In the Shadow of Women

Posted by Joel Copling on January 12, 2016

"In the Shadow of Women" boils a tale of infidelity down to the bare essentials, but it's how co-writer/director Philippe Garrel layers the characters with nuance through secrets unspoken and lies told to protect that transforms a fairly simple story into one worthy of the performances that carry it. There is already an air of financial ruin lurking just around the corner for our two protagonists, who are a pair of documentarians scraping by with the help of the occasional odd job. The insertion of infidelity into the mix is, perhaps, inevitable or even predictable, given the tension that mounts between our initially happy couple. Far less predictable is that is not one tale of infidelity but two.

Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) and Manon's (Clotilde Courau) latest subject is Henri (Jean Pommier), the sole and heroic survivor of a terrible attack by Nazis, whose adorable wife (Therese Quentin) makes them cookies for the occasion of interviewing him. Pierre and Manon's home life is rife with the tension of inescapable boredom. He doesn't want to spend time with her because of their work; she wants the occasional break from their work, despite her insistence to friend Lisa (Vimala Pons) that working alongside the man she loves is her dream and, really, should be everyone else's. So, basically, this is like any other marriage entering a period of complacency.

And then Pierre meets Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), a pretty brunette who assists him in gathering film reels one afternoon, and the two enter into an affair rather quickly. He makes it clear to her that he is a married man with plans of his own. This is only a tryst, he says. She insists that there is something more to their burgeoning relationship. He loves Manon in spite of his boredom with her and his cowardly action of cheating on her. The narrator (voice of Louis Garrel, son of the director) enters his head for a few moments and offers a sad, little nugget: "Don't blame me for being a man." Clearly, he isn't the most likable of guys.

Yet Merhar is effective at humanizing Pierre in a pretty compelling fashion (Note, in particular, the way his eyes become glassier as his macho exterior slowly crumbles away, the ghost of some tears forming behind the stare). Paugam also plays Elisabeth as far more complex than she might have been. The woman has her only feelings when it comes to this affair (Their final moment together is particularly wrenching for his bluntness and her disappointment). It also presents a curious twist of the proverbial knife when it is she, not he, who discovers that Manon has picked up a lover (Mounir Margoum) of her own. Courau is quite good at capturing Manon's jealousy, guilt, and sense of karmic justice at duping her husband in answer to his duping her.

Garrel's directorial hand is just light enough that the heavier stuff doesn't hit like a blunt object, and cinematographer Renato Berta shots the action in grainy, lush black-and-white that seems to come straight from the 1960s. The director and his co-screenwriters Jean-Claude Carriere, Caroline Dueras, and Arlette Langmann know never to cheat with this story of three people whose best and worst intentions often blur together. Better yet, the younger Garrel's narration simply acts to fill space when the filmmaker lets his camera sit, and an epilogue set one year later fixes a lot of the problems with that cliche. "In the Shadow of Women" is slim (just more than an hour, minus end credits) and better for it.

Film Information

Stanislas Merhar (Pierre), Clotilde Courau (Manon), Lena Paugam (Elisabeth), Vimala Pons (Lisa), Jean Pommier (Henri), Mounir Margoum (Manon's Lover), Therese Quentin (Henri's Wife), Antoinette Moya (Manon's Mother).

Directed by Philippe Garrel and written by Garrel, Jean-Claude Carriere, Caroline Deruas, and Arlette Langmann.

No MPAA rating.

73 minutes.

Released in select cities on January 15, 2016.