“All my life is loving you,” is a line of dialogue that, on the page, looks worn thin with familiarity, a little like the trite English title of Claire Burger’s solo directorial debut, “Real Love.” But to reveal that the words are spoken not by a pining lover during the dash-to-the-airport climax of a romantic comedy, but by a father unwittingly tripping on ecstasy, to his two teenage daughters and his estranged wife, is to hint at the nature of this gorgeous film’s gentle miracle, which is to take its well-worn, soapy setup and rinse it of cliché, so it comes up new and shining. For any father who ever loved his child, or any child who ever loved their father, “Real Love” brings real joy.
Floodlit by a superlatively sympathetic performance by Belgian actor Bouli Lanners, Burger’s partly autobiographical film, which she also wrote, starts in the aftermath of a departure. After two decades of marriage, and the raising of their two girls, Armelle (Cécile Remy-Boutang) has gently but firmly disengaged herself from the routine of her home life, and is moving out. Her befuddled husband Mario (Lanners) is in denial about the finality of her decision. “Take all the time you need,” he tells her as she collects some more of her stuff, but while the words are magnanimous, the tone is imploring. “All the time you need” implies that she’ll come back, a hope contradicted by the expression in Armelle’s tired but resolute eyes.
Mario is reeling, but hardly has time to process as he also has to deal with the reactions of his two daughters whom, for the time being, he is sole-parenting. Worldly 17-year-old Niki (Sarah Henochsberg) is on the threshold of adulthood anyway, and can relate her mother’s desire for independence to her own. But puppyish yet truculent 14-year-old Frida (Justine Lacroix) is a different story. Embarking on her own fraught rite of passage — a painful crush on Alex (Celia Mayer), a tough-talking girl in her class — Frida is resentful of her father (it is she who ends up spiking his drink with MDMA in retribution for a perceived slight) and loudly insists she’ll move in with their mother as soon as she can.
Initially, it is all Mario can do to hold on to the threads of his old life. He joins a local theatrical project to be close to Armelle, who works as a lighting designer. He calls her frequently, on the pretext of updating her about the girls, and frets over Frida’s dawning sexual curiosity — less because it’s same-sex than out of a futile desire to preserve her pre-adolescent innocence, and thereby to deny the forces of time and change, so destructive to his complacent life elsewhere, their dominion.
But even as Frida sulks through the forced jollity of Mario’s parental pep talks and drags her heels through the art galleries and theater shows to which he brings her, Julien Poupard’s careful camera picks up the underlying affection that exists between them — in the casual slinging of her foot across his lap while they watch TV, or the way her frostiness thaws during Mario’s impromptu car karaoke sessions. Burger, who previously co-directed the Cannes Camera d’Or-winning “Party Girl,” is careful not to vilify any of her innately believable characters. Armelle’s departure, though deeply hurtful, is never framed as wanton abandonment, and even as our hearts break for that central loss of love, each family member’s tentative experiment in finding it anew is painted in acutely compassionate colors.
The supremely confident, intimate storytelling, the unobtrusive warmth of the camerawork, and the piercing naturalism of the performances, direct us so precisely into the heart of each deceptively simple scene that Burger’s intense empathy for her characters becomes our own. It soon feels like we’ve known, and been fond of these people forever. In particular, Lanners, who carries most of the film’s weight on his broad, buckling shoulders, contributes an indelible portrait of Mario’s crumpled decency. He is a man suddenly confronted with the truth that even his ferocious affection for his family cannot stop the processes of growing up, growing apart, of falling into and eventually all the way out of love.
Modest though it is, Burger’s wise, tender film is its own sort of spectacular, putting the awe back into the ordinary, and ending as a testament to the humble hope that after tumbling through life’s topsy-turviness, we might, just possibly, land right side up.