Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women doesn’t stray far from the director’s usual formula. Like most of his films, it’s a throwback to the nouvelle vague, using that movement’s stripped-down experimentation to depict a tumultuous relationship. Yet Garrel diverges from his usual early-Godardian prism of wounded (but also analyzed and critiqued) male insecurity and tracks closer to Eric Rohmer’s milder politics and aesthetics. As such, Garrel shifts the film’s bedrock away from the post-May ’68 context that dominates his filmography toward a comedy of manners that pokes fun at the hypocrisies and self-denial that dominates each point of its love triangle.
As in Rohmer’s work, Garrel’s film uses its characters’ stodgy, formal language to betray their self-consciousness, so it’s only fitting that two of the three leads are political filmmakers. Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) and Manon (Clotilde Courau) are a married couple who split directing and editing duties, but Straub-Huillet they’re not. From the outset, Garrel portrays their project, a hacky documentary about the French Resistance, as a joke. Pierre, as a filmmaker, specializes in setting up a camera, sitting just behind it, and asking questions, but Manon idealizes her husband as a probing cine-journalist. She brags to her mother (Antoinette Moya, hilarious in her tacit scoffs) that Pierre isn’t like other interviewers in that he often stays silent after a subject finishes speaking to prompt them to fill the uncomfortable void, ignoring that literally every journalist who has ever lived has used this technique.
Pierre should get down on his knees and thank his stars that anyone would tolerate, much less revere, his mediocrity. Instead, he finds himself bored with Manon’s fawning attention and turns his sights on Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), an American in Paris who delays recognition of the man’s emotional weakness by entering into a purely physical relationship. As obvious in romance as he is in his work, Pierre assuages the onset of guilt by bringing home flowers, a gesture so clichéd that even Manon calls the gift a “cheater’s classic” with a lighthearted tone just ambiguous enough to make her husband nervous.
For the most part, however, the film derives much of its humor not from the efforts of the couple to keep their affairs hidden, but in the warped jealousies that arise between the characters. When Elisabeth spots Manon out with her own lover, she feels a bizarre pang of jealousy, as if it reflects poorly on her to cheat with a man whose wife would cheat on him. But her reaction pales in comparison to that of Pierre, who fearlessly charges past self-awareness to rail against his wife for failing to live completely up to her role as his totally devoted servant. “I thought you were different,” he says childishly, using his own moral failure to throw his idealistic image of her into sharper relief.
Pierre’s petulant hypocrisy provides the film’s second half with a jittery energy that contrasts Garrel’s sedate direction. True to form, the director favors minimal blocking and handheld, verité documentation, and he uses sets that divorce the film from a clear time period. Pierre and Manon’s filthy loft looks like it still bears the scars of WWII, with streaks of sooty black etched into cracked concrete, while Garrel shoots walking conversations on city streets the way Godard filmed his own in Breathless. (Only when Elisabeth pulls out a cellphone does it become clear that this film is set in the present.) Garrel’s lack of adornment occasional fuels the antic relationship comedy, as in a shot of Manon and her mother next sitting by the window a café as Pierre hovers across the street, monitoring his wife. Manon’s mother looks up and asks, “Isn’t that Pierre?”—at which point the focus pulls to sharpen his features as the man, attempting to look casual, kicks out a foot and begins to walk as quickly as possible out of frame.
The film’s sense of humor is so dry that it belatedly reveals the setup for a few jokes only when the punchlines are delivered at the end. Pierre’s early interviews with an old resistance fighter establish an unflattering comparison point for the documentarian, that of talk versus action, but a late revelation about the old man completely changes how one views him, and it aligns him with the film’s generally wry, mocking view of how men present themselves and provide blustering covers for their true selves.
In the Shadow of Women also makes a surprise of its own intentions in the last few minutes by becoming a comedy of remarriage that reorients the preceding 70 minutes as a muted screwball. Through it all, the women never get too tripped up by the narcissistic cowardice of their men. The title may suggest the self-pity of men like Pierre who feel themselves inadequate, but in the end, the film puts forward that people like Pierre should feel lucky to even be allowed to stand in that shadow at all.