Over five decades French director Philippe Garrel has honed a distinctive approach to filmmaking that might be described as a cross between Romantic poetry and the experimental cinema of Andy Warhol. Garrel shares with Warhol a cool fascination with downtime, faces in close-up, and the physical properties of film. His ties to classic Romanticism can be felt in his obsession with melancholy, natural beauty, love, and loss of love. His career also might be described as a quixotic mission to show the invisible, as many of his films’ titles suggest: The Inner Scar, Les Hautes Solitudes (which translates roughly as “high solitude”), The Birth of Love, Wild Innocence, and now Jealousy.
Actually the title of Garrel’s most recent feature is somewhat misleading, since the film isn’t about jealousy per se. As Garrel explained in a short director’s statement prior to Jealousy‘s premiere at the Venice film festival, “The idea that underpins the film is that my son Louis plays his grandfather at 30—the same age as Louis today—even though it is set in the present. It tells of my father’s love affair with a woman—and by admiring her, I unwittingly made my exemplary mother jealous. And I was a child being raised by my mother (in the film, I am the little girl).” Garrel is less interested in relating the events of his father’s affair than in viewing those events through the lens of his childhood guilt as a means of coming to terms with that feeling.
Garrel routinely presents moments of reflection and withdrawal as major events; likewise, he often elides crucial episodes in his characters’ lives to focus on how the characters internalize them. These methods may sound oblique, yet the results always feel immediate. Garrel offsets his arcane thematic content with meticulous lighting, painterly compositions, idiosyncratic editing patterns, and most importantly, the spontaneity of his performers. Though he prepares each shot in painstaking detail, Garrel claims to film it only once unless a technical error makes it unusable. (It’s no surprise that he’s resisted digital filmmaking, since the fragile tone of his films is tied so closely to the fragile nature of celluloid.) This tension between immaculate visuals and extemporaneous movement has proved to be an inexhaustible source of beauty for Garrel. Even after 50 years, he can still conjure a powerful sense of loneliness, revelation, or erotic anticipation with little more than a face and an empty room.
Jealousy opens with a shot of Chlothilde (Rebecca Convenant) crying silently in the middle of a barren wide-screen frame. The next three shots are just as simple, yet Garrel connects them in an unusual fashion, establishing the film’s snaky narrative logic. He ends the first shot with a fade to black—a technique normally used to signal an extended passage of time—only to fade back in to a shot of Chlothilde’s young daughter, Charlotte (Olga Milshtein), in bed, listening to her mother crying in the next room and then arguing with her father, Louis. After a few moments she gets up and peers at them through the keyhole of her bedroom door, and Garrel adopts her point of view, blacking out the entire shot except for the keyhole. Charlotte returns to bed, and this time Garrel fades to white before presenting the title of the movie’s first half: “I Kept the Angels.”
Garrel doesn’t provide any clue as to what this phrase means, just as he doesn’t explain why he’d link two shots with a fade-out when no time elapses between them. Both decisions reflect a creative agenda so personal that it borders on the impenetrable, yet the dramatic content is seldom mysterious. The opening scene establishes that Louis. a stage actor living hand to mouth, is leaving Chlothilde for another woman; the second scene jumps directly to the stable postmarriage dynamic between mother, father, and daughter, with Louis dropping off Charlotte after an afternoon visitation. From here he meets up with his current lover, Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), an outspoken actress who wants to live life to the fullest. For the next hour or so Garrel charts, with few digressions, the growing intimacy between these two (and between Claudia and little Charlotte), their unsatisfying period of cohabitation, and their eventual falling-out. After Claudia leaves Louis, he attempts suicide; when he recovers, he learns to take solace in his art and the company of his daughter and older sister.
Viewers unsympathetic to Garrel’s painterly aesthetic might find this all ludicrously simple, but the relative lack of narrative development is intentional, because ultimately Jealousy is about the father and the daughter’s emotional stasis. Garrel invites us to note the many similarities between Louis’s wife and his new lover: Chlothilde is a former actress herself who quit the theater to find a stable job and support her family; about a half hour into the film Garrel reveals that Claudia hasn’t gotten a role in six years and is also thinking of quitting acting. Both women are earthy, emotive, and prone to melancholy episodes; both cater to Louis’s inherent aloofness by pushing him away in moments of anger. Louis obviously has a type, yet the movie suggests that he can never be happy in a domestic situation for long because he hasn’t yet gotten over being abandoned by his father. (Garrel himself has been in several long-term relationships, most notably with the pop singer Nico and with actress Brigitte Sy, Louis Garrel’s mother.) On a related note, the movie makes clear why the little girl would bond so quickly with Claudia—the new woman is just like her mother.
Garrel seems unable to forgive himself for what he easily forgives in his alter ego. The tone of Jealousy is rueful; even the poignant scenes of Louis taking Charlotte to the park have a somber undertone. In exterior scenes Garrel often presents his characters in medium-long shots with no other people around, as though transposing the solitude of his indoor scenes onto the world at large. Similarly, though the dissolution of Louis and Claudia’s romance seems to take place over many months, it always seems to be winter, as though the entire world has become an extension of Garrel’s depressive funk.
In certain respects, however, Jealousy is less introspective than many of Garrel’s other films. He shares screenwriting credit with his current wife, Caroline Deruas, and his longtime collaborators Arlette Langmann and Marc Cholodenko, and he has described their work as a collage. “Within the narrative, the fact that we go from a scene written by a man to another written by a woman brings a diversity of feeling, of relationship to the world,” he explains in the film’s press notes. There’s an evenhandedness to the characterizations; no one seems more culpable or more delicate than anyone else. At some point in the slender plot, every character experiences jealousy and also guilt over making another person jealous. Garrel recognizes that anyone may be susceptible to the invisible force that has paralyzed him, and his empathy provides this sad little film with a surprisingly sweet aftertaste.