Defiantly independent French director Philippe Garrel continues to question how to love, be loved and overcome the inevitable disappointment when betrayal occurs in “Lover for a Day,” an alluring and very elegantly crafted — though largely predictable — romantic dramedy that should do well in territories where the French auteur is already known and esteemed.
The film opens with a young brunette sitting on the sidewalk at night, sobbing her heart out, so upset she can’t breathe. Judging by the big luggage she’s carrying, it’s likely that her lover has just thrown her out of the apartment. In the next scene, we hear a young woman’s sighing — only this time, it’s a gasp of pleasure, not of pain, as she enjoys illicit sex with an older lover in a university bathroom.
The sight of women crying is nothing new in Garrel’s films; in fact, most of them do, at some point, because life rarely fulfills their expectations on love. What feels entirely fresh for the director, however, is the sight of a woman being satisfied with quite such intensity. Taken together, these two opening moments reflect the film’s double ambition: to further deepen the director’s ongoing Freudian analysis of female characters launched with “Jealousy,” while also starting to explore a new continent, female pleasure.
Both women will end up under the roof of Gilles (Eric Caravaca), a nonchalant but somehow attractive philosophy teacher in his early fifties. As drama-ready dynamics go, throwing together his heartbroken and homeless daughter Jeanne (Esther Garrel) and his hedonist new lover Ariane (Louise Chevillotte) seems ripe for conflict: At 23, the two women are the same age, and having to share the same man’s attention swiftly reveals their short tempers.
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Jeanne notices out loud that Ariane is “really less beautiful” than her mother, while Ariane sulks for hours when Jeanne receives the first kiss when Gilles gets back from work.
But triangles are built to be reconfigured, and soon enough, the rivalry turns into a solid friendship. The girls confide in each other, keeping very essential secrets from Gilles. Ariane arouses Jeanne’s appetite for life and tries to initiate her in the art of no-strings sex, suggesting she amuse herself with a partner who doesn’t need to be loved. In return, Jeanne introduces Ariane to her most attractive friend.
However idyllic the new family portrait seems for a time, their fun is undermined by voiceover that occasionally predicts an unavoidable breakup that lies ahead for Gilles and Ariane, after he allows her to take a lover from time to time. In Garrel’s films, juggling between a regular lover and “a lover for a day” is a recipe for unhappiness.
Cinematographer Renato Berta’s luminous black-and-white lensing gives the film a timeless patina, reinforced by the characters’ smart, sober and very Parisian wardrobe, and though all three actors are impeccable, newcomer Louise Chevillotte captivates the most. Garrel passionately captures her falsely naïve visage with extreme closeups that idealize her freckles, as well as her naked body. In a stunning wide shot worthy of comparisons to a Bonnard painting, we see Ariane from the back as she’s examines herself in the mirror, wondering if she isn’t too chubby. Ariane is also the most intriguing character, both for Gilles, who calls her “a female Don Juan,” and for Jeanne, whose only obsession is to seduce the young man she’s in love with.
Ariane is tall, beautiful, free and addicted to pleasure and to the thrill of all that is novel and verboten. But she’s also capable of tenderness and genuinely attached to Gilles. One morning, after a night spent with one of her “lovers for a day,” she uses her lipstick to write “never again” on his mirror, probably speaking more herself than to the sleeping stranger.
The film benefits from the collective contributions of four screenwriters — Garrel, of course; young writer-director Caroline Deruas (“L’Indomptée”); Pialat’s former partner Arlette Langmann (“A nos amours”); and Buñuel’s ex-companion-in-arms Jean-Claude Carrière (“Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie”) — whose collective insights result in a beautiful complexity.