Director Philippe Garrel’s The Virgin’s Bed was in competition at the first Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes film festival in 1969. 47 years, and over twenty films, later and Garrel is back at Cannes and back on familiar territory with L’Ombre des Femmes, an in-depth look at infidelity – its origins, contradictions and consequences. Shot in black and white, the film has a definite whiff of New Wave cinema, perhaps rightly so as 21st century attitudes towards women seem to have completely bypassed Pierre, the male lead played with brooding intensity by Stanislas Merhar. There is no shortage of films which deal with infidelity and relationships and Garrel doesn’t appear to be saying anything new about a theme he has already visited several times throughout his career. Put simply, Pierre is a self-obsessed, misanthrope who treats woman with barely concealed contempt even while professing his undying love, while the women display the lack of self-esteem that sees them trapped into abusive relationships. It all seems dated and pointless. Or worse still, it’s a worrying overview of the sad state of sexual politics in France today.
Pierre is a film maker who is working on a documentary about French resistance fighters during the second World War. His wife Manon (Clothilde Courau) works at his side filming and editing his tapes. By chance, Pierre meets Elizabeth (Lena Paugam) who is working as an intern at the film archives Pierre is using for his documentary. The two begin an affair which Pierre successfully hides from his wife. Elizabeth falls in love with Pierre and decides to tell him she has seen his wife with another man. Pierre confronts Manon about her infidelity while keeping his own a secret. Manon breaks off her relationship with her lover, but Pierre struggles to overcome his jealousy and mistrust of his wife.
Beautifully shot by Renato Berta in a shimmering monochrome which casts a silvery light over external scenes, L’Ombre des Femmes also boasts a voice over by Louis Garrel, the son of the director, which provides timely explanations for Pierre’s erratic behaviour. We are told the reason he is shocked by his wife’s infidelity is because he believes ‘only men can be unfaithful’. As for his affair with Elizabeth, he bluntly states ‘don’t blame me for being a man’. It’s hard to believe men like Pierre still exist, but Garrel obviously believes they do.
Both Courau and Paugam bring dignity to the roles of the women who are living in Pierre’s shadow. Courau in particular eloquantly portrays both Manon’s deep affection for her husband and her anguish at the way he callously dismisses her feelings. Garrel avoids neatly tying up loose ends in this love triangle and in the final scenes brings a welcome touch of humour to the story with the audience treated to a rare glimpse of Pierre with a smile on his face.