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Three on a Couch: Close-Up on Philippe Garrel’s "Lover for a Day"

Philippe Garrel privileges the female perspective in the final entry in his series of films devoted to love and jealousy.
Philippe Garrel's Lover for a Day (2017) is having its exclusive online premiere on MUBI in the United States. It is showing from March 31 - April 30, 2018.
Roughly half an hour into Philippe Garrel’s Lover for a Day, there is a moment of unexpected hysteria: Ariane (Louise Chevillotte) returns home to find Jeanne (Esther Garrel) perched beside an empty window, threatening to jump. Jeanne is the daughter of Jeanne’s lover Gilles (Éric Caravaca), a philosophy professor several years her senior, and has come to stay with them in their cramped apartment following a messy argument with her boyfriend, Mateo. Jeanne asserts that she needs to kill herself to make Mateo realizes the depth of the pain he’s caused her. After a struggle, Ariane manages to pull her down, and the two make a pact to never tell Gilles what has happened. This moment marks a significant shift in the story—the two characters whose relationship had previously been characterized by competitiveness form a friendship that comes to the foreground of the film and the heterosexual relationships take a backseat. The transition is marked by one of the most curious cuts in the film, an unmotivated insert of the open window.
Since A Burning Hot Summer (2011), Garrel has been dialing his style back to its bare essentials, crafting a series of brisk masterworks characterized by an intense formal precision and clarity of expression. He uses a handful of settings, camera movements are kept to a minimum, and his cinematography sticks mostly to diegetic light sources. The mechanics of plot take a backseat to interstitial moments and periods of silent contemplation; we see reactions rather than actions, with many major plot points being detailed in flat voice-over narration. Running just over an hour, Lover for a Day is a work of radical compression. It’s the kind of film that could easily be written off as a minor work if it wasn’t so clear that this austerity is the product of a seasoned master in total control of his form.
Lover for a Day is the third instalment in what Adrian Martin describes as Philippe Garrel’s ‘trilogy of feminine desire,’ preceded by Jealousy (2013) and In the Shadow of Women (2015). All three share striking thematic preoccupations: the essential unknowability of the desired other, male hypocrisy, the endurance of gender codes in modern society, romantic paranoia. And all three use a small cluster of interpersonal relationships as a foundation upon which to stage an epochal battle of the sexes. The narrative, seemingly slim, is constructed of an elaborate network of deceits, manipulations, facades, power plays and shifting allegiances playing out within cramped apartments, hallways and cafes. Where Lover for a Day most notably deviates from the two previous films is in its privileging of the female perspective. Initially the focal point, Gilles is gradually pushed into the background of the film; he becomes a supporting player in his own story.
“I know you because I love you”
Lover for a Day is built around structuring absences and ellipses: the fight that leads to Jeanne leaving Mateo; Jeanne and Gilles’ eventual off-screen separation; Jeanne’s pining for an absent lover who we only see at the end of the story. A common motif is two characters remembering a shared moment differently. Ariane describes her meeting with Gilles in romantic terms, recalling that as he taught her class he shot her a look that made her fall in love instantly. Gilles reveals that he doesn’t even remember how they met. The argument between Jeanne and Mateo which was to her a life-altering moment of clarity is eventually revealed to only be considered by him to have been a minor tiff. Ariane, at one point, consoles Jeanne by telling her, “You’ll hurt someone one day, without meaning to.” Our perceptions of others are fundamentally subjective, and the distortion of memory can lend a past moment a distinctly different meaning from that held by the other parties involved.
This is a fact that leads many of Garrel’s men to despair, even self-destruction. They are masochistically entranced by the women in their life by their mystery, but this same mystery leads to intense insecurity and paranoia. Their desire to fully posses their lover, to render her fully knowable and, hence, controllable, is doomed to failure, not only because it fails to recognize the agency of the desired other, but also because it fails to recognize that his fetishization is built on her obscurity. Gilles is a character defined by passivity. Ariane explains that she spent an entire semester attempting to court him before he eventually “gave in” to her advances. He sits passively while watching Ariane flirt with a younger man at a dinner party, only to lambast her after the fact. He spends his evenings wandering empty streets which were once the site of his sexual conquests. In an early scene, Jeanne undresses in their shared bedroom while Gilles watches on from the bed.  He is tucked in like a child, positioned so that his body is pushed in the bottom half of the frame, positioned slightly right of center; surrounding him is a large portion of negative space, a blank wall rendered nearly pure black by the chiaroscuro lighting.
Garrel cuts from this image to the sight Gilles is gazing at: a medium-wide of Jeanne undressing from behind—it’s one of the few point-of-view shots in the film. On the most obvious level, the statuesque positioning frames her as an object to be looked at; Gilles’ gaze isn’t quite eroticized, it’s more powered by a sense of muted awe of her presence. The presence of a large landscape painting on the right side of the frame, which balances the composition, emphasis the ornamental value she holds to Gilles. Yet she is looking at her own reflection in a mirror, positioned so that her reflection is blocked from our view, thus adding another dimension to the image. Like a Josef von Sternberg heroine, Ariane is able to realize the power of the masculine gaze and hence manipulate it to serve her own ends. For her, traditional heterosexual couplings are built on and reinforce this gendered power imbalance. She hence looks for alternatives as a way to break away from the dominant patriarchal narrative. As she tells Jeanne, a conventional relationship is “comfortable and, as a result, feels less radical.” Cultural traditions has informed and shaped the current societal climate, which seeps into private life. Ariane is not only fighting against the control of a possessive partner, but also wider gender roles.
“Philosophy is not divorced from life,” is a lesson Gilles teaches to his students, but in practice he is unable to reconcile his theoretical beliefs with his lived experience. He resents the notion of fidelity in theory, believing that it is a social construct that simplifies the nature of human attraction, and hence agrees to share an open relationship with Ariane. Ariane is able to sleep with other men while feeling as though she is remaining fundamentally faithful to Gilles, because she is able to separate the mind from the pleasures of the body. Gilles, though tempted by other women, is unable to act on these desires, and becomes enraged when he sees Ariane embracing another student on campus. For Gilles, polygamy is to be embraced in the abstract, but he is unable to cope when confronted with it as a physical fact. Whereas In the Shadow of Women details a love affair as a power play in which the two partners were constantly in a state of flux in regards to who was on top, here Gilles is always the loser. As much as Gilles may gaze at Ariane, he comes no closer to gaining a full understanding of her as a subject; the act of looking fails as an instrument of understanding, it instead only further obscures the truth.
To compensate for Gilles’ impotence, and the failure of heterosexual relationships in general, is the friendship between Jeanne and Ariane, both attached to absent lovers, both bound to shared secrets, both connected through gendered and generational bonds.  Ariane and Jeanne form two sides of the same coin, with Jeanne reaching self-actualization through extensive introspection and Ariane achieving the same through worldly exploration and bodily sensation. Garrel’s cutting emphasizes the sorority between Ariane and Jeanne while only highlighting the gulf between Gilles and both women. Notably, both of them evolve while Gilles only retreats further into his own narcissistic isolation.

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