It takes a few beats to get through the quaint setup in “The Salt of Tears” and recognize its protagonist is an asshole. That’s Luc (sullen newcomer Logann Antuofermo), the young aspiring cabinetmaker at the center of French director Philippe Garrel’s latest stab at generational angst and ill-fated love. Over the course of this spry black-and-white sketch of a movie, Luc seduces one woman, rekindles love with another, and rejects them both for a third before everything finally collapses on top of him. There’s not a lot of sophistication to Luc’s arc, as his self-centered universe of problems accelerates to grating extremes, but “The Salt of Tears” generates a cumulative sense of intrigue around the potential that its noxious heartbreaker might eventually reach his comeuppance.
Few filmmakers have held as tight to their themes as Garrel, who has cranked out intimate portraits of young men doomed by delusions of romantic grandeur for decades. Though the filmmaker technically completed his so-called “trilogy of love” with 2017’s “Lover for a Day,” it may as well be a tetralogy: As with those modest works, “The Salt of Tears” is a concise, minor-key character study that’s less satisfying in small doses than when the full picture comes together.
As the movie begins, Luc has traveled from his country home to Paris to gain his certification in cabinetmaking, and decides to make overtures to Djemila (Oulaya Amamra) after she gives him directions on the bus. A few flirtatious sessions later and Luc nearly seals the deal, until Djemila tries to slow things down, and it’s clear he has no interest in the long-term approach. Nevertheless, the relationship has potential — at least until Luc finds another distraction. Back home, he spends time with his supportive father (a warm André Wilms), and the big-hearted gentleman sees in his son the potential he never achieved for himself.
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However, while Luc may be on track to please his father, he can’t seem to get his priorities straight: A chance encounter with his old high school girlfriend Geneviéve (Louise Chevillotte) finds the pair instantly back in the saddle, with a bathtub sex scene that enters the plot so quickly it borders on ludicrous — but then, Luc’s a reckless guy who doesn’t think twice about the ramifications of his actions. With Djemila planning to visit him in the countryside and Geneviéve eager to settle down, Luc’s suddenly trapped in a thorny love triangle of his own making, and his ensuing decisions just make a bad situation even worse.
Yes, yes, cry him a river. Lovesick dudes aren’t exactly in vogue these days, and “The Salt of Tears” shortchanges its various women by relegating them to supporting roles in its crude antihero’s life. With time, however, that becomes the whole point. While “The Salt of Tears” threatens to devolve into a sympathetic male gaze with each new turn, Garrel actually manages to burrow within those boundaries and deconstruct their flaws from the inside out.
Moving to Paris to pursue his new professional life, Luc falls for a third woman, the individualistic Betsy (Souheila Yacoub), who lives and sometimes sleeps with her roommate Paco (Martin Mesnier) and manages to dominate him in ways that his previous attractions didn’t. Garrel settles into a compelling groove with this unusual passage, as Luc’s freewheeling party life — including a jubilant dance club sequence that drags on for several minutes — briefly allows him to feel as if he’s found his sweet spot. But the specter of responsibility comes back to haunt him from several directions, and a come-to-Jesus moment with his concerned pop brings the true nature of the story into focus: Luc’s desire to live without consequence isn’t just a fantasy; it’s a disease.
Veteran cinematographer Renato Berta’s crisp imagery enhances Luc’s tendency to view things in black-and-white himself: Each woman presents an opportunity until he sees another one elsewhere. However, Garrel often underplays his rich themes with an onslaught of lighthearted flourishes, from the grating piano score that drifts into various scenes to the dry voiceover that often intrudes on them. But there’s an undeniable allure to the way the movie hovers in an ambiguous space between Luc’s passions and their problematic connotations.
From time to time, he’s forced out of his spell — in one telling moment, he follows a new woman on the street, only to be rebuffed when she threatens to call the police — and “The Salt of Tears” shows more self-awareness than Garrel might want to let on. For the most part, however, this understated look at toxic masculinity suggests a feature-length cultural reckoning with dated romantic tropes: Luc’s more symbol than man, a stereotypical lover coming to grips with the idea that some stereotypes just don’t age well.
“The Salt of Tears” premiered at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.