Patrice Chéreau may be among the working filmmakers the most attuned to the human body, but on the evidence of his recent work, he has to be ranked among the headiest as well. As in his 2005 film Gabrielle, Persecution largely sets aside the intense physicality of Intimacy and Son Frère in favor of an exhaustive rendering of the intricacies of human relationships as they manifest themselves through densely packed dialogues. Excepting a central sex scene that registers among the film’s few joyous moments and a few erotically charged scuffles involving an unwanted admirer, Chéreau’s latest is more concerned with the way its characters interact, and particularly how they inflict psychic damage on each other, via the word rather than the flesh.
“I drive people nuts. I meddle in everything,” declares Daniel (Romain Duris) with a knowing smile, though that’s likely stating the case a little too simply. A building restorer with perpetual stubble and an air of being constantly wronged, the film’s central character provides a fascinating study in the involuntary perversities of human behavior. As Chéreau traces his interactions—generally through a series of one-on-one dialogues—with a depressed friend, a stalker who claims he’s in love with him, the women and men at the nursing home where he volunteers, and his girlfriend of three years, what emerges is a portrait of a man driven by an uncontrollable drive to challenge and antagonize everyone around him while still managing to view himself as the wronged party.
In one early scene representative of his behavior, Daniel disgustedly narrates an intimate detail from a friend’s past to a barroom full of associates. As the listeners, made intensely uncomfortable by the disclosure, get up to leave, Daniel continues with a renewed gusto, driven on by the same perverse urging that fuels most of his interpersonal interactions. Later, when that friend confronts him about the revelation of his secret, Daniel characteristically accuses that man of betraying him.
The chief recipient of Daniel’s antagonism, as well as the one most able to reveal his gaping emotional need, is his girlfriend Sonia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who takes his behavior in surprisingly measured stride. “I’m at loose ends when you’re not around,” Daniel tells her as she phones him from one of her frequent business trips, but when they’re together, he seems unable to enjoy her company. Instead he continually accuses her of keeping him at a distance, even as it’s almost certainly Daniel’s fractious conduct that prevents further intimacy. In a masterful final exchange prompted by Sonia’s unexpected arrival at the job site where Daniel camps out, his self-aware lover parries all his verbal challenges—even providing a convincing rationale for his self-pitying demand, “Why are you with me?”—before admitting that she no longer has the strength to continue with this particularly difficult partner.
As intricately detailed and exactly rendered as these interactions are, Chéreau always retains an air of inscrutability around his protagonist’s behavior. Even a late scene promising revelation, in which the camera slowly tracks in on Daniel as he relates a potentially formative anecdote from his young manhood, proves a false lead, as it ends by explaining exactly nothing. In Persecution, the mysteries of life, exemplified in an extraordinary scene where the victim of a seemingly harmless motorcycle crash suddenly collapses in Daniel’s arms, and the mysteries of human behavior are alike scrupulously maintained, even as Chéreau gets closer to the knotty contradictions and ugly imperatives of the latter than just about any other filmmaker working today. Neither as socially precise as Gabrielle nor as sublimely physical as Son Frère, Persecution arguably digs deeper into the intricacies of verbal interaction than either, an experience that proves both exhilarating and, after 100 minutes spent in the company of Chéreau’s unflaggingly perverse protagonist, more than a little exhausting.
Persecutionwill play on February 26 and 27 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.