Above: Laura Smet (left) and Louis Garrel (right) as the the first pair of lovers in Philippe Garrel's Frontier of Dawn.
Philippe Garrel's cinema—which tends towards the suicidal—questions whether everything in the present can truly mean something in the moment. Time and time again, the highs and lows of the moment calcify in the past and turn into a brooding regret, remorse, and romanticization. Frontier of Dawn, Garrel's smaller love tale following the epic-intimate May '68 opus Regular Lovers, asks the filmmaker's perennial question: how do you reconcile the unchangeable fate of the past with the quotidian sorrows and joy of the present?
The answer is impossible, but the way Frontier of Dawn poses the question is frustrating but utterly effective. The idea is to have two lovers in the film, and Louis Garrel meets Laura Smet first, casting his die in an instant and ensuring that his next love, played by Clémentine Poidatz, will forever fail to live up to what Smet embodies not at the moment of Garrel's love for her, but as an image, a remembrance—a ghost. If Garrel's characters have always been haunted—mostly through analogs to Garrel's experience with Nico and with French revolutionaries in the late 1960s—this is the first film of his I've seen that literally gives up a ghost, one which Louis sees in the darkness of his reflection in the mirror. Whether or not Louis loved Smet as much as he is haunted—and indeed, their rocky history is one of his distance and repulsion from her erratic character—the cataclysm of their relationship, which ends in her death, forever leaves a personal scar on the one who has to live on, a scar that manifests itself by a calling to join his beloved in death.
So the way Frontier of Dawn transposes this longing and loss from the characters to the film itself is by telling the story with a degree of empathetic expressionism. Simply put, Clémentine Poidatz's slight, fragile beauty and engulfed presence cannot measure up to the potential for glory introduced by Laura Smet. This is not an actorly judgment, but rather a filmic one: Garrel, in his luminous close-ups—looking like Hollywood glamor photography of the 1930s—and portraits-in-miniature of small moments in Smet's life, gives the woman, the character, a specialness, a glowing quality that is not attempted with Poidatz. In fact, until the final act of the film, Louis takes much of the backseat in the film, as Frontier of Dawn poses an intoxicating, luminous woman of aggravatingly erratic self-discipline against a tiny star, joyful and loving, but pale and insignificant in comparison.
The comparisons to James Gray's Two Lovers are apt, both films taking with a deathly seriousness the choices one makes in love. Only, where Gray is after the melodrama of emotion, Garrel is after a spiritual reality, and looks for commitment as a kind of faith or belief. Whether the choice of death is the ultimate kind of faith or the weakest of all is not something Frontier of Dawn is powerful enough to answer, but it asks vital, terrifying questions, transposed to a forlorn, gloriously star-crossed romanticism. In the end, all one can do is choose, and be willing to live with that choice forever, whether that path leads up to the scary potential insignificance of a future of life, or the incredible possibility of something total found only in death.