Over the past 10 years, French director Philippe Garrel’s work has finally achieved steady, even if marginal US distribution. He made his first short 50 years ago, but it took him decades to get any kind of serious recognition outside France. To some extent, that can be explained by the non-narrative nature of his early films, but when he returned to filmmaking in the early ‘80s after an extended break, he seemed willing to jump into a somewhat more conventional kind of arthouse cinema.
Unfortunately, he returned to cinema just as American interest in French art film plummeted — Luc Besson became the new face of the nation’s cinema, not Éric Rohmer. The obscurity of Garrel’s work means that most of the attention it’s received in the US has been completely uncritical — his audience is self-selected and the few people interested in writing about it are destined to like it.
As for me, I was quite enthusiastic about Garrel through “Regular Lovers,” his 2004 epic about the rebellion of May ‘68, but his two films made afterwards turned me off. I wrote in these pages that “Frontier of Dawn” reminded me of an exquisitely bound book of teenage Goth poetry. Garrel’s tendency to romanticize hard drugs and suicide gradually began grating on me, although it was already evident in much of the work I liked, including “Regular Lovers.”
“Jealousy” does not hit the highs of “Regular Lovers” — it’s a much smaller-scale, deliberately minor work — but it’s a big improvement over “Frontier of Dawn” and “A Burning Hot Summer.”
In a prologue, parents Louis (Louis Garrel, the director’s son) and Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant) are watched by their daughter Charlotte (Olga Milshtein) through a keyhole. The couple breaks up, and Louis takes a new girlfriend, Claudia (Anna Mouglalis). Both Louis and Claudia are actors. Louis is poor, but has a marginal amount of success, while Claudia hasn’t found a role in years and considers clerical work at an architectural firm as a way to pay the bills. Charlotte meets Claudia and likes her a great deal. Claudia and Louis’ relationship allows them to sleep with other people, but Louis is uncomfortable with her sleeping around, even if it ends up allowing them to move into a bigger apartment.
Autobiography is central to Garrel’s work. He met former Velvet Underground singer Nico in 1969 and immediately began featuring her in his films. Although their relationship lasted less than a decade, he’s acknowledged her as the love of his life. Some of his ‘80s films allude to their love, and he finally made a fairly explicit depiction of it in “J’Entends plus la guitare.” Unfortunately, Nico and Garrel became junkies together, which may account for the frequency of references to heroin in his work.
He’s also drawn on the life of his father, actor Maurice Garrel. His 1983 film “Liberte, La Nuit” dramatized Maurice’s actions working for the pro-Algerian resistance in the early ‘60s. “Jealousy” is based on an affair Maurice had at age 30. Louis Garrel is playing his own grandfather, essentially, and the director gender-swapped himself into a little girl, turning his own boyhood memories into the basis for Charlotte’s character.
On the surface, “Jealousy” is much more realistic than Michel Gondry’s phantasmagoria. Beneath it, it’s just as stylized — and stylish. Willy Kurant’s cinematography evokes the French New Wave. It’s full of blown-out white tones and inky black shades. Louis Garrel’s brooding performance also brings back memories of Francois Truffaut’s alter ego, Jean-Pierre Léaud. The way Garrel films his characters strolling Paris streets is sure to bring out the francophilia lying dormant in many American cinephiles. But there’s a big difference between Louis and many French New Wave heroes and heroines: he has a daughter, so his erotic adventures have much greater consequences.
There are no drugs in “Jealousy,” although references to suicide do pop up. Garrel’s oeuvre gives the impression that he thinks love is a matter of life and death — one could even say there are no light moments between lovers in his films. The treatment of adultery in “Jealousy” might seem stereotypically French, but in the end, its characters get on with their lives instead of killing themselves over a Werther-like devotion to a romantic ideal. In “Jealous,” Garrel finally films young men and women in the process of becoming real adults.
JEALOUSY | Directed by Philippe Garrel | In French with English subtitles | Distrib Films | Opens Aug. 15 | Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.com
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