"If ever one of us cheats, do we say so?" Louis (Louis Garrel) asks his lover, Claudia (Anna Mouglalis), at one point in Jealousy. "You're so complicated. I just need you to love me," she replies with a sigh. It's easy to see director Philippe Garrel, with his unassuming and humanistic new film, agreeing with Claudia's seemingly straightforward response. Like an astutely aching ballad, the film—aptly scored with sweet, strumming beats by Jean-Louis Aubert—is pleased to ambiguously infer the interior logic of its irresolute characters without pigeonholing their motivations.
Louis is an infrequently working theater actor shacking up in a tiny top-floor apartment with Claudia, an actress who hasn't had a role in six years. Having recently left his former sweetheart, with whom he shares a wide-eyed eight-year-old daughter, Charlotte (Olga Milshtein), Louis often exhibits a rather insouciant and convivial temperament, yet still abides by a fatherly moral code when dealing with his child (tickle fights, however, are acceptable). Claudia is a bit more erudite and unruly, and yet is also more sensitive and detached—justifying her whims with a knowing stubbornness. There's little narrative here, but Philippe Garrel is primarily interested in minutia, stringing together quotidian vignettes that exude a relaxed lack of scrutiny. We see Louis and Claudia visit a Seneca-quoting professor compatriate of Claudia's, take a stroll in the park with vivacious Charlotte, and nuzzle in their apartment.
Philippe Garrel has explained that Jealousy is a modern representation of Parisian relationships inspired by his own father's early-20th-century love life. Having cast his 30-year-old son, Louis, as a 30-year-old actor named Louis, as well as his daughter, Esther (Esther Garrel), as Louis's sister, it's obvious that Jealousy is a cross-generational family affair, as well as a self-effacing reflection. Due to its rather pure and unburdened perspective of complex relations, it's a plausibly hand-me-down portrait accessed from the point of view of a young child. The gentleness with which Philippe Garrel approaches the titular topic reads a little light at times; occasionally, the consistently breezy tone undermines moments that require the kind of anxious vigor jealousy evokes. There's a genuine warmth—and, at its weakest, a weightlessness—to Jealousy, even in moments of emotional angst or precarious tension.
On a routine visit to see a sage elderly friend, Louis is confronted with an observation: "You understand your characters better than those close to you." This aptitude of understanding life more easily through art than reflecting on one's own existence is a motif that ran through multiple French New Wave films, and Jealousy exudes a similarly bittersweet, slinking spirit previously present in films by François Truffaut and Maurice Pialat. Philippe Garrel is a casual filmmaker, focused on capturing snippets of experience and filtering the reality of French life through art. Shot in crisp black and white by cinematographer Willy Kurant, the film holds a mirror up to its characters without making grandiose overstatements about the refractive consequences of extreme self-consciousness.
In two separate scenes, Louis and Claudia are briefly overcome with sudden paranoia. As Claudia is forced to listen to her friend ramble about a male suitor, she jumps up and abruptly rushes home midway through the meal to see if Louis is there. Late in the film, Louis nods off in his dressing room and a random woman enters the doorway to explain: "I was madly in love with your father. He was crazy about me too. Even now, I love him as much as ever." And with a wispy "goodbye," she exits. Half-stunned and half-confused, Louis stares into the distance, perhaps wondering—along with the audience—if it was a nap-induced fever dream. As the film concludes with only family present (Louis, Charlotte, and Esther breaking into, and munching on, hard-shelled peanuts on a park bench), it becomes clear that Jealousy is as much about the unconditional love in families as it is about the trust-deteriorating actions that mercurially morph relationships. And, like a tough nut, once you break through its slightly impenetrable exterior, it offers tasty little bits to nibble on.