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LOUIS GARREL A FAITHFUL MAN/UN HOMME FIDÈLE (2018) - NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

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LOUIS GARREL AND LAETITIA CASTA IN L'HOMME FIDÈLE

Love and death: a quadrangle with a wise child

Louis Garrel's second film as director, co-scripted by the legendary Jean-Claude Carrière, is about a man (played by Garrel) whose girlfriend Marianne (Laetitia Casta) marries his best friend, then returns to him after her husband dies, but with the accompanying problems of a son who doesn't like him and troubling rumors about the husband's death.

In the opening, set earlier, Marianne gives Abel the bad news that his best friend Paul is the father of the child she's pregnant with, and she is choosing him over Abel. Abel walks out of her life not to return till nine years later.

Now Paul is dead, died in his sleep, it's said, and Marianne invites Abel - who's available - to come and see her. He meets her son, the nine-year-old Joseph (Joseph Engel). A pretty, self-assured boy he at once takes Abel aside and tells him "My mother killed my father." "How?" asks Abel. "Poison," says Joseph. This is a very choice scene, a little triumph that will stick in your mind.

Abel looks bemused, and we may laugh, but it's an arresting conversation that conjures up Highsmith filmed by Chabrol - or Hitchcock, whose murders often have humorous moments. You may say Joseph says this stuff to scare Abel away and have his mother to himself. But wait till you learn more about Joseph. The boy is an expert at solving mysteries and crime is his chief hobby. He's spent time with actual police and learned from them. Maybe he will grow up to be Chabrol, or Ozon. Or maybe this is just a joke. But not to Abel, who when Marianne serves him a hot tizane, eyes it nervously and only takes a sip.

The conversation between Joseph and Abel goes further. Marianne's own doctor, we learn, filled out the death certificate for Joseph's father without ordering an autopsy. Why was that? Abel asks Joseph. "My mother slept with him," he replies. He, Joseph, can't remember the doctor's name but it's the name of a flower, beginning with P. It takes Abel a while to think of the right flower, peony. And he goes and talks to Doctor Pivoine, who tells him that he is gay. Pivoine is not gay, Marianne says, and Abel sees Pivoine with a girlfriend. Another droll and provocative sequence.

Did Marianne sleep with Pivoine? We never find out. But it's evident Joseph doesn't like Abel. No secret about that. He says so. Nonetheless Marianne takes Abel in to live with her, so Abel "steals" Joseph's mother, as he puts it to Abel later.

The film pitches us a new curve ball: Paul's younger sister, Eve (Lily-Rose Depp), who enters the picture to tell her story in voiceover. She talks of nothing but her love for Abel, who she says she's been mad about since she was a girl, carrying photos of him everywhere and thinking of him constantly. Now neither a girl, nor an adolescent, nor a virgin, she presents herself to Abel and declares her lust for him. She asks, and he admits, "physically" he indeed finds her very pretty.

Marianne herself suggests that perhaps Abel should try Eve, sleep with her a few times, just to see whom he prefers. This turns out to mean taking his things to Eve's little student apartment-room: Abel can't be coming back to Marianne's place every night during the process. It goes on for a while.

Till Joseph steps in again. He had reassured Eve earlier of her good prospects with Abel by telling her his mother and Abel were not having sex that much. He could prove it. He made recordings of them under the bed with his iPhone.

But then he turns Eve off to Abel with one of his little jaw-dropping pronouncements: "My mother told Abel to come to you," he says - which is true, of course. When Abel returns to Eve's flat he finds his things packed up and stacked outside the door.Things were not going that well anyway, for Eve. Whenever she had sex in the past, she always fantasized Abel. But when she has sex with Abel, who can she fantasize? She thinks the sex was better when it was inspired by Abel than is has been with Abel.

A discussion between Abel and Marianne reveals that she was sleeping with him and her late husband at the same time, and she doesn't know who the father of Joseph really is. Moreover, she really loved Abel more, but she wasn't able to choose between the two men and to do so, flipped a coin, and Abel lost. She regretted that, but the die was cast.

This a film as classically, quintessentially French as you could ever want, and Louis Garrel, who became a star with other directors, notably as the muse of Christophe Honoré, is steeped in French cinematic tradition with an actor grandfather and director father. Yet as Garrel has said, he does "terrible things" in this film. Isn't it taboo to mimic the French New Wave? Yet here in L'homme fidèle he has voiceovers, apartments, two women and a man, coffee - all the Nouvelle Vague stuff Godard, Truffaut, et al. are known for.

But he has this excellent cast, including himself, and this precocious boy of nine. Garrel himself is handsome in a very special way, is photographed as flatteringly as ever in his own films, and brings sexiness and wit and a light touch to his performance here that centers the film. Laetitia Casta, his real-life wife, is a memorable beauty with shimmering pale blue eyes. (In the Gainsbourg biopic she played Brigitte Bardot.) Lily-Rose Depp is the daughter of a famous French beauty and Johnny Depp. Here she is as fresh as a flower blooming in the rain.

The star of the show is Joseph Engel, though. Joseph is the pivot-point and premise of the film. It is his provocations that start the reverberations. Moreover, he isn't just a preternaturally wise, Shakespearean-style child - though at one point Abel declares that he doesn't know how to talk to children. Talking to them like adults isn't right. But when he talks to them like a kid that doesn't work either. In other words, he is no ordinary child. But he is a piece carved out of Louis Garrel's own past. Laugh if you want, it wasn't so funny for little Louis at the time.

At the New York Film Festival Lily-Rose Depp, Laetitia Casta, and Louis Garrel were all present for the Q&A, and Garrel talked a blue streak. His English was a bit halting years ago but now he is fully able to "se débrouiller," as the French say, he can "get by" very well, while a certain remaining roughness seems to free him to say franker or funnier things than might come out in French. At Lincoln Center, he was full of ideas and funny, and revealing, especially talking about himself as a child of divorced parents acting in one of his father's films when he was six, where his mother was in a scene sleeping with another man, and his father with another woman, and he wasn't dead certain what was fake and what was true.

About Joseph, Garrel said you need to remember that at nine a boy already "knows everything." He also admitted that he himself recorded his mother under her bed - like the boy in the film, to see if she was having sex.

L'Homme fidèle is in some ways simpler, fresher, and more playful than a Nouvelle Vague film. It's also more precisely constructed and carefully paced than Garrel's directorial debut Two Friends, which had more frenetic activity and more improvisation. This is a puzzler that alludes to Marivaux, and also delves into Freudian aspects of childhood, while delighting in leaving questions unanswered. Its final scene, a silent one, has that aspect of classic comedy in that the three adults are all united, holding hands behind Joseph. He had disappeared, and is found again. This is a fluent, splendidly economical, elegant and delightful film that fulfills all the promise of Garrel's directorial debut and goes beyond it. Next perhaps as Jordan Mintzer says in his Variety review penned at Toronto, he should break free a little further from tradition and introduce more elements purely his own.

A Faithful Man/L'homme fidel, 75 mins., debuted at Toronto 9 Sept. 2018, also showing at San Sebastién, Zurich, and the New York Film Fesival, where it was screened for this review 7 Oct. 2018. It comes to French cinemas the day after Christmas.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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