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.
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.