French director Philippe Garrel has always only needed the barest means to make movie magic: a beautiful, tragic face, a sad wall to put behind it, a mournful, pensive walk alone on the street. He is back in Cannes at the Directors’ Fortnight, having first come in 1969 with Le lit de la vierge, and once again proves he is nearly alone in continuing the French New Wave’s revolution of creating celluloid myths from mere bedrooms and cafes. Lover for a Day, his newest, one of his most simple, is a lithe, splendid picture, dazzling in its clarity, direct emotional resonance and condensed storytelling. The set-up, co-written with Garrel’s partner Caroline Deruas-Garrel and his usual writer Arlette Langmann, along with Jean-Claude Carrière, is inspired: A young woman, Jeanne (Garrel’s daughter, Esther) breaks up with her boyfriend and must stay at the flat of his father, Gilles (Éric Caravaca), who, she discovers, is living with a new girlfriend Ariane (Louise Chevillotte), a student of his and nearly his daughter’s age. It is a spare situation and one which the film thoroughly, effortlessly explores with delicate freshness. The pain of Jeanne’s loss—"it's like being flayed alive"—is layered on top of the strange betrayal by her father. Arielle, meanwhile, tries to befriend her lover’s daughter at once as a mother and a peer, while still navigating her own youthful sense of fidelity to her relationship and desires. The older man, sensitively cast, is touchingly rendered but in the background to the fleet pleasures and quiet turmoil of the two conflicted young women and housemates.
This is the first film where Esther fully stars in a movie by her father, and Lover for a Day is in part dedicated to the young woman’s indolent eyes and, with a fittingly perverse twist, her small, calculated and unexpected manipulations. It sees her with the eyes of a father growing awake to the inner contradictions and yearning of his adult daughter. But the movie equally belongs to theater actress Louise Chevillotte, who receives the luminous close-ups of a director who knows better than anyhow to expose the vulnerable inner spirit of his characters. As she lays asleep in Renato Berta’s chiaroscuro, the harmony in which Ariane and Gilles profess to live together is instantly consecrated in black and white—the ideal instantly realized in a mere moment, and a mere images.
Jeanne flirts with the morose, with phantasms (the voiceover states, as she flies out a cafe, "She thought she glimpsed the face of the man she loved"), even, in the film’s most sudden apparition, with death. But Ariane helps: in scene of marvelous simplicity and pleasure the two go out dancing, each looking for a partner other than the one she loves. “What do you talk about with your friends?” asks her father. “The war.” “What war?” “The next one,” she says, and we wonder whether she worries over someone else’s attacks or whether Garrel sees or hopes that his daughter’s generation may pick up the fight lost by students and strikers in May, 1968. First, though, solace, home—love—must be possible. Someone predicts that “soon all you want to do is go home to your man. It keeps you from thinking,” and that may speak towards the fierce pull all three in this triangle feel at various times in the film. But as the ages and wants of Jeanne and Ariane change, and the older man remains the same, the two women both feel, think, and take action—and forge their own paths.