Directed by Louis Garrel
30th August – 12th September 2019
Reviewed by Ashley McGovern
Another French film about people who love in triangles. This time there are no heroic attempts at securing the one you love, no raucous plots and farcical injuries. A Faithful Man, Louis Garrel’s second film, in which he also stars as the man at the centre of attention, is based entirely around inertia and a kind of cold obsession. The characters, especially the kittenish Eve (Lily-Rose Depp), may talk about waging war for the attention of Abel (Garrel) with the cunning of a Congreve character, but the director marshalls them throughout the movie with nothing but antipathy and a lazy faith in chance encounters.
In one corner is Abel, the thorough drifter. He suffers a major disappointment in the opening scene when his long-term girlfriend Marienne (Laetitia Casta) announces she’s pregnant, an item of news that comes with a galling second line: it’s the child of his best friend Paul. Eight years later, at Paul’s funeral, and with the nature of death unconfirmed, Abel meets Marienne again; his obsession with her entirely unabated since the breakup, he soon falls back in with her – in the way brownie batter should fall off a mixing spoon. Utter fatigue surrounds the couple wherever they go and Garrel’s camera almost exclusively shows them sitting down, never without coats and jumpers on. They can’t even summon the energy to take clothes off. This the most thickly layered sex farce yet committed to screen.
A welcome contrast is the second woman, Eve, a young, spritely, determined predator who also happens to be Paul’s younger sister. Eve has been devoted to Abel since being a teenage girl, and the film gets some comedy out of skipping back to a time where she stalked him; even breaking into his car and taking selfies in the passenger seat and imagining that they were on a romantic road trip.
A small irony that the movie itself is perhaps unaware of: what will eventually cloud the whole film is the very same feeling what killed Kit and Holly’s relationship in Badlands – sheer submission and boredom. At least Depp is very good at teenage monomania and showing how, even now she’s a young adult holding down a job, it’s still there, still forcing her to arrange ‘chance’ meetings with Abel as he walks like a sloth going for a Sunday paper through Paris. She’s the best thing in the film.
A Faithful Man is trying to say something about maturity. Abel, supposedly, learns to distinguish obsession and love, which is the same lesson Eve will learn far more bitterly than our leading man. And Marienne? She matures from living life as a single serial manipulant to enjoying life as a widowed serial manipulant, and it’s impossible to see what Abel likes about her.
Every smile is an evasion, she never answers a straight question, she’s tedious in bed, and works in communications for the government – the hallmark of abject coldness. She is also the least convincing screen mother since Mrs Stifler. Garrel plays his role well; his boxer’s nose and look of despair help define the character’s indecisions.
His torments are intense but dull. He does nothing of his own volition and is told exactly what to think by both the two women and Marienne’s son. At the same time he is adored by everyone. Garrel has made an efficient l’homme com: a light comedy where eroticism and desirability amount to a kind of sacred impotence; the man can do nothing and still win over everybody’s hearts and minds. (One more thing, we’re supposed to believe he’s a successful journalist. You wouldn’t let him sub-edit the Rush Hour Crush section, nevermind let him close to a story).
Where, you might ask, does the comedy come from? The awkward humour, for most of it never comes without discomfort, arrives from the film’s sensibility of frankness. Everyone in the film is open about their motives and obsessions. Whether in conversation or through interior monologue the script’s honesty can be wry.
They confess their tactics, ask very akward questions and even accuse one another of murder. The movie clearly likes to think this is a sophisticated take on modern relationships, adopting the method of radically breezy openness.
What the scriptwriting team have missed is blatantly old-fashioned moralistic composure of the triangle. Abel assumes Paul’s place, the poor man never seen and rarely mentioned, with the same matter-of-fact deference as families who used to adopt the religious notion that when a man dies his brother should step in and marry the poor widow i.e. the type of scenario you would see in a mid-century American realist drama.
This is the exact pattern of the film, and yet it has pretensions to a disarmingly modern attitude towards couples, a contrast which leads to a rash of false moments. For most of the film Paul’s death is the pretext for bed-swapping comedy, his departure is comically trivial; however, at certain dramatic moments, and when it suits the need for ‘depth’, Garrel introduces soft sentimental sequences about poor old Paul that are completely out of place.
Enervation, naturally, seeps into the photography. Despite the film stretches over eight years, it feels like the whole thing is set over the course of a shallow wintry day, and it’s only after you’ve seen the movie do you realise something very strange was going on.
Think again about the externals. The majority of active scenes take the form of our lovelorn trio walking to and from work; in fact almost everything that isn’t set in coldly minimal apartments takes place as the characters travel to work or return home. A Faithful Man is a supposedly farcical roundelay set precisely during commuter hours. What’s more, I don’t think this pattern is simply a matter of budget. Garrel’s character’s are so self-involved with their triangulations that he’s reflected this in, in fact narrowed them down to, the time of day when we’re most concerned with ourselves, when our minds our completely focussed on our actions, our day, our routine and no one else.
This realisation led to me thinking of a relatively obscure photobook by Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase called Front Window. For a long period of time, Fukase, himself sharing the kind of unshakeable obsession for his wife Yoko that would be acknowledged by Garrel’s characters, would photograph her leaving the apartment from the front window.
The mutual excitement of the project is palpable; she plays up with exaggerated poses and knowing smiles, while his intensity is clear in every single one of the crisp fugitive shots. The commuting hour is the last chance for play before you return later that evening, a sentiment which is the polar opposite of the one expressed in A Faithful Man.
Front Window is the playful, intimate, wry premise we never see from this film.