Jeanne (Esther Garrel) crouches in an alleyway at night, her face a fountain of tears. She’s just been dumped by Matéo (Paul Toucang) and kicked out of their shared Paris apartment. Seeking refuge, she walks to her father Gilles’s (Éric Caravaca) flat, where the man’s been sleeping with his former student, Ariane (Louise Chevillotte), an amiable socialite only a few months older than his daughter. And with these few concise scenes, the terms have been set for Philippe Garrel’s lean and limber Lover for a Day, yet another of the filmmaker’s densely anecdotal studies of romantic fidelity.
Like In the Shadow of Women, Lover for a Day is shot in widescreen black and white by Renato Berta, staged in a prosaic suite of bedrooms, cafés, and side streets, and narrated in a terse short-form prose style. But in contrast to Garrel’s last film, which diligently plucked away at the morose self-importance of its male lead, the wise French dramatist’s latest foregrounds the malleable spirits of its young female characters, leaving Gilles something of an implicit gravitational force rather than a subject of sustained consideration. In doing so, the film adopts an unbiased lucidity. Instead of the wry, pitch-perfect assessments of human behavior contained within In the Shadow of Women, we get a hushed sense of awe and empathy as Garrel ruminates on the burgeoning womanhood of his daughter, here cast for the first time in a lead role under his direction, by way of the character she inhabits.
Like David Lynch, another aging male filmmaker who deals in compassion toward young women in duress, Garrel channels his curiosity in part through images of irrepressible sobbing. After Jeanne’s initial evening cry, there’s a handful of other weeping episodes sprinkled throughout the film following male-influenced emotional trials—all of which feel less like exploitation than cathartic displays of pity chiseled in precise light and shadow, with Garrel’s considerate camera distance and curt editing implying a degree of equivalency to the narrative’s various ordeals.
Life goes on, after all, and Lover for a Day is as occupied by Jeanne’s recuperative trajectory as it is by the manifestations of her sorrow. After Ariane prevents Jeanne from killing herself, the former begins to take on a role at once maternal and sisterly, coaching Jeanne through her breakup blues one minute and taking her out dancing the next. The film is at its most tender in a sequence set at a nightclub resembling an ethereal dream space, with Garrel capturing his lead actresses twirling blissfully with male bar-goers in chiaroscuro light for the full duration of Jean-Louis Aubert’s ballad “Lorsqu’il Faudra,” a mesmerizing transposition of Michel Houellebecq poetry whose final line—translated as “the end of the day is so beautiful”—might as well be describing Garrel and Berta’s fantastically moody nighttime photography.
That Garrel would give such a spotlight to Aubert’s song in the middle of the film, not to mention several of his solo piano compositions throughout, is telling. The director’s current storytelling style is not unlike that of a great pop ballad: lyrical and to the point, without room for digressions, yet still containing a wealth of feeling through the most economic of means. When a single image is enough to convey the purpose of a scene, Garrel eschews dialogue, and instead of fussing over ways to elaborate character psychology, he condenses key plot points and unseen emotional shifts to a few matter-of-fact lines of voiceover (a function handled here by the feather-voiced Laetitia Spigarelli). One gets the impression, in fact, that the endpoint of this new phase in Garrel’s cinema will be an entirely narration-led film, likely under an hour, in which all conflicts are crystallized as pensive quotidian tableaux.
In the meantime, Lover for a Day is still very much in familiar Garrel terrain, sprinkled liberally with scenes depicting infidelity and people discussing the matter, and featuring a bit player whose only role is to bring up the French-Algerian War. Still, the film is distinguished by its immersion into the desires and contemplations of young women; we’re no longer in their shadow, as it were. Ariane’s yearning to be sexually adventurous within a monogamous relationship and Jeanne’s longing for the man who broke up with her are dilemmas that Garrel treats with equal sensitivity and focus, and while each woman winds up on opposite ends of fulfillment, the film skirts any trace of moralism. Desire remains as mysterious and contradictory as ever.