Philippe Garrel’s latest film is a set-piece about fidelity and sexual conquest. Lover for a Day is the portrait of a relationship in Paris, apparently set in the modern-day, but dripping with the essence of the 1960s. Even the events the characters’ reference are from a time before most of the audience sat in the Exeter Phoenix were born. This is perhaps not surprising, given that the director made his first film at the age of sixteen in the midst of the New Wave, and has consistently retained the same approach and style since then. Lover for a Day fits neatly into a familiar mould of cinema, specifically French cinema, but where subversion might be expected the audience is offered none. Ariane (Louise Chevillotte) is in a May-December relationship with Gilles (Éric Caravaca) (a philosophy professor, just to add to the cliché), when suddenly Gilles’ daughter Jeanne (Esther Garrel) (yes, that’s the director’s daughter…) moves in with them. Despite the well-worn stereotype, the film does offer an impressively-told version of the narrative.
It is an extremely beautifully shot film, with Renato Berta’s cinematography providing an elegant fluidity. Equally, it is well acted, especially by the leading female actors, whose characters are given a gratifying complexity from the start. Jeanne and Ariane become friends much sooner than expected, considering the situation they have been placed in. Their development is central to the film, and as such they are given the bulk of the dialogue and camera-attention. There arises, however, the hint of the male gaze when it comes to the nudes scenes, which perhaps should not merely be disregarded as ‘continental’. Out-of-time hints at the out-of-touch. Yet the extent to which the filmmaker has remained stolidly in the past almost convinces the viewer to admit a level of socio-political relativity which they would not grant any work of a more contemporary style.
All of us (that is to say, some of us) have been through a French New Wave phase. Mine started early, with a penchant for Eric Rohmer at the age of twelve. Jean-Luc Godard came next following a BFI retrospective (£3 tickets for under 25s is too good an opportunity to pass on). Writer Geoff Dyer once claimed that Godard was the filmmaker for a generation, but that his vision had passed. I have not found this to be the case. There has recently been a reclamation, and to some extent a reappropriation, of Godard’s early films, which appeal to a young and overstimulated audience seeking some form of intellectual profundity. Anti-continuity editing, obsessive colour-coordination, the dusky gaze of Ana Karina – there is a pseudo-subculture that reveres these 60’s mannerisms. But even Godard came out of his Godard phase. It appears, however, that Garrel’s heels are far too firmly dug in to consider changing direction. Not that it isn’t an achievement nowadays to have an auteuristic vision financed and produced, let alone shown abroad – I’ll take any French black and white film showing at the Exeter Phoenix I can get. But the styles and attitudes of the French New Wave nowadays lend themselves so easily to satirisation, that any stringently loyal pastiche likely becomes, almost by nature, self-parodic.
When watching a discussion of romantic fidelity unfold, with extended gazing out of the windows and name-dropping Voltaire at any vaguely relevant drop of a hat, I half expected someone to walk in and ask “Anyone fancy a pint?” à la The Fast Show. It is this lack of irony that jolts the pace of the film by creating moments that are hard to swallow. At one point Ariane, in a fit of post-coital ennui, writes ‘plus jamais’ in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. Perhaps I am wrong to think that it should all be played for laughs. Perhaps it is incredibly naïve and futuristic of me to deny the audacity of upholding the filmmaking of the past. There is something admirable, it must be admitted, of maintaining a consistent set of artistic principles throughout a lifetime: to ignore half a century’s worth of cinema and stick to out-of-fashion guns. Cinematic New Waves have come and gone since the French one, they still do, in almost every country in the world. It is enviable, then, that Phillippe Garrel found the source of his artistic vision so early in his lifetime. And more enviable, perhaps, that he has never seen reason to give up on it.
– Ben Britton
Featured image source.