In the Shadow of Women (2015) / Drama-Romance
aka L'Ombre des Femmes
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for sensuality and thematic material
Running Time: 73 min.
Cast: Stanislas Merhar, Clotilde Courau, Lena Paugam, Antoinette Moya, Louis Garrel (voice)
Director: Philippe Garrel
Screenplay: Jean-Claude Carriere, Caroline Deruas, Philippe Garrel, Arlette Langmann
Reviww published January 6, 2016
In the Shadow of Women tells the intimate story of a struggling documentary filmmaker named Pierre (Merhar, La Captive), busy working on a film about a man who fought for the French resistance against the Nazi occupation during World War II, something that hits close to home for him, as his father had also fought but never bothered to share the details before his recent passing. Pierre's wife Manon (Courau, La Vie en Rose) is always there for him, in his work and at home, but the suddenly sullen husband decides to find some breathing room by engaging in a fling with Elisabeth (Paugam), a younger woman who interns at the film archives. Pierre thinks that, being the man, it's in his nature to fool around, but Manon has a secret of her own, which changes his perspective on things in a way he finds difficult to resolve.
Veteran director Philippe Garrel (Regular Lovers, Jealousy) continues his trend of making beautifully composed, black-and-white romantic dramas shot on 35mm film, obviously evocative of his love of the French New Wave artists who've paved the way for his style of filmmaking. Those who've followed Garrel's career may feel like In the Shadow of Women is covering familiar ground, though the more humorous tone and the themes of infidelity also suggests that Garrel might also be treading into waters usually explored across the Atlantic in Woody Allen's works. Credited to four screenwriters, including Garrel and his young girlfriend, Caroline Deruas, plus Garrel's frequent writing partner Arlette Langmann and heralded Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere.
Garrel's protagonist, the taciturn Pierre, wants to have everything his way, and doesn't really want to be put into a position of having to decide. Though we view the film mostly from his perspective, the women seem more sympathetic, and by the contrast of their desires for Pierre to embrace them, he comes across as a joyless narcissist who feels that he has the right to wrong them both, but not to ever be wronged. He thinks the notion to cheat is a distinctly male outlook, but never sees the hypocrisy of his position of blamelessness. Manon just wants her old husband back, but he's clearly withdrawn, and any efforts to get him back out of his shell only results in him retreating even further, escaping into the arms of a woman who has little capacity to understand him, though she does often try. The contradictory male ego fights so hard to protect itself from harm that, by the end, it does nothing but destroy the happiness of three people searching desperately for it.
Narrated, perhaps if only to echo New Wave cinema, by Philippe Garrel's son Louis, the film is well acted, with Courau the standout as the wife who dallies but truly wants to be faithful. It runs a brisk at 72 minutes, though it never feels rushed. It ends in a relatively unexpectedly weightless fashion, which may split audiences feelings on the meaning, and perhaps the worthiness, of the somewhat heavier story that precedes every scene before it. It's neither a tack-on nor a cop-out, but a deliberate attempt to suggest that such things as wounded pride, unchecked ego, and the choice to cling to mistrust and resentment are the true obstacles to happiness, much more so than individual actions bear out, even if it does carry the unsettling itch that we'd rather see some people lie in the bed they've chosen to leave in disarray.
©2016 Vince Leo