by Lee Purvey
Back in high school, a friend once described Noah Baumbach’s films to me as (here substituting an adjective for the sake of decency) “[awful] people being [awful] to one another.”
If the latest offering from writer-director Philippe Garrel is any indication, my friend’s terse description might equally apply to the work of the prolific French auteur, as the characters in Jealousy, his quiet 2013 drama, operate by the same fundamental--and fundamentally amoral--assumptions as Baumbach’s privileged Manhattanites.
Director: Philippe Garrel
Producer: Saïd Ben Saïd
Writers: Marc Cholodenko, Caroline Deruas-Garrel, Philippe Garrel, Arlette Langmann
Cinematographer: Willy Kurant
Editor: Yann Dedet
Music: Jean-Louis Aubert
Cast: Louis Garrel, Anna Mouglalis, Rebecca Convenant, Olga Milshtein, Esther Garrel, Arthur Igual
Premiere: September 5, 2013 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 22, 2014
US Distributors: Distrib Films, The Cinema Guild
Our protagonist is named Louis (played by Louis Garrel, the director’s son and frequent star), a stage actor equipped with all the charm and manipulative parasitism of the serious aspiring artist. While he seems to be regularly working throughout the film, his theater career doesn’t provide much financial security to himself, nor his young daughter, Charlotte (Olga Milshtein), and her mother, Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant).
Perhaps disenchanted by Clothilde’s pragmatic decision to get a day job--“You remember not long ago, we were sure we’d live doing what we love?” she asks—the still idealistic Louis is in the process of leaving his partner for another woman named Claudia (Anna Mouglalis) as the film begins. Insecure and emotionally erratic, Claudia is a former actress herself who continues to audition for roles but hasn’t been cast in a play for six years. Considering their shared poverty, Louis and Claudia move into a cramped garret apartment to begin their new life.
Most of the rest of what is a very compact plot--concerns Louis and Claudia’s relationship over what could be weeks, months, or years, as it gradually disintegrates into open infidelity and emotional nihilism.
Jealousy, which Philippe Garrel wrote with his wife Caroline Deruas-Garrel as well as Marc Cholodenko and Arlette Langmann, is the director’s 25th feature, and its stripped down quality makes it feel like a filmmaker’s vision reduced gradually over time to its barest essentials. Garrel’s sense of pacing is of particular note, as he frequently rejects the typical temporal and spatial cues used in many films to connect scenes to one another. Although the story proceeds in what appears to be a conventionally linear fashion, actions and conversations often stand without direct external referent, in either the preceding or succeeding minutes of the film. Yet this fragmentation goes almost unnoticed, as each scene--many consisting of only a single shot--possesses its own natural and effortless rhythm, even as Garrel weaves in the longer threads of the story: the constantly renegotiated relationships between Louis, Claudia, Charlotte, Clothilde, and Louis’ sister Esther, in their several permutations.
Not enough happens on screen to allow for many thespian acrobatics, but each player delivers his or her part adequately, with Convenant and the relative newcomer Milshtein particular standouts. Veteran cinematographer Willy Kurant (Masculin Féminin, Pootie Tang), meanwhile, shoots in beautiful black and white, vivid but never so flashy as to distract from the coherence of his visual universe, so well-suited to the story’s elegant realism.
Indeed, from a formal perspective, Jealousy is an original and effective work. The film’s major problem is thematic.
“We’re here to have as full a life as possible, not to wait. Waiting is death. I want to live to the very end,” Claudia says to Louis in one of several conversations that increasingly indicate—and diminishingly try to justify—her ambivalent waywardness. Of course, in this instance, Louis is the victim of this kind of thinking, but it’s clearly meant to mirror his own decision to abandon Clothilde at the beginning of the film, as well as to foreshadow his final, inexcusably selfish act as the film approaches its ambiguous ending. On the most superficial level, then, one could read the story as a cad’s just comeuppance. But that would assume some sense of catharsis on the part of the audience upon finally witnessing the predictable result of Louis’ ill-fated love, and Jealousy—which stirs up antipathy for its characters with an admirable sense of impartiality—rejects such an obvious moral with a casual shrug.
According to Philippe Garrel, the story was inspired by the real-life actions of his actor father during the director’s own childhood. While he told the New York Times that he “perhaps can now better understand” his father’s actions, having had similar experiences himself, whatever insight he might have gained was apparently spared from the movie. From start to finish, Jealousy is a film in which self-interested impulse is the only true rule of behavior. Besides a few shallow, pseudo-intellectual stabs at rationalization, we rarely get a sense of where these impulses come from or to what broader idea—might I even say "point"?—they should be meaningfully tethered.