In the Shadow of Women

In the Shadow of Women ★★★½


Strangely light, almost his version of a Woody Allen comedy. Although a filmmaker who has been as thoroughly committed to emotional anguish and amour fou as Garrel is not just going to abandon those elements unproblematically, and so there's an unnerving undercurrent at work here, almost a blankness that functions like a mirror of the viewer's own sexual politics.

Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) is a glum, depressive documentary filmmaker living off his wife Manon (Clotilde Courau) and her family's money. They work together, and things are fine until Pierre strays, having an affair with Elizabeth (Lena Paugam), a young intern at a film archive. This all comes out when Elizabeth discovers by chance that Clotilde, no doubt feeling Pierre's coldness, has taken a lover of her own (Mounir Margoum). Pierre is indignant, throwing Manon out and ending the marriage. He grunts his disapproval, but the clarifying voiceover narration (Louis Garrel) makes his attitude explicit: men can have affairs, because that's just how they're build. But an inconstant woman is a repugnant, intolerable thought.

Garrel leaves all of this piggishness right on the table for us to sift through, including Pierre's unceremonious conclusion of his relationship with Elizabeth. In the Shadow of Women permits us to observe this triangle (Manon's lover is never really fleshed out) as a purely personal drama, or as a schematic demonstration of patriarchal prerogative, so blatant as to be comical. Pierre is an insensate lump, a veritable parody of the primitive artist whose needs and urges are driven by intuition rather than logic. He seems to appeal to these women because, somewhere in history (the Romantic period, to be exact), it was decided that sullen lugs like these have soul, and that a good muse could unlock that spark through sex and belief.

Maybe Garrel believed this once; maybe he still does. But Shadow of Women is a strong case for the prosecution, with the sensibility of films like The Birth of Love, Night Wind, or even Jealousy cold-filtered through the male indictment perspective of Hong Sang-soo. Even the film's B-plot hero (seemingly a direct reference to Crimes and Misdemeanors) turns out to be a "bullshitter," in Manon's words.

So yes, maybe "the heart wants what it wants." But for one of the first times in his illustrious career, Garrel seems to be stipulating, "what if the heart is a goddamned fool?"

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