The currents of desire, jealousy and resentment that flow through a relationship over time receive an exquisite closeup from director Philippe Garrel in “In the Shadow of Women,” a tightly focused romantic drama that exudes the narrative terseness of a good short story and the lucid craftsmanship of a filmmaker in full command of the medium. Like so much of Garrel’s work, this intensely personal rumination on life, politics, art and the battle of the sexes is a very particular brand of cinema for a very specific crowd — which should stand “Women” well in territories where the veteran French auteur has established a small but passionate following.
Garrel began making movies in the late 1960s, as the Nouvelle Vague was giving way to yet another new generation of cinematic enfants terribles, and many of the nearly 30 features he’s made since then have addressed similar themes of personal and professional intimacies in the lives of bohemian characters not unlike Garrel himself. Such core concerns surface again in “Women,” which traces a few months in the life of Pierre (Stanislas Merhar), a documentary filmmaker who works in partnership with his wife, Manon (Clotilde Courau). Theirs is an artistically satisfying existence (Manon tells her mother that she can imagine nothing better than to make movies with the man she loves), if not a financially lucrative one: In the opening scene, an irate landlord barges in on a startled Manon and threatens to evict her and Pierre if they don’t pay their back rent within 48 hours.
But at least they have each other — until, that is, Pierre encounters Elisabeth (theater actress Lena Paugam, making her bigscreen debut), a beautiful intern at the film archive where he’s doing research on his latest documentary, a portrait of an elderly French resistance fighter. They meet-cute over cans of film — a nod to Garrel’s own preferred shooting format (in particular, 35mm anamorphic widescreen) — and soon fall into each other’s arms. He tells her he’s married; she furrows her thick, expressive eyebrows and says she figured as much.
The affair begins blissfully, Pierre justifying his actions “with typical male equivocation,” as the movie’s wry third-person narrator (voiced by the director’s son, Louis Garrel) observes. But gradually that initial euphoria yields — for Pierre, at least — to a sense of now being trapped in not just one relationship but two. Around that same time, he learns (via Elisabeth) that Manon is also having an affair with another man, news that challenges his naively virtuous vision of his wife and sends him into a spiral of barely concealed contempt. (For this, the pouty, heavy-lidded Merhar is ideally cast.)
So far, we might be describing the basic outline of any number of Garrel films, but as its title suggests, what gives “In the Shadow of Women” its particular frisson is the director’s concerted effort to cast light on the self-absorption of the male ego, and on the noble women who suffer its petty recriminations. The voiceover goes some way towards achieving this, as do the sharply drawn portraits of both Manon and Elisabeth, women with the independence of mind and body too rarely glimpsed in movies made by male directors. Courau cuts a particularly sympathetic figure as Manon, especially in the long scene where Pierre shames her for her infidelity while refusing to admit his own.
Garrel was aided in this candid self-examination by three screenplay collaborators — Caroline Deruas and Arlette Langmann (who collaborated on his previous “Jealousy”) and the legendary Jean-Claude Carriere — resulting in a more conventionally scripted tale than many of his more improvisational efforts. Yet, while there’s an evident structure here, it never overwhelms the film, or dilutes Garrel’s instinctive eye for those in-between moments when the unpredictability of life suddenly disrupts the frame. Paris looks timeless, and as cozy as a small village, in d.p. Renato Berta’s gorgeously composed frames. Composer Jean-Louis Aubert’s simple but effective piano-and-guitar score suggests romantic pop music minus the lyrics.
In a nod to the remarkable continuity of Garrel’s career over nearly 50 years, the Directors’ Fortnight preceded “In the Shadow of Women” with the director’s recently rediscovered 1968 short, “Actua 1,” viscerally shot on the front lines of the May ’68 Paris riots. Enterprising distributors might consider following suit and releasing the two films as a double bill.