French actor Louis Garrel has been married twice, first to Iranian talent Golshifteh Farahani, and now to model-cum-actress Laetitia Casta. He has also directed two features, the first a free-wheeling love-triangle comedy called “Two Friends” in which Garrel plays the cad who comes between his best friend and the object of his obsession (played by Farahani), and the other the relatively low-key drama “A Faithful Man,” centered on a different sort of triangle, in which two women (one played by Casta) compete for Garrel’s affections.
That description grossly oversimplifies both movies, and yet, their personalities could not be more different, hardly even the work of the same filmmaker, which must say something about Garrel’s state of mind in these two marriages. If “Two Lovers” was a lively New Wave lark, exploding with color and energy, then “A Faithful Man” is its sober, cerebral opposite, gray and stylistically restrained, an efficient short story of a film that feels more like an intellectual exercise than an emotional experience.
Barely 75 minutes with credits, “A Faithful Man” wastes no time establishing its premise: Writer-director Louis Garrel plays Abel, who is getting ready to head out one morning when his girlfriend of three years, Marianne (Garrel’s real-life girlfriend, Laetitia Casta), calmly announces that she is pregnant. The baby, she says, belongs to Abel’s best friend, Paul, whom she plans to marry as soon as possible. Abel barely reacts, accepting the news without argument, although his voiceover makes clear that he never stops loving her.
This voiceover, which opens the film and features rather prominently throughout its tight running time, is a collaboration between Garrel and Jean-Claude Carrière, one of the greatest screenwriters working in French — or in any language, for that matter. Carrière’s credits include “Belle de Jour” and several key Luis Buñuel films, as well as “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” a novel many considered impossible to adapt, until he adapted it. Carrière excels at triangles (so, too, does Garrel, whom the world discovered via Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers”), and this one arrives with almost unheard-of efficiency.
A few minutes into the film, the narrative abruptly skips forward eight years. Paul is now dead, and Abel sees the funeral as a chance to get back together with Marianne. Except the funeral also serves to introduce a rival, Paul’s younger sister Ève (Lily-Rose Depp, the lovely, round-headed daughter of Johnny and Vanessa Paradis), who was just a girl the last time he saw her. Now, having blossomed into a sexually confident young woman, Ève decides it’s time to make her move. What are the odds? Abel had no love in his life for nearly a decade, and now, he has his choice between these two eminently attractive options. What’s more, he hardly has to do anything: They are willing to fight over him.
While not quite an act of narcissism on Garrel’s part, Abel’s dilemma feels astonishingly far-removed from the kind of dramatic intrigues that draw moviegoers to the cinema these days, and yet, that could well be its appeal to a certain kind of cultured, Francophile audience — especially those with a soft spot for Garrel’s floppy-haired hangdog good looks. Abel chooses his old flame, moving in with Marianne and her son Joseph (remarkable child actor Joseph Engel), who’s not so keen on the intrusion of another man in his mother’s life.
And then Carrière and Garrel’s screenplay does an interesting thing: It shifts point of view from Abel to Ève, and suddenly, we are thrust into her backstory — the way she has been fixated on Abel ever since she was a little girl, all but stalking her brother’s friend (turns out, she’s the same girl who waits ready with a handkerchief when Abel stumbles from his apartment after the breakup). Her precocious crush is cute, but also a little creepy, and in the “war” (Ève’s word) that follows with Marianne for Abel’s affections, the younger woman is willing to fight.
Thirty minutes later — after delighting us with details that bring the simple situation to life — the perspective changes yet again, this time privileging Marianne, who has an unexpected idea: Instead of forbidding Abel from seeing Ève, she encourages it, practically thrusting him into her arms. Abel moves out, tries things with Ève, and — if all goes according to plan — will wind up coming home. To call her decision unbelievable isn’t quite fair. It’s just unusual, and certainly not the kind of arrangement one ever sees in movies. That said, this is a French movie.
The wild card here is neither Ève nor Marianne, but little Joseph. There’s a real possibility that the child is Abel’s, that Marianne was mistaken (or else dishonest) all those years ago. But the important thing — the thing that gives this slender drama a wicked turn — is that the child proves clever enough to influence the outcome, which is fascinating: Here is a film about a heterosexual fantasy in which the man is nearly passive. So that’s the personality of Garrel’s second film. What, one wonders, might a third marriage inspire?