The very least we expect from conventional screen storytellers is that they will entice us into caring about their people. More talented and daring filmmakers, however, take on the challenge of involving us in individuals without asking us to like them, let alone care about them.
France's rigorous Philippe Garrel, in his piercingly beautiful and eloquent "The Birth of Love," goes even further, asking us to pay attention to a couple of guys who have exceedingly little to recommend them to anyone.
Recently spotlighted by the American Cinematheque, Garrel is a little-known but highly esteemed filmmaker who has survived heroin addiction and the loss of a major love, the Velvet Underground's fabled singer Nico. "The Birth of Love" is a homage to the New Wave with its gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by the great Raoul Coutard and its iconic stars, Truffaut alter-ego Jean-Pierre Leaud and Lou Castel, star of Marco Bellochio's early and important "Fists in the Pocket."
Castel, as stage actor Paul, and Leaud, as his old journalist friend Marcus, give us luminous portraits of a pair of onetime radicals now stranded in middle age without a clue about what to do with their lives beyond pursuing the love of women. These guys have so much time on their hands you have to wonder how they're able to eat and pay the rent, although it's pretty clear they're not doing a bang-up job of that. Paul is paunchy, with thinning, straggly hair and a doughy face, and Marcus' boyish looks haven't aged well.
Miraculously, they're still able to attract women, but then it's been said that many French women are trained from childhood by their mothers to be attracted by a man's mind rather than his looks or physique. Yet the great part of "The Birth of Love" has to do with how rottenly they treat women. Paul, the central character, has reached the point where he can't stand to live with his worn-looking wife, Fanchon (Marie-Paule Laval), their adolescent son and new baby--and yet he can't stand to live alone.
Home is an architecturally elegant but starkly drab and under-furnished Paris apartment. Fanchon, who loves Paul deeply, goes on about her family to a husband who regards clearing the table after dinner as "pure torture" and who's forgotten the name of his wife's former lover--even though she has a photo of herself with him on display.
Meanwhile, Paul thinks he may have a new love in a German woman (Johanna Ter Steege) who's recovering from the wearying loss of her alcoholic lover, but she's wary of love--until her sister warns her in a letter that "nothing is worse than solitude." However, her change of heart, with its promise of commitment, sends Paul running like a startled deer, and he winds up in the exquisite if fleeting embrace of a much younger, much cooler woman. As for Marcus, the lovely Helene (Dominique Reymond) ditches him. When he exclaims, "I want to understand my life," she says, "That's it! It's always your life, never our life."
All this sounds pretty glum, and it is, although Garrel occasionally finds some mild comic relief in Marcus' pretentiousness. Still, why bother with these men?
The reasons lie in the way Castel, an actor of extreme sensitivity, is able to convey the inner pain of Paul, the way Leaud is able to express how deeply aware Marcus is that his life has lost all of its meaning and, most of all, the profoundly moving manner in which Garrel, matched with Coutard's marvelous images and camera movement and John Cale's spare, elegiac piano score, expresses so rapturously the utmost compassion and understanding of these two losers. As Jean-Luc Godard said of Garrel, his films "have always seemed to be as close to the idea of natural beauty as teeth are to lips."
* Unrated. Times guidelines: Adult themes involving marital infidelity.
'The Birth of Love'
Lou Castel: Paul
Jean-Pierre Leaud: Marcus
Johanna Ter Steege: Ulrika
Dominique Reymond: Helene
Marie-Paule Laval: Fanchon
A Noon Pictures release of a co-production of Why Not Productions, Vega Films and La Sept Cinema. Director Philippe Garrel. Producers Christian Paumier, Martine Cassinelli, Cyrille Bragnier, Rosella Ragazzi, Pierre-Alain Schatzmann and Claudira Sontheim. Screenplay by Garrel, Marc Cholodenko and Muriel Cerf. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Editors Sophie Coussein, Yann Dedet, Nathalie Hubert and Alexandra Strauss. Music John Cale. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Grande 4-Plex through Thursday, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown Los Angeles, (213) 617-0268.