Breaking up is hard to do, yet entirely pleasurable to watch, in “If You Don’t, I Will,” an effortless fifth feature from writer-helmer Sophie Fillieres that goes down with the mildly spiked smoothness of a chilled chenin blanc — or, to reference its single funniest gag, deep-frozen champagne. Distinguished by exquisite performances from Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric as a bourgeois couple unsure when to call time on their marriage, the pic initially follows the dry, droll template set by so many tasteful French relationship dramedies, before venturing into less comforting emotional territory for its final act. Moderate international arthouse exposure beckons for this Berlinale Panorama premiere, which opens March 5 in France.
In one of her more harried moods, Devos’ solitude-seeking protagonist introduces herself as “Gena Rowlands” to a bemused stranger, which is least a partial indication of what Fillieres is aiming for tonally with this study of splintered hearts. John Cassavetes evocations don’t exactly flatter her film’s modest emotional reach and somewhat pedestrian mise-en-scene, but one needn’t squint too hard to see flashes of Rowlands in Devos’ thorny, full-blooded performance — or indeed her expressively featured face, with its generous lips forever curled in either concern or contempt. The actress has been a regular Fillieres collaborator since 2000’s sophomore effort “Ouch”; the director has repaid that loyalty here with one of Devos’ most rewarding lead roles since Arnaud Desplechin’s “Kings and Queen” a decade ago.
In that film, of course, Devos was a flinty match for Mathieu Amalric as her caddish spouse, and that chemistry is winningly reformulated here in the roles of Pomme and Pierre, two lovers unraveling both as an item and as individuals. From their first scene together — a witty, passive-aggressive set-to at the kind of bijou art gallery that is the natural milieu of this genre — the two spark like a Gallic Hepburn and Tracy, conveying both jaded mutual understanding and an unspoken delight in barbed conflict. Fillieres’ script doesn’t furnish the audience with many details about the characters’ professional or external lives, though their domestic history is sharply etched in body language and passing glances, as well as the way they respectively act around their cool, college-age son Romain (Nelson Delapalme).
Romain’s flight from the nest, as for so many middle-aged couples, has evidently exacerbated the rift between Pomme and Pierre, who appears to have a dalliance going with younger woman Mellie (Josephine de la Baume). Theirs is hardly a hostile marriage, however: Fillieres and the leads have a warmly specific sense of the exasperated affection that can remain once a romance has burned out. Many of the film’s most revealingly humorous scenes are those in which the couple attempts not-so-simply to spend quality time together, whether participating in joint personal training sessions or hiking together in the local woods. It’s on one of these expeditions that Pomme, whom we learn has recently suffered a benign brain tumor, experiences an abrupt psychological break. Refusing to leave the forest, she sends her husband on his way and resolves to live rough for the foreseeable future.
Thus begins the film’s eeriest and most disconsolate stretch — not without isolated moments of hilarity — as Pomme sleeps on logpiles, wrestles goats and converses venomously with rabbits, while Pierre helplessly reassesses their relationship from the sidelines. Playing rather like a farcical take on the recent Martina Gedeck drama “The Wall,” it’s a development that isolates the leads and exposes the most delicate nerve endings of their performances. Amalric isn’t given access to the emotional fireworks granted Devos’ character, but times with touching precision Pierre’s silent, belated realization that their play-fighting has shifted into a sharper register.
The score, by former singer-songwriter Christophe, limits its commentary on affairs to sparse intrusions of piano. Emmanuelle Collinot’s camerawork is steady and airy, if blandly televisual, and only occasionally alive to the suggestive powers of composition. All the film’s tech contributions, in fact, combine to create a certain invisibility of craft, so justly confident is the helmer in her stars’ magnetism.