In the Shadow of Women ★★★★½

This and Almayer's Folly make a formidable case for Stanislas Merhar as one of the greatest actors of dialed-down facial expression currently working. With a seemingly minimal amount of actorly exertion, Merhar scratches at all kinds of psychological complexity (mostly varying shades of dejection, granted, but that's a wide emotional spectrum in Merhar's Draculean mug). By limiting his cutting within scenes to allow his actor's shape and presence to imprint itself firmly into his roomy compositions, Garrel wisely lets this distinctive appearance carry a great deal of the weight of In the Shadow of Women. During a scene when he confronts his wife about her infidelity, Merhar fixes himself like a statue in the corner of Garrel's shot, staring off toward the floor in silhouette from the audience while his wife breaks down, and there's just enough of Renato Berta's charcoal light to discern the contours of the actor's face. And often that's all we need: Merhar's face contains both the feigned unflappability and the disguised tenderness that together form the Platonic ideal of the kind of male lead Garrel needs for these excoriating dark comedies of masculine foolishness.

With help from a bone-dry Louis Garrel voiceover narration, In the Shadow of Women unfolds with storybook simplicity in detailing a particular episode of marital dysfunction. But if its structure has a brutal, compressed logic, its individual chunks of time are dense with discomfort, with paths left unexplored and instincts left un-acted upon. (The total absence in the last twenty minutes of Merhar's character's mistress, for instance, is meant to sting in ways that complicate the ostensible uplift of the resolution.) Garrel is prodding at the distinction between lived experience and the recitation of stories about our own lives; indeed, that's the discrepancy behind the film's best laugh-out-loud punchline. Every time Garrel Jr.'s sober reading interjects, it's both a tension-defusing comic counterpoint and an insufficient encapsulation of what we just saw or are about to see. But time marches forward, always ruthlessly indifferent to nuance, and in the end it's our decisions that define. In the Shadow of Women is infused with both the pragmatism and the tragedy of this dilemma.