The Marriage Problem: Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women


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In the Shadow of Women
Directed by Philippe Garrel
Opens January 15

The French director Philippe Garrel has been making films for a long time, and in all that time, nobody has solved the marriage problem. Expanding its legal definition has only let more people officially join the search. How are we to live with one another?

Garrel has taken another stab at this with L’Ombre des femmesIn the Shadow of Women, a spare, lightly sketched case study of one marriage, the conjugal and artistic union of Pierre and Manon, plus—no surprises there—their lovers, all against the background of a widescreen, 35mm Paris, shot by cinematographer Renato Berta, who once won a César for Au revoir les enfants and a few years back worked on Amos Gitai’s Lullulaby to My Father. Pierre (Stanislas Merhar), a documentarian, is on a similar quest—he’s making a film about French Resistance fighters, and one early line of dialogue implies that the project is a personal one, since his father was active in the Resistance, never spoke of it, and has just died. The subject of Pierre’s movie is more than happy to spin tales, however; Pierre listens silently, Manon (Clotilde Courau) runs the camera, and the old man’s wife serves everybody cookies.

Pierre and Manon have no money and no immediate promise of success, but Manon is prepared just to dedicate herself to Pierre’s work—so she tells her mother. Pierre, however, is apparently restless, and begins an affair with a graduate student, Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), whom he spots while she’s handling cans of film; he helps her load a cart, and soon enough goes to bed with her. Pierre is a silent strutter, a flower-buying philanderer of the antiquated school; his affair is just male nature, he tells himself (or so Louis Garrel’s voiceover explains), so when Elisabeth brings news of Manon’s own dalliance, he’s aghast—female infidelity runs counter to the order of things. Merhar emotes so little than his bodily tremble during a climactic argument with his wife is seismic. Courau, on the other hand, frowns, dotes, laughs, and seems entirely human. If anything is natural to this pair, and to pairs elsewhere, it’s the tendency to imagine that our partners are somehow better than average, gifted and good—nothing short of infallible. Garrel pokes holes in and pokes fun at this pretension, but he has no rancor for his characters. Shorn of illusions, we can lie together.