Monday, August 11, 2014

The Garrels’ Jealousy

We expect the French to be very insouciant about trifles like infidelity and divorce, but the Garrels know better. The reigning first family of French cinema has long plumbed their very personal history for artistic inspiration. After thoroughly examining his tempestuous relationship with 1960s icon Nico, Philippe Garrel puts his late actor father Maurice Garrel on the cinematic pop-psychology couch, casting his son Louis as his grandfather. It is definitely a family affair. In fact, some of the father-and-son’s best work together coalesced in the senior Garrel’s Jealousy (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Known simply as “Louis,” Louis Garrel’s protagonist is leaving his wife and daughter for his sultry lover Claudia, much as his real life grandfather did. The former cad will try to turn over a new leaf, striving to be a faithful lover and attentive father to his young daughter, Charlotte. Indeed, one should not impose slavish one-for-one symbolism on Jealousy, lest Charlotte be taken for an analog of the filmmaker himself.

In terms of narrative, Jealousy is a simple story of a relationship that starts out full of passion and hope, but eventually turns sour. The differences between Louis and Claudia are not immediately apparent, but they prove too profound to withstand the test of time. Although they are both stage actors, she has not worked in years, whereas he constantly takes low-to-no paying gigs. Despite the occasional flirtation, he takes his commitment to Claudia seriously, whereas she adopts an attitude of what-he-doesn’t-know-can’t-hurt-him.

Jealousy is an intimate film, in the Cassavetes sense, but it is stylish and accessible. It might also represent Louis Garrel’s finest screen turn to date. Frankly, in past outings, he has perhaps tried too hard, projecting a cloyingly boyish persona (as in Love Songs and Making Plans for Lena). However, there is nothing twee or affected about his work in Jealousy—no sheepish invitation to ruffle his locks. It is a more mature, Zen-like performance that pulls us into the character’s life, engendering understanding and even sympathy. Although he did not try to play his grandfather outright, he presumably had more to draw upon from personal experience than had he portrayed some distant literary or historical figure.

Anna Mouglalis (the better of the competing Chanels in Coco Channel & Igor Stravinsky) also fleshes out some surprisingly deep dimensions in the impulsive Claudia. It is a bold, earthy turn that impresses. Yet nobody can match young Olga Milshtein as the precociously wise and winning Charlotte. Completing the Garrel family quota, Louis’s sister Esther Garrel brings some verve and energy as his on-screen namesake sibling.

Willy Kurant’s black-and-white cinematography arrestingly heightens the on-screen emotional conflict. It is a lovely picture that evokes the filmmaker’s earlier pictures, like Emergency Kisses, but it feels considerably less self-conscious. Philippe Garrel’s films may still be an acquired taste, but Jealousy is the right thin edge of the wedge to start with. Recommended for those who appreciate French post-Wave auteurs and chamber drama in general, Jealousy opens this Friday (8/15) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.