“How does somebody suddenly become so indifferent?” “That’s it, no more relationships if that’s how it ends.” “I was played by love. Not by him.” These are all lines delivered by a tremulous Esther Garrel as distraught Jeanne in Philippe Garrel’s latest movie Lover for a Day (L’amant d’un jour). She has just been kicked out of her boyfriend’s Paris flat and is looking to crash with her father, Gilles (Éric Caravaca). After listening and comforting her, he informs her she will have to take the couch, as his girlfriend has been living with him for the past three months. The girlfriend, Ariane (Louise Chevillotte), happens to be a student of Gilles at the university and the same age as his 23-year-old daughter.
What follows is a compact story that speaks to the competitiveness between the sexes that transcends biological relations. Jeanne trespasses on a seemingly chill but discreet relationship between Gilles and Ariane as a shattered, hyperventilating mess but rises to teach Dad an indirect lesson. Though Ariane first stands in contrast as a calming surrogate mother she’s about to come to a realization about her inevitably doomed relationship with the older Gilles. At one point, possibly struck by the ruin of Jeanne and his own mortality, Gilles tells Ariane that no matter what she does, including infidelity, he would stay with her forever. Though this seems like an assurance it almost immediately strikes Ariane as a threat. This movie is filled with such contrasts that speak to the dynamic of shared feelings that never click neatly into place. There is never anything simple about coming together in a relationship over time, hence the cynical title of a film where individuals claw at hopes of keeping love alive with another, day by day, even though the day may ultimately come when all that investment will sour and end.
Garrel co-wrote the script with regular collaborator Arlette Langmann; his wife, the actress Caroline Deruas-Garrel; and the legendary Jean-Claude Carrière, who co-wrote scripts for The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. This is the same screenwriting team that worked with Garrel on his last film, 2015’s acclaimed In the Shadow of Women (though we didn’t review that film, we reviewed his previous movie, Jealousy). All of this is to say that though the story of Lover for a Day may seem simple, there’s nothing at all simple in how carefully it was written. In the Shadow of Women, after all, presented a takedown of male ego in the shadow of women. Garrel has long relied on women’s voices, particularly women he knows intimately (Esther is his daughter) in order to be genuine to their thoughts and feelings, Langmann being a longtime regular and Deruas-Garrel being a recent, routine collaborator.
Speaking to Les Inrockuptibles in French, Garrel explains, “I often call on a woman to write female characters … Because I am not certain I understand women, that I do not have access to what occurs in their brains, how their libidos function, which is as intense as men’s, but totally unalike” (Shout out to Maxime Larivé for help with the translation). This essential difference between the two sexes is often a source of friction in Garrel’s dramas. It’s ironic that this sort of conscious collaboration between men and women often illuminates the futility of relationships in the movies, which Lover for a Day is all about.
Beyond its observational awareness of the sexes, Lover for a Day looks beautiful. Shooting on his preferred format of anamorphic 35mm black and white film with the legendary Renato Berta on camera, Garrel creates an ethereal work of shadows and light that further illuminate the emotions at the center of the film. The variance in shadowing and shade recalls the dreamy work of the French New Wave directors on the 1950s that came before him. There’s a shot with Ariane looking out from a second story window at the university that looks over a plaza that brings to mind Anna Karina in Alphaville. But nothing in this movie is made for the sake of style over substance. Duplicity is reflected onto the window foreshadowing a disturbing revelation for Gilles.
Beyond the precision of his mise en scène, there’s also the use of an unseen omniscient female narrator (Laetitia Spigarelli) who elucidates certain actions by offering some simple context, also recalling the French New Wave style. Finally of note, Garrel’s choice of soundtrack, a solo piano by Jean-Louis Aubert, is used to highlight scenes that seem to speak to the harmony of the characters after reconciliations. However, there is no denying the fact that the score is a solo instrument that speaks to singularity or aloneness, even as the film ends on a seemingly hopeful note for one of the characters, but by the end of it all, we all know better. Though in a Garrel film cynicism can be beautiful, it’s never without salience.
Lover for a Day runs 76 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated. It opened in our Miami area exclusively at Miami Dade College’s Tower Theater Miami. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. MUBI sent us an online screener for the purpose of this review.