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In the Shadow of Women

Review by David Heslin

Philippe Garrel was a bit late to the French New Wave scene of the 1950s. Depending on whom you ask, the movement was almost over when the then-teenager made his first short film in 1964. In many respects, however, the Nouvelle Vague lives on with Garrel’s work – with each new film, the French director writes a new chapter of a movement that was defined by its urgency, its formal radicalism and its attention to the small details of everyday life.

As with most of Garrel’s films, In the Shadow of Women is shot in monochrome, a near-ubiquitous feature of early New Wave cinema – it was a time when colour stock was still prohibitively expensive. Garrel does not face these restrictions now, of course, but his choice is not frivolous. The black-and-white cinematography makes us feel as if we are in the Paris of half a century ago, despite the electronic appliances and modern cars in the frame’s periphery. There is a lyrical quality to the film’s leisurely pacing and its infrequent bursts of music. 

Certainly, the director’s thematic concerns are timeless. Like many of his films about relationships, In the Shadow of Women deals with infidelity. While other filmmakers might focus on temptation and revelation, In the Shadow of Women seems to treat adultery as inevitable. When it happens, it is depicted matter-of-factly, almost as an open secret. In this film, the question is not so much “Will this character cheat?” or “Will the partner find out?” as it is “How will they react to the discovery, and what will this tell us about their character?”

In the case of Garrel’s protagonist, Pierre – a struggling documentarian – the discovery of his partner’s unfaithfulness sends him into a spiral of near-pathological jealousy, possessiveness and emotional cruelty. His reaction is not merely overblown, but breathtakingly hypocritical: he has been casually carrying out an affair of his own. This, again, is a common feature of Garrel’s (often autobiographical) male protagonists – Jealousy (2013) dealt with a similar dynamic. Are Pierre’s double standards and self-justifications really “typically male”, as the voiceover informs us, or is the filmmaker projecting?

As the title suggests, gender issues are at the core of this film. As the couple’s relationship disintegrates, it is Pierre’s partner, Manon, who reveals herself to be by far the more dignified and mature of the two. In Garrel’s world, infidelity is a lesser sin than an inability to forgive.

In the Shadow of Women screens 31 July, 15 August