“A relationship, I think, is like a shark,” says Woody Allen in “Annie Hall.” “It has to constantly move forward or it dies.” Though adapted from the Christophe Ono-dit-Biot novel of the same name, Melanie Laurent’s feverish relationship drama “Plonger” (meaning “to dive”) plays like a meditation on that quote, replete with the surprisingly literal appearance of a shark whose movements are tracked by a GPS device. A photographer who lives in the moment, Maria Valverde’s Paz falls in love more eagerly than she settles into it, and her restlessness courses through Laurent’s expressionistic bauble like an ocean current.
In her follow-up to the widely admired “Breathe,” Laurent returns to the theme of an intimate relationship gone sour, but the slight, repetitive scenario stretches the limits of her considerable visual imagination. The actress-turned-director is poised to make a big splash with the Nic Pizzolatto-scripted thriller “Galveston,” but this new film may sink quietly beneath the waves.
When actors get behind the camera, they naturally tend to emphasize the contributions of other actors, but Laurent excels at letting the images speak for themselves whenever possible. She and her cinematographer, Arnaud Potier, seem to have the intuitive relationship of Wong Kar-wai and Christopher Doyle or Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki, piecing their films together more through moments of time than rigidly staged scenes. “Plonger” posits itself first and foremost as an emotional experience, driven by the quicksilver of a fiery, impulsive Spaniard who cannot stay in one place for long.
Skipping the courtship between Paz and Cesar (Gilles Lellouche), a French war correspondent, “Plonger” opens with the couple engaged in a vigorous lovemaking session in the back of a car parked next to a sea cliff. Right away, Laurent suggests the spontaneity at the heart of this relationship, but then again, most romances begin with unbridled passion and eventually have to accommodate the routines of everyday life. And it’s here that Paz starts to unravel. When she informs Cesar she’s pregnant, his enthusiasm is answered by her despair, which only grows once she has the baby and bristles at diaper changes and nightly crying jags. With her resentment toward Cesar increasing and her artistic inspiration on the decline, Paz takes off for destinations unknown, leaving Cesar to figure where — and whether — to track her down.
Though the script pulls off a fascinating shift in perspective for the final third, “Plonger” does everything it can to turn Paz’s quest for liberation into its prevailing aesthetic spirit. As a study of maternal ambivalence and wilted love, the film isn’t particularly complicated or difficult to read, especially when the themes seep directly into the dialogue. It also attaches itself to labored metaphors like the shark GPS, which feeds Paz the sounds of open water as a heavy-handed reminder of how much she’s suffocating at home. But the film’s lust for adventure comes out in wordless sequences in Saint-Nazaire and Oman, where Paz escapes into deep-sea diving.
Laurent deftly manages the transitions from romantic travelogue to domestic melodrama to seaside mystery, but the characters themselves are not nearly so layered. Paz and Cesar’s needs may diverge, but they’re plainly stated and their actions predictable in a way that defies a deeper reading into their relationship. At worst, “Plonger” can feel like it’s spinning its wheels, generating a steady supply of beautiful images in service of banal observations on human nature. Laurent’s filmmaking brio keeps the shark moving through the water, but it’s never really fully alive.