Among the most significant effects of the shift from shooting on film to shooting digital is the loss of expressive black-and-white cinematography. Digital black-and-white often looks flat and lacks sufficient contrast; it might be monochrome, but it’s barely “black & white.” That could be one reason some filmmakers, including Philippe Garrel, stick to film.
The throwback pays off beautifully in In the Shadow of Women, as in Garrel’s Jealousy before it, with crisp images and a wider range of grays catching the eye with every cut. The look, along with the subject matter—once again, an artistic Parisian couple cheating on one another—evokes a particular form of romance associated with the French New Wave, but these “old-fashioned” elements, which extend to the minimal score and Garrel’s reserved, observational style (the camera is usually stationary, at a medium-long distance, and remains fixed on spaces well after characters have exited) have a distancing effect.
From afar, then, we see that Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) cheats but does not mind making Elizabeth (Lena Paugam) go without hearing from him for days while he spends time with his wife, Manon (Clotilde Courau). Nevertheless, he is cruel when he learns Manon is also cheating. “He thought only men could be unfaithful. That for women it was worse, taboo, dangerous. He sensed it was a simplistic notion, or plain wrong, a typically male notion, but he couldn’t stop it from coming back,” the narrator tells us at one point. In The Shadow of Women is a look at the damage wrought by such a mentality and all it implies about masculinity, sex, and faithfulness. This is not a romance film; it examines rather than celebrates the male psyche.
At least until the end. But even then, the honesty in the writing of 70 preceding, ephemeral minutes, moments that resonate and speak truthfully, amplifies the sweet simplicity of the end, nearly overshadowing obvious gender problems. Still, one can’t help but wonder if a pictorialist of Garrel’s skill and an observer with his erudition could find something else to look and think about for 70 minutes.