Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sun Jul 28, 2019 10:10 pm 
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LILY-ROSE DEPP AND JOSEPH ENGEL IN L'HOMME FIDÈLE

A light, elegant, mysterious French romantic comedy

I reviewed this French romantic comedy, actor-star Louis Garrel's second directorial effort, last year at the New York Film Festival, where it was part of the Main Slate. Louis Garrel was present for the Q&A in the Walter Reade Theater, grown more adept at English and being lighthearted and amusing. The film seemed enjoyable and fun - even though I had made the disastrous decision of taking a cab from lower to upper Manhattan on a hot Sunday afternoon and missed the first few minutes of it (I've seen them now). Here is another assessment in honor of its US theatrical release, which officially began nine days ago.

Louis Garrel's first directorial effort Two Friends/Les Deux amis four years ago (with Vincent Macaigne and his sometime girlfriend Goldshifteh Farahani), though based on a play by Alfred de Musset, had more of a contemporary air than this one, which indeed falls out of time. On the one hand this one, coauthored by the venerable scenarist Jean-Claude Carrière, starts with a gloomy rough turn in love like something by the director's father Philippe Garrel.

Abel (Garrel) learns from the girlfriend he lives with, Marianne (Louis' current wife Laetetitia Casta) that she's pregnant, that he's not the father, and that she's giving him ten days to move out so she can marry the other guy, who's called Paul, and raise the kid with him. The premise of a love gone very wrong is very Philippe Garrel.

But it's really not. Not only the look, glamorous color by Jacques Rivette regular Irene Lubtchensky instead of Philippe's usual grainy black and white, marks this as different, but the playful plotline crafted with Carrière, with its touch of Chabrol in the hints of murder and manipulation both coldblooded and droll - not at all Sixties, more classic.

Abel moves out as directed, and works at his job for nine years and then, as his voice-off updates us in two minutes, Paul dies, and after the funeral Abel is invited back to the apartment.

There may be hints of Christophe Honoré, too: The images of Abel at his workplace before a computer screen are shot just like the ones of Ismaël, Garrel's character in Honoré's Love Songs. After all, for a good while (after playing Eva Green's impossibly glamorous brother in Bertoucci's The Dreamers, which made him internationally known) Louis starred in every one of Honoré's string of movies. The opening sets the stage in a matter with "an odor of the Nouvelle Vague," as a French review said: and after all, Louis Garrel's godfather was Jean-Pierre Léaud.

Back in the apartment, post-funeral, we meet what the passage of time has produced: a precocious boy, Joseph (the exceptionally watchable and assured Joseph Engel), now nine going on forty-five. When Marianne is out of the room the small, bright eyed Joseph sidles up to Abel and whispers, "My mother killed my father" though, he acknowledges, "the motive is still lacking." More than a child, he is a witty, pivotal device. Engel, whose ease is appealing and a little frightening, makes the device human and alive.

SPOILER ALERT: We never know if Joseph's claim could be true or not. What we do know is that there are some fishy details, and also that Joseph doesn't like Abel. he's certainly trying to scare Abel away - because of course he knows his mother is going to take Abel back, and Abel, L'homme fidèle, has, even if he didn't know it, been waiting to be taken back. Maybe Joseph killed his father. Isn't he a great fan of murder mysteries, and precocious enough? He and his mother both say they fought all the time. And clearly he wants Marianne all to himself. In one scene he tells her he, unlike what she asserts all children do, does not ever intend to leave home and her company.

It's the lightheartedness of the provocation and the quick series of twists - the pregnancy, the expulsion, the death (or murder or poisoning, as the boy whispers), the readmission, and the doubts - that contribute to this film's mystery, elegance, and wit. It's elegant in its economy - it's only 75 minutes long - and in the composure of the wronged and patient Abel. But the accusations of Joseph - not only a mystery buff but a policier fan who likes hanging out with cops and spies using an iPhone - send Abel into a flutter, in particular chasing after the doctor who issued the death certificate for Paul, improperly, Joseph claims, a plot line full of delicate foolishness.

There's another, bigger, prettier new character, also in voice-off: Paul's younger sister, Eve (Lily-Rose Depp, celebrity child of Johnny and Vanessa Paradis, 18 or 19 when this was shot). Eve tells us she's been madly in love with Abel since childhood, and now, grown up and no longer a virgin, ready to offer herself to him.

For reasons of her own, the coolly playful Marianne helps out with this, proposing to send Abel herself out to "try" Eve, to see if he really loves her (Marianne) or is easily tempted away. And he has to take a bunch of suitcases on his back and in his arms with all his stuff, because he can't be running back and forth and must stay with Eve in her tiny chambre de bonne.

While some critics feel the story is resolved neatly ("lands on its feet," Cahiers says), I'm not so sure myself and don't think it's meant to be. In fact a somewhat patchy conclusion is what probably leads American critics, uttering the damning comment that this film is "very French," to say this it's a "bagatelle," or in the words of Mike D'Angelo, "barely qualifies as a trifle." D'Angelo has so often expressed his dislike of Louis Garrel, this conclusion of his was inevitable. I've already suggested why the claim in D'Angelo's title, that Louis is "still stuck in his dad's shadow," is unsound. Above all Louis clearly steps away from his dad's shadow in A Faithful Man.

If this film is "very French," we might want to consider more carefully how the French assess it, and they like it quite well, rather better than his first film, according to AlloCiné (3.7 vs. 3.5). A dour American assessment of French lightheartedness and wit might wind up calling Marivaux, or even Molière, the authors of mere trifles. Much of L'Homme fidèle is a tease. It poses questions. It doesn't give answers. Its manipulations and quick turns of fate are thought-provoking and amusing. Its use of voiceovers by each of the three main characters is democratic and skillfully leaves things up in the air. A trifle? A trifle of cunning complexity and pleasing contrivance. Let's have more such trifles from the "feckless and floppy-haired" Louis Garrel, please.

A Faithful Man/L'Homme , 75 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2019 and showed in a dozen other international festivals. It opened in Paris Dec. 26, 2018 (AlloCiné press rating 3.7 based on 30 reviews). Limited US release began July 19, 2019.
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*(This film is distantly inspired by Marivaux's three-act comedy, La Seconde Surprise de l'amour. )

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LOUIS GARREL AND LAETITIA CASTA IN L'HOMME FIDÈLE

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