One characteristic that has remained remarkably constant in Philippe Garrel’s work is his predilection for setting his films in a gap, an interval between two people’s very distinct experiences of the same relationship. In movies as different as The Birth of Love (1993), The Inner Scar (1972) and the recent Jealousy (2013), Garrel has channeled a lot of his creative energy through the seemingly endless possibilities of this fundamental disagreement. The reason for such fertility is because the soil of this no (wo)man’s land is the principle of drama: one character wants something from another character, who in turn wants something else. This basic set up creates just enough structural solidity to completely liberate Garrel’s camera to follow them and watch their reactions to this minuscule seed of conflict. If we care about them enough (and as a matter of fact, I do), this is all we’ll ever need.
The scenes that derive from such basic principle either are affected by this interval or end up prolonging it, further separating the characters in their unifying desire (or false sense of duty) of being together. If ruled by expectations (another key element of drama), this desire, however, can be the heart of both the enthusiasm of life and the ruination of love: to be together is to subject yourself to what you cannot know or control, and that’s the beauty and the misery of it. The beauty and the misery, indeed: two sides of the same coin Garrel’s films keep investigating and learning/teaching more about, and that still seem to hold so much mystery, so much to be experienced and discovered after the lights in the theater are turned back on.
The usual interval in perception that is more or less evident in most films by the director is brought to the surface in many ways in this new movie, starting with the double meaning of its title. If the omniscient narration (not to mention the Greek choir always embodied by the camera and the editing) constantly makes fun of Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) for believing that to be “in the shadow of women” is to be mercilessly under the influence of the volubility of their desires, adhering to a growing tendency of male self-victmization in contemporary life, it is because the same shadow in fact is present in a much more general and over-determining aspect of human interaction: a relationship happens not only between the clear perspectives two (or more) people have of each other, but also between their shadows, the part of their lives and of the way they apprehend that same relationship that will unassailably remain in the dark, vulnerable yet unknowable.
It is no wonder then that In the Shadow of Women begins with the most concrete manifestation of such feeling: infidelity. Pierre falls in love with Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), but keeps the affair a secret to his partner in love and work, Manon (Clotilde Courau). Even though the three of them barely share a moment on screen, the triangular nature of the relationship is constantly reinforced by the omniscient narration in voice over (by Louis Garrel) and the camera itself, constantly alluding to the third vertex of the relationship that’s been kept off-screen, in the shadow. The separation of the double lives led by the characters is sabotaged by the brilliant editing of the film, avoiding establishing transitions to heighten its abundant use of faux-raccords, recreating continuity in actions that the protagonist struggles to keep separated, retying relationships that he hopes can be sustained unaware of each other. Love is the realm of affects, and those never go only one way.
If the terrific Jealousy already brought to mind a disconcerting approximation between Philippe Garrel and the cinema of Hong Sang-soo, In the Shadow of Woman’s triangular relations take that improbable connection many steps further, even finding humor in the process, a sentiment one wouldn’t normally associate with France’s most tortured living auteur. The director embraces Hong’s technique of plot as combinatory analysis, minimizing the self-awareness of the device, but still retaining its irony. And if the audience is the third vertex in all these pairs of people, it is just a matter of time until we also realize we don’t know the whole story: Manon has also been having an affair, and that information alone reshapes and reconfigures the relations the movie depends on. “I’m discovering you. How you talk to men”, says Pierre, after he’s found out she’d been cheating on him. “I was always like that”, she replies. “But I didn’t see it”, he says. And neither did we.
Garrel uses this idea of drama as a collection of dark sides, of areas in the shadow, to further complicate precepts of visibility and the off screen space in cinema – and, with that, the role of modern cinema audiences. The adherence to the omniscient narration stands in contrast with the partiality of vision, mirroring the relations between the characters in the film’s own relation with the spectator. The realization of the lack of truth in the documentary footage Pierre and Manon had been working on is the cynical lesson the characters have to learn (and do they?) as much as it is a disclaimer to the audience. Yes, In the Shadow of Women is a farce, and while such word is not one that easily fits Garrel’s cinema, the imaginary sight of the director wearing shoes that look like they could be their own, but actually belong to someone else entirely different, ends up being the most appropriate image one can leave the theater with. And while Jealousy’s happy end seemed to be the biggest of all tragedies in Garrel’s cinema, the cynicism that shows up in the shadow of this new film ironically allows us to, for once, be happy for him.