In the Shadow of Women: Collective Desire, by Scott Nye
Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women seems on its surface a familiar (and familiarly French) story of a man torn between two women even as he’s enjoying all the pleasure of having both. Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) fits into much the same mold as the protagonists of The Mother and the Whore, Masculin Feminin, The Soft Skin, Every Man for Himself, or a good chunk of Rohmer’s filmography – he’s a bit passive, just charming enough, played in a purposefully dry mode, and has somehow lucked into having two gorgeous women fall for him. One, Manon (Clotilde Courau), he lives and works with. The other, Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), is a bit younger, and willing to play the part of the mistress. Pierre would like to keep both women (ah, to dream), until he finds out that Manon, too, has a lover on the side.
Of course, what a man can rationalize for himself often seems completely distasteful for a woman, but what separates the ensuing conflict from the usual pack of “Men Are From Fuck, Women Are From Love” tales is not only the scrutiny Garrel (along with co-screenwriters Jean-Claude Carrière, Caroline Deruas-Garrel, and Arlette Langmann) brings to Pierre, but the maturity with which they approach he and Manon’s relationship. Neither are especially young; the actors are in their mid-forties, and the film offers nothing to contradict that. They’re both still finding their way in their career – Pierre’s documentaries have yet to really catch on with the public, and Manon has put her more-lucrative potential as a translator on hold to help him make his films. They’re at a point in life at which opportunities are dwindling. This is not to say their relationship is purely “love the one you’re with,” but there’s a way Merhar and Courau play their characters that suggests their affairs are sort of a last grasp at youth, and that they’re tired of running. Their relationship with each other means more than they realize; when they finally have their big fight, it leaves both of them physically shaking with the terror that sets in. This would be jarring in any context, but it really brings to bear the wisdom of Merhar slightly underplaying Pierre in the rest of the film.
Photographed by Renato Berta (who’s worked with Godard, Resnais, Oliveira, Rohmer, and other mid-century luminaries) in gorgeous black-and-white, the film has a certain visual robustness that many modern relationship dramas more or less toss off. The widescreen frame magnifies the scope of the characters’ feelings, shows the distance between them, and makes space for important details in the background (Pierre spying on Manon catches our eye a split-second before it does hers). Garrel is generally content to let scenes play out in one or two set-ups, but really, that’s all you need. The limitations of his aesthetics heighten the emotional charge of each scene, knowing each pause and glance will be accounted for, much as it is in a relationship on the rocks – often, you’re just looking for an excuse to start something, or the slightest glimpse of a safe haven.