Mar 152016

In the Shadow of Women is obviously meant to be a throwback/homage to the French New Wave cinema of the early to mid-1960s.

A scene from "In the Shadow of Women."

A scene from “In the Shadow of Women.”

By Paul Dervis

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is currently screening (through March 23rd) the latest film from director Philippe Garrel, In the Shadow of Women, and it is obviously meant to be a throwback/homage to the French New Wave cinema of the early to mid-1960s. The movie was shot in glorious black and white and its emotional intensity was no doubt demanding for its cast members and is challenging at times for viewers. But the film hasn’t the exhilarating shock value of its famed ancestors; when all is said and done, this feels like an exercise in cinematic recycling.

Compounding the problem is that the story’s characters, especially the male lead, commands none of our compassion. To suggest that our anti-hero, Pierre, is a drab, potentially talentless documentary filmmaker is merely stating the obvious.

Pierre has recently lost his father, a Resistance fighter who never talked about his life during WWII. Now the son, in an effort to come to terms with his old man, wants to make a documentary about the conflict, and he zeros in on an aged, self-proclaimed hero of the conflict. Pierre’s young wife, Manon, takes on all the myriad behind-the-scenes duties regarding the making of the film. She had been an Oriental Studies student with a solid future before her; but she abandoned her own dreams in order to help make Pierre a success. Manon’s mother is fearful that she will regret her actions. Mom knows best.

It takes no time at all for Pierre to begin fiddling about with Elisabeth, a young graduate intern at a film archive. Pierre thinks that by telling her that he is married it absolves him from all responsibility. He is wrong.

Elisabeth talks a good line about the affair being casual, but she quickly falls hard for the somewhat passionless artist. She starts to spy on him, desperately needing to know about this woman he refuses to abandon for her. She also begins to complain about his absences …no phone calls, no trysts, for days on end. She becomes obsessed with Pierre and demands more. Manon also begins to feel an emotional disconnect with her husband. They rarely talk and never laugh together. There is a hole in Manon’s heart that needs to be filled.

And Elisabeth catches her filling it.

At first she doesn’t tell Pierre that his spouse is unfaithful, but the anguish of being the ‘other woman’ overwhelms her, and she ends up confessing what she knows.

Now this is where one might think that Pierre, as a supposedly perceptive filmmaker, not to mention a contemporary young fellow, might realize that what goes around comes around. But that would be giving him too much credit. Instead, he confronts Manon with her infidelity and verbally tortures her about her crime. It is not enough that she has cut loose her boyfriend (while he keeps his own worshipful young lady), but he can not forgive her for the act of infidelity. What is good for the goose is not good for the gander in Pierre’s myopic (and brutally hypocritical) world.

The actions in the film spin a little out of control toward the ending, and there is a convenient contrivance at the end, but In the Shadow of Women had lost its way well before its conclusion.

No one here is likable or all that interesting, not Pierre, Manon, or Elisabeth. Garrel doesn’t give us a reason to give a hoot about what happens to any of them. And the performances were as drab as the characters. Stanislas Merhar could have been made of marble. Is he ever happy? Does he feel regret? Can he express more than one stony mood at one time? And Clotilde Courau, as the troubled Manon, tells all who will listen about how much she loves Pierre, but there is not a single scene that dramatizes that passion convincingly. At least Lena Paugam’s Elisabeth expresses substantial sexual and emotional desires, but it is never clear what she sees in Pierre.

Garrel, best known for Regular Lovers (2004) and Night Wind (1999), would like to capture the tragicomic feel of the early works of Godard and Truffaut. But he can’t, because he lacks the filmmaking joie de vivre of the masters. And that makes for a painful hour and a half of Gallic soap opera.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.


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  4 Responses to “Fuse Film Review: “In the Shadow of Women” — Stuck In the Shades of Depression”

Comments (4)
  1. I can understand discontent with this nervy film. It does have a dry-as-toast sense of humor and a frustrating story. I don’t agree it is a throwback to New Wave just because it is oh-so-French and in black and white. There are not even any cigarettes smoked! French New Wave characters were colorful and engaging anti-establishment types. Paul Dervis’s review says Pierre “commands none of our compassion.” That’s an understatement, but is the key to the film’s humor. Pierre may be the most passive lead character in years. Most of the time he lies around on his back. I think he smiled once in the entire film. Pierre is an impoverished documentary filmmaker with a skeptical father. His wife self-consciously says to him that Pierre’s great skill is his ability to ‘really listen.’ Even that minor quality is turned on its head in the final moments of the film: a sly commentary on documentary filmmaking (of which the New Wave often had similarities). In addition, we never see any of his work.

    Director Philippe Garrel is subverting everything that French New Wave filmmaking is about. New Wave males, while they could be scoundrels, were always charming. Philippe is morose, sloppy, uncommitted, a lousy husband, and a questionable lover. Though his wife and mistress appear to adore him, it is their own failing. In addition to Pierre’s lack of allure, he shows absolutely no sexual prowess: the camera turns away from every sex scene. Most French New Wave was sexy to the core! This is a guy with the charisma of a thumb. Women beware.

    Garrel continues along this risky path. He drains the color out of the film by shooting in (glorious) black and white just as he drains the personality out of his characters. The two main male characters are unconscionable liars and cheats. There is very little set decoration and apartments are hideously drab. Any music is minimal.

    The women don’t get a break either. It is pathetic that they stick around. Clotilde Courau (the wife) and Lena Paugam (the mistress) are excellent at playing against the iconic beauty and strength of actresses like Brigette Bardot, Anna Karina, Jeanne Moreau, Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani, Jean Seaberg (OK, OK she’s American) and today’s actresses like Emmanuelle Devos, Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard, and many, many others.

    Is Garrel critiquing contemporary French film, challenging old mythologies, or sticking it to men and women in general? Possibly it is a post-modern exercise on the Derridian binary oppositions of presence/absence. (I’ll leave explicating that interpretation to someone else.) At the core it is simply an anti-New Wave satire of romantic ambition and the delusions of love. The visual structure and storyline film are bold and deliberate. Sit up straight and accept Garrel’s vision.The payoff is wonderful.

    I can’t give away the very last shot, but Garrel has the nerve to cut to a black screen as the audience waits just long enough for a satisfying denouement. It doesn’t come. I wanted to laugh, cry, and scream all at the same time.

    • However Tim, that old axiom still stands… If you want to show boredom on film, you must not bore the audience!

      • Except there isn’t one “audience.” By extension, not to risk boring an audience can end up pandering. There is something in between and I reckon that’s where taste, mood, and audience reactions raise uses of patience.
        I worry that boredom sets in so quickly these days. I have students for whom Blow-Up is too slow.
        Béla Tarr, Aki Kaurismäki, Roy Andersson, Ruben Östlund, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (or even Sophia Coppola and Jim Jarmusch) can all be pokey, but with amazing results.
        That’s why I said, in my mini-other review of In the Shadow of Women, “sit up straight.” It was hard at first, but once the joke sets in, it’s pretty funny.
        We disagreed on Winter’s Sleep, too, which was three hours long, and could be considered boring, but it slayed me because the build-up was so devastating and methodical.
        I’m not a necessarily a fan of long-winded or wandering storylines, but they can really be worth it.

  2. I am not equating this film with being too slow. You could make an argument that 45 years was slow, but it was thought-provoking and tense and you cared about the characters. Clearly some people are not going to like Blow-up and I understand that. I, however, love that film but found this film to be tedious.

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