‘In the Shadow of Women’
Director:
Philippe Garrel
Stars: Clotilde Courau, Stanislas Merhar
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

“In the Shadow of Women” is the first Philippe Garrel film you can describe to your mom. One of France’s most madly ambitious filmmakers, his CV includes movies with (and about) real-life g.f. Nico, one with her riding around the desert on a mule (1974’s “The Inner Scar”). There’s also a starkly poetic, three-hour ode to the student revolution of Paris ’May 68, featuring the Kinks dance-a-long to beat (2005’s “Regular Lovers,” starring his floppy-haired, dreamboat son Louis, of "The Dreamers").

“In the Shadow of Women,” by contrast, is only about people having affairs. A number of Garrel films are, too, but his latest is perhaps his most streamlined and focused effort yet: a cleanly told narrative with none of his signature giant, unexplained jumps in time or long takes of faces in painterly close-up that burn up the running time.

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It’s also, inevitably, easy to write off as minor. “Women” is familiar, and it’s short, just a few hairs over an hour. That means we get almost nothing but pure, simple plot. Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) cheats on his wife, Manon (Clotilde Courau), with the young Elisabeth (Lena Paugam). Manon, as it happens, is also cheating on him, and when Pierre finds out, he isn’t mired in guilt. Instead, he furiously confronts her, blithely ignoring his obvious hypocrisy.

Don’t be quick to judge the characters, or the film’s simplicity. Part of “Women”’s appeal comes from admiring the precision of an old pro making his next pair of shoes. But part of it also comes from playing eagle eyed and catching all the nuances, and even occasional jokes. Some of the touches are obvious: Pierre is an ever-struggling documentarian and Manon has devoted her career to helping him, meaning it’s not just a marriage that’s in jeopardy but a small business. (The film begins with their landlord barging into their apartment to cajole them for missing rent and in general being messy — a conveniently ominous sign of the discord to come.)

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Most of the film’s other touches are precise, even mysterious, as though cribbed from real life, because they probably were. Garrel has often mined his own relationships for his films, which are invariably, and especially in the back half of his career, about men’s inability to understand women and to overcome their own traditional “maleness.” Merhar’s Pierre is humorless and self-pitying, prone to gloomy passive-aggression meant to mask his own shortcomings. He only confesses of his share of the infidelity after extensive prodding. Nor does he seem particularly self-aware. We have to rely on a periodically employed, dryly observant narrator to learn what’s going on in his head, like how he worries about “male equivocation,” even as he thinks nothing of upbraiding his wife for doing what he did to her.

The epic size of Pierre’s self-delusion — and of Manon’s sometimes self-destructive need to feel needed, and of Elisabeth’s obsessive, stalkery nature — make an ostensibly little film seem huge and deep. That it doesn’t end where one expects, and especially not like other Garrels, is a big clue to its gift for surprising viewers. It tricks you into thinking it’s a minor work, not just for Garrel, but for the even more legendary Jean-Claude Carriere (“Belle de Jour,” etc.), one of its four screenwriters. It still is minor, compared to all the two have done in the past. But what seems basic is also painfully and acutely specific and wise — a film by a true master. If it’s a gateway into Garrel’s far more difficult, and often underseen, work, then its contributions to humankind will be no less than major.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge