One bold gesture the new Berlinale team has made at the festival this year is to put Philippe Garrel back in competition. His last two movies, small films with grand sensitivity, have premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, a fitting place for their discretion but not necessarily the director’s stature. His new film, The Salt of Tears, is no different in scale, effectively embracing cinema’s affinity for, in literary terms, short stories rather than novels. Like his last film, Lover for a Day, we find Garrel channeling the energy of young actors cast mostly from the acting classes he teaches to bring a light-footed freshness to his atmosphere and storytelling. And like his two most recent films, it has a swift, sketch-like quality that sometimes works well and sometimes doesn’t with the film’s essentially fable-like, rather than realistic storytelling. This friction between the exactitude required by fables and the director's scrappy filmmaking unfortunately means some lines or even scenes fall flat or feel parochial, but at its best the film proves a concise and emotionally charged tale of a young man’s life of romantic dalliance. The gesture here of putting a small film, and one in the quiet combination of the French New Wave and mythopoetics that is Garrel’s rare idiom, is above all a statement that small, personal, and soulful cinema deserves the biggest possible screen and attention.
The Salt of Tears earns this spotlight; not by being significantly different from recent, modest films from the director—why would a well-viewed audience expect such a thing?—but from doing what it does well, first tenderly, then with just cruelty, ending on one of the great abbreviated denouements in recent memory. It tells of a provincial carpentry student, Luc (Logann Antuofermo), arriving in Paris for an entrance exam for a prestigious school. When asking directions from a beautiful Parisian, Djemila (an effusive and endearing Oulaya Amamra), he seems quietly interested and she steals glances of attraction and desire. After their meeting, as Luc walks down a city street and Renato Berta’s camera follows behind and the black-and-white celluloid frames his bobbing dark head against the blanched white apartments in front of him, it is clear the Garrel is one of a kind: No one could capture pensiveness and possibility in such a passing image.
Luc has a tousle-headed, gentle quality with a hint of woodworking roughness, and Djemila, full eyes and round cheeks, beams flushed with eagerness; after their second meeting, the longing of the two is inescapable, and after Luc’s exam, he embraces her in a lovely, spontaneous gesture, the camera emphatically dollying in. Soon chastely in bed together, she mouths wordlessly that she loves him. But when Luc returns home, he discovers a high school classmate returned to town, Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte, full of poise and spirit, as she was in Lover for a Day), now a beautiful and direct young woman full of desire, and he easily strikes up a relationship with her. Djemila writes to Luc and even travels to meet him, but is scorned (in a marvelous and devastating sequence) in what the film’s periodic voiceover describes as a fit of cowardice. Soon we see not just behavior but a pattern: Once Luc gets into the Paris school, he leaves Geneviève; in the city, he has eyes for a colleague, and the eventually starts seeing a young nurse (Souheila Yacoub). “Luc asked himself if what he had was love,” says the voiceover, as he thoughtlessly follows yet another beautiful woman down the street, and we can confirm this man is truly clueless about others and the emotional wreckage he leaves behind him.
Garrel boldly here plays with story allegiance and empathy: We start this three-part tale charmed by the meeting and passion of Luc and Djemila, only to be stung by his switch of ardor for one for another while at home. The young man’s habit is no longer read as easeful and alluring, but rather fickle and apathetic. We lose faith in him. As he moves from relationship to relationship, all with woman given Garrel’s efficient characterization in terms of presence, soul, and beauty—perhaps to too far a degree, with some over-explicit and unnecessary nudity—Luc becomes more obvious a cad and an asshole, someone of momentary charm but little regard for the feelings of others. (This youth could grow up to be Stanislas Merhar's older prick Pierre, in Garrel's In the Shadow of Women.) The Salt of Tears, like later works of Hitchcock, tests the audience’s identification with and sympathy for its protagonist as he segues from presumed hero to known scoundrel. The last section of the film feels drained of the magic of earlier parts, as if in candid realization of the man it’s following. Even a dance sequence, a beloved motif of this director and his fans as it is of Claire Denis and hers, feels hollow in this context.
Throughout the film we also get a moving portrait of Luc’s elderly father (André Wilms), trembling and tender. His son continues on in his trade, but elevating the method through learning: when he hears that his son got accepted into the famed Paris school, the father weeps with happiness. He is the only elder in the film, a loving portrait of a dwindling generation, possibly an homage to Philippe's father, Maurice; this old man is also the most centered human in the film, a guide in a story that could be considered a variation on Eric Rohmer’s type of moral tales. By the time we see Luc denying even his father for a woman, we know this young man has truly crossed a line. Only the destitution of true loneliness could touch him, and Garrel sharply ends the film on such a suggestion.