One of the first things you hear in the sweetly melancholy new French film “Lover for a Day” is the sound of a young woman in the throes of sexual ecstasy. From her breathlessly enthusiastic shrieks, you wouldn’t necessarily guess that she and her partner were making love in a university restroom. The next sound you hear is of a different young woman weeping loudly in the street, with no one and nothing but a packed suitcase to keep her company.
There will be more lovemaking and more weeping to come in this latest picture directed by the veteran Philippe Garrel, one of France’s most celebrated post-New Wave filmmakers and a prolific, devoted observer of heterosexual relationships in all their foibles and frustrations. In recent years he has been accused of making the same movie again and again, a charge that misses the endless variations he can find even in a familiar narrative pattern.
In these moody, wispy romantic fables, set in a contemporary Paris shot in radiant black-and-white, beautiful young people fall in love, fall out of love and agonize over issues of sex, monogamy and fidelity. The talk is both earnest and sophisticated, the gender politics sometimes endearingly quaint. To the uninitiated these films might seem so thoroughly, unrepentantly French as to verge on self-parody, but Garrel is nothing if not sincere. His work has a kind of willful naivete, an innocence that can prove enchanting and exasperating in equal measure.
“Lover for a Day,” which completes a thematic trilogy of sorts with Garrel’s “Jealousy” (2014) and “In the Shadow of Women” (2016), is one of his more enchanting specimens. The couple we meet in the first scene are a philosophy professor in his 50s named Gilles (Éric Caravaca) and his 23-year-old student, Ariane (Louise Chevillotte). Despite the judgment their relationship might attract from their peers, or from the more easily scandalized members of the audience, Garrel presents it without scorn or sordidness. He takes these lovers as seriously as they take each other.
Which is not to suggest that he in any way spares their feelings. The weeping woman turns out to be Gilles’ daughter, Jeanne (Esther Garrel, the director’s daughter), who has just had a bad breakup with her live-in boyfriend. Arriving on her father’s doorstep, she moves in and soon finds herself in cramped quarters with him and Ariane. The situation would be awkward even if the two girls were not the same age: Ariane gets upset when Gilles returns home one evening and bestows the first kiss on Jeanne. The lovers’ sex life cools too, when Gilles realizes Jeanne can probably hear them from the next room.
You can imagine a more raucous American version of this movie, which might have cast Jeanne and Ariane as instant enemies in a comedy of mutual sabotage. But “Lover for a Day,” which Garrel wrote with Jean-Claude Carrière, Caroline Deruas and Arlette Langmann, is a wiser, more empathetic movie than that. Gilles, ostensibly the fulcrum in this scenario, recedes into the background while the two young women take center stage, forging a real friendship in the process.
Jeanne, tempestuous and naive, is still heartbroken over the loss of her first love and contemplates suicide. Ariane stops her just in time. “You’ll get over it,” she says. “We always do.” But Ariane’s relative worldliness turns out to have its pitfalls too. She and Gilles have a more-or-less open relationship, allowing her to pursue the younger men she invariably meets around town. Gilles prides himself on being secure enough to abide this arrangement, so long as he’s left unaware of the details, but like Jeanne and Ariane, he will eventually be confronted with the inadequacies of his plan, his worldview and his self-image.
All this unfolds with deceptive lightness and calm over the course of a fleet 76 minutes, each new development briefly addressed by an off-screen male narrator and framed by a gentle rush of piano music. You could read a measure of mocking, ironic detachment into these devices, but Garrel has a curious ability to hold his characters up for our inspection without distancing himself. The subtly luminous black-and-white cinematography (the work of Renato Berta, shooting on 35-millimeter film) gives this Parisian story a timelessly romantic quality, but it also enables the kind of low-key, unvarnished realism that has become Philippe Garrel’s aesthetic signature.
That realism keeps this story grounded, even when its characters give soaring voice to their deepest hopes and frustrations. Having established an emotional triangle that would seem to lend itself to all manner of angsty contrivance, “Lover for a Day” seems content simply to follow its characters as they navigate their own personal confusion. No one is studied more intently here than the captivating Chevillotte, whose lightly freckled face receives the brunt of the camera’s admiration; she gives Ariane a vivid emotional range — kind and nurturing one minute, envious and impulsive the next.
As for Esther Garrel, who played Timothée Chalamet’s on-and-off girlfriend in “Call Me by Your Name,” she’s appreciably spiky and spirited here by comparison. Those familiar with the work of her celebrity brother Louis (a fixture of their father’s films, including “Regular Lovers” and “Frontier of Dawn”) will note the touching physical resemblance, but also the ease with which she turns Jeanne into a living, aching human being.
‘Lover for a Day’
(In French with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills