Louis Garrel has a perfect face for love triangles: He’s handsome, sexy in a casually scruffy fashion, but his most convincing charm is his habitual perplexion. Garrel wears confusion well when caught between two paramours, as if delighted by and suspicious of his good fortune all at once. When that fortune comes with baggage, with expiration dates, with rules, maybe even with the threat of mortal peril? No amount of bragging rights is worth literally, actually dying for. Maybe.
In A Faithful Man, Garrel (who directed and co-wrote the film with Jean-Claude Carrière) plays Abel, a journalist happily coupled with Marianne (Laetitia Casta, Garrel’s spouse), until one day she unceremoniously informs him that she’s pregnant; that the baby isn’t his; that the father is his best friend Paul’s; and that she and Paul kinda need him to pack up his belongings and move out of the apartment she and Abel share together in the next ten days, if he’d be so kind. Here’s Garrel’s mug, stunned into deference, so bewildered that he complies if not happily, then at least without making a scene. The film cuts to years later. Abel has gotten over his heartbreak. Then Marianne drops another bombshell on him: Paul is dead.
Garrel navigates tragedy, farce and low-key mystery within A Faithful Man’s first ten or so minutes, all without causing viewer whiplash. He deftly pivots from one mode to the next, even though at times figuring out whether to laugh or suck in a quick breath is a puzzle. This, perhaps, will pose no such challenge to French-speaking audiences, who may pick up on subtleties in Garrel’s and Carrière’s language that will otherwise sail over the heads of poor saps forced to make do with subtitles. Still, most of the humor derives from Garrel’s wide-eyed, unkempt gaze, and eventually from Lily-Rose Depp, playing Paul’s sister, Ève, who has carried a blazing torch for Abel since her childhood. Paul’s death means Abel walks blithely back into her life, which means her crush is renewed like dying charcoal doused with kerosene.
The film asks its audience to laugh mostly to keep from biting their nails. Aesthetically, Garrel’s work, captured by cinematographer Irina Lubtchansky, is gloomy verging on monochrome. There’s no joy in his visuals, no color, only a wintery monotony. The trees are bereft of leaves, the sky stubbornly stale grey, and there’s a chill in the air so palpable that those watching the film will feel a draft. For a story about a hapless schmuck weighing the pros and cons of his two lovers, A Faithful Man is surprisingly restrained. Take, for instance, Joseph (Joseph Engel), the son Marianne bore Paul, now an orphan with a faculty for creepiness. As soon as he and Abel meet, he’s telling Abel his theories about the nature of Paul’s death. He believes, based on absolutely nothing tangible, that Marianne poisoned Paul. Outlandish as the theory sounds, Joseph presents it to Abel with such a spontaneous conviction that it’s hard not to take him seriously.
Grant that the kid does, at least, have an abiding love for police procedurals. He has an active imagination, but he isn’t spinning hypotheses about murder most foul from whole cloth. More of a concern in this deadpanned, somber world is Ève, a provably unreliable narrator of her own memories, and of course Marianne, who, black widow or not, holds Abel’s heart in her hands; what she intends to do with it is unclear until the movie’s final shot. All the while Garrel stays befuddled, which, per his Parisian roots, reads more as subdued than wild-eyed. He leaves guilelessness to Depp, whose stare verges on alien, and sophistication to Casta, though this description perhaps belies the natural affections she clearly has for Garrel.
Clocking in at 75 minutes, A Faithful Man nips along, efficiently assigning comic duties to Depp and Engel and dramatic responsibility to Garrel and Casta. Having given himself only so much time to operate, Garrel makes the most of each second. Dour as Paris appears through Lubtchansky’s lens, Garrel’s filmmaking is dexterous enough that A Faithful Man feels merry all the same.
Director: Louis Garrel
Writers: Jean-Claude Carrière, Louis Garrel
Starring: Louis Garrel, Laetitia Casta, Lily-Rose Depp, Joseph Engel
Release Date: September 13, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.