and overwhelmed, but it is the women, subject to his whims, who suffer in the wings.
Their marriage and the film itself devolve systematically under Garrel’s taut direction, predicated on the behavior of Pierre. There is little lusting or slinking around. In one scene he meets the intern, the next his wife complains, and the next shot appropriately ends up in the young lady’s bed. Though it is not Pierre’s first affair, it is the very specific casualness of it, and the nonchalance with which Garrel depicts it that makes the ensuing events more startling and heartfelt.
A continent away, Hong Sang-soo’s “Right Now, Wrong Then” also captures male self-absorption in Ham Chunsoo also a filmmaker, though of arthouse circuit, who in arrives Suwon to talk about and screen his film. While “In the Shadow of Women” isolating, “Right Now, Wrong Then” is whimsical, foregrounding its character’s foibles with humor.
The new leading man is Jeoung Jae-young, seen briefly in “Our Sunhi” as the least important and most innocuous leg of a romantic quadrangle. He does not stand out as the boyish one (Lee Sun-Kyun), the bumbling one (Yoo Joon-sang), or even one of the grey-haired professorial types who litter Hong’s oeuvre. He is an everyman and a blank canvas, an unknown entity, who too relishes his own brand of male narcissism though vastly different than the reticent Pierre. Chunsoo shares not this reservation of words, bursts with them, whether he has something compelling to say or not. Hong even privileges him (and only him) with a voiceover. While Pierre possesses an enigmatic machismo, Chunsoo falls under the usual Hongian curse: his well of arrogance is built around insecurity. Nervous laughter abounds. Both lack self-awareness and are delusional, but while Pierre is laconic, Chunsoo too eagerly pushes forward, handily forcing his meeting of Heejung (Kim Minhee), currently a painter, formerly a model. He intrudes on her banana milk sipping solace, ignoring her shifted stance and averted gaze. She does however finally perk up at the mention of his trade and name. (She’s heard of him before, though she’s never seen his films.)
He pursues her through the usual settings; palace temple, coffee shop, restaurant (always inexplicably empty) with the usual tricks like exclamatory appeals to beauty. Chunsoo also impresses his own ideal onto Heejung, when he appraises her paintings, remarking on her path in life as an artist. The flattery costs him however, when these supposedly insightful observations are discovered to be the first person answers he supplies to interviews to justify his own art. The deceit is uncovered in and by the company of others, and the artist is left alone. After Heejung storms off, she is not seen the following day.
Hong is no stranger to narrative subversions, and this is perhaps the most straightforward; upon the story’s conclusion, the movie replays itself with subtle differences and camera angles. Heightened awareness and anticipation permeate the viewing experience, allowing the film to play in a different key. It is a marvel that it works, and it is the second half that we realize how much control Chunsoo holds over the movie’s action, bearing witness to how much can hinge on an inflection, an extra word, a look, as the plot advances by his “new,” or at least modified, behaviors. When he alters something in the slightest, we take notice, as does Heejung whose responses change accordingly. The back-and-forth structure is built on these exchanges, like an input/output response, a variation of Garrel’s chord-progression structure.
Suffused with possibility and promise, this narrative conceit allows Heejung to be a more cautious, less susceptible to Chunsoo’s flatteries and idiocies, but in the end it is he who benefits the most. This film and Garrel’s end on a relatively positive note — at least more optimistic than their midpoints would have suggested. Both characters are given a second chance, in a way, though the permanency of their redemption remains uncertain.