“Sorry my love. I bit you.”
These are the final words in Philippe Garrel’s romantic drama “In the Shadow of Women,” spoken by a filmmaker who cheated on his estranged wife during a sudden emotional hug. He meant them literally—he gave his cheek an accidental bite in the middle of the clutch—but it could also be applied figuratively. And she could have told him instead and it would have been just as fitting, considering the damage husband and wife have done to each other.
There’s nothing so emotionally simple the latest from the veteran French New Wave, though he tells his story succinctly and with striking directness in beautiful high-contrast black and white. Garrel may not say anything new about the fickle desires of the heart, but he does so with purity of narrative and tone, and with very convincing performances from his stars.
When we first meet Pierre ( Stanislas Merhar ) and Manon ( Clotilde Courau ), they seem to have achieved a fulfilling life together that mixes work and love. They live in a rundown apartment in Paris that they can barely afford (the landlord storms over to demand the rent that’s due at the start of the film) but otherwise, they seem genuinely content. Garrel observes their daily rhythm in a true way, jumping from one part of life to the next without fanfare and often without dialogue.
And it seems a bit sudden when Pierre has an affair with the younger Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), an intern at the archives where he does research. There’s nothing special about her—she’s so beautiful—and they don’t have any obvious chemistry. But she didn’t need time to go home with him and climb into his bed. Maybe that’s the point; not that Pierre is looking for someone better (and as Garrell’s son Louis points out in his narrative, romance is only physical to him). Pierre’s wife was beautiful, intelligent, and very elegant, while Elisabeth was just different.
At the same time, Manon begins his own affair with a very insignificant man, Garrell and his co-writers (Jean-Claude Carriere, Caroline Deruas and Arlette Langmann) don’t even give him a name. She didn’t even know that Pierre was being unfaithful to her, to the point that she jokingly remarked: “Flowers say a woman is cheated,” when she came home from a date with a bouquet of flowers.
But in the end, their silliness takes its toll and creates mutual suspicion. Something was wrong in their dynamic—they both sensed it—and Garrell heightened the tension by cornering them in their small apartment and insular neighborhood. While Merhar remains largely evasive and angry when Pierre’s recklessness is exposed, Courau displays a variety of beautiful emotions as their marriage collapses. His ability to move seamlessly from anger to silence to sadness and back to anger again—often in a single shot—is stunning to look at, and it always feels right. Paugam brings her authentic element of anxiety to the equation as an increasingly needy and clingy mistress who stalks Pierre down his path and seeks commitments he would never make.
Garrell judged none of these people for their bad choices, but acknowledged that these things happen all the time. It’s a sentiment as timeless as the display, the flashback shots of the French New Wave on 35mm film that could have happened decades ago or today. C’est la vie .