Lover for a Day

(L'Amant d'un jour, Philippe Garrel, France, 2017)


Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López


Twenty years ago, it would have seemed vulgar – or simply unlikely – to imagine directors of lofty, artistic intent like Terrence Malick or Philippe Garrel getting “on a roll” and pumping out multiple films in (for them) rapid succession. Yet what Malick has recently achieved in terms of productivity, with the aid of big stars and generous budgets, Garrel has managed to do within a much more constrained production set-up.


Ever mindful of the economy of means, Garrel seized the opportunity enabled by producer Saïd Ben Saïd (Elle, 2016) to make a loose trilogy – comprising Jealousy (2013), In the Shadow of Women (2015) and Lover for a Day – that are all in widescreen black and white, with only a few central actors, and scarcely clock in at over 70 minutes each. Why 70? Because, as he told Cahiers du cinéma (no. 733, May 2017), “no one remembers that Battleship Potemkin was 65 minutes long” and, anyhow, “a quarter hour less is a quarter hour less to produce.”


But there is more to it than simple, low-budget efficiency. This trilogy takes up familiar features of Garrel’s cinema – the melancholic mood, the focus on intimate relationships, signature motifs such as walking, dancing or sleeping – and fiercely compresses them into a storytelling mode that is at both completely cinematic (the fusion of the image-flow – cinematography by Renato Berta and editing by François Gédigier – with snatches of Jean-Louis Aubert’s music score is superb), and highly “novelistic” in form.




Garrel has arrived at a new level of respect for intricately constructed screenplays – this one, a four-hander, was fastidiously rehearsed with the cast over the period of a year (this has become the director’s standard method), and scarcely a word of it was changed on set. It’s so well worked-out that Garrel even allowed himself what he calls a “Hitchcockian” element of ongoing intrigue: a voice-over narration (spoken by Laetitia Spigarelli) that fills in for us, at special moments, what each character knows, doesn’t know, or is not saying. (The flavour of the collaborative scriptwriting process is conveyed beautifully by an anecdote Garrel tells: where Arlette Langmann had noted in her script pages that a character thinks to herself “I’m through with these one-day lovers”, veteran Jean-Claude Carrière immediately interjected, “Well, she should write that on the mirror, not just think it”, and Garrel exclaimed: “And you’ve also just given us a title for the film”!)


What is Lover for a Day about? In Garrel’s films, this common-garden question of interpretation frequently springs a trap for viewers and critics alike. When asked whether Jealousy was really about jealousy, Garrel replied that he was never sure if Godard’s Contempt (1963) was really about contempt. So take care: the real theme may be lurking somewhere in the shadows. Garrel began by pondering the Elektra complex: flipping the traditionally masculine Oedipus tale so that a daughter (Jeanne/Esther Garrel) symbolically kills the mother-figure (Ariane/Lucie Chevillotte) in order to solely possess the father (Gilles/Éric Caravaca). But, judging by the end result, that template really only offered Garrel a pretext, a starting point.


Lover for a Day traces a tight triangle of interrelationships in which virtually every act is ambiguous. What people say is not necessarily what they believe; and what they allow to happen is not necessarily what they intend or consciously desire. Jeanne interrupts her cruel tirade against Ariane (“You’re not so amazing – you’re less beautiful than my mother”) with the apology that she is just talking trash. But is she, in fact, spontaneously exploiting her own lovelorn grief (at the narrative’s beginning, she´s just broken up with her boyfriend, Matéo/Paul Toucang), in this split-second, as an excuse to vent her true feelings? Every bit of behaviour here is symptomatic – but of what, exactly, we cannot always be sure.


In the last third of the film, Jeanne (brilliantly played by Garrel, who is the stand-out in this tight ensemble) introduces Ariane to her friend Stéphane (Félix Kysyl), a casual seducer to whom Jeanne has never succumbed. The plot Jeanne engineers here – if, indeed, she is consciously scheming – is, once again, mysterious: Ariane’s affair with Stéphane is both (as the voice-over narration suggests) a way for Jeanne to enjoy him by proxy, and her means to catalyse Gilles’ ultimate rejection of Ariane. And yet, in one of the film’s best moments, once this house of cards collapses, a tearful Jeanne tries to “plead Ariane’s cause” to her father!


Even more centrally, the couple relationship of Gilles and Ariane rests upon a verbal pact that is meant to ensure peace, but only wreaks havoc. Gilles, shaken by the evidence of Ariane’s impulsive, one-day trysts (“You’re a Don Juan”, he comments), asks her to agree to this condition: they can both have affairs, as long as they don’t declare them to each other. But they very utterance of this plan appears to introduce doubt, distance and eventually disenchantment into the relationship: Ariane goes in a split-second (the space of an edit) from contemplating a lifetime with Gilles to forecasting its end; while he flirts with another young woman but suddenly, as if completely destabilised, withdraws from the seduction game he initiated.


Lover for a Day is, as Garrel has declared, a film of Freudian inspiration, and its chosen terrain is the unconscious. This is, in itself, nothing particularly new in his work: at least since the early 1980s, his characters have seemingly been sleepwalking in and out of their own dreams, and wandering around in fuzzy zones of reality. According to Chevillotte (impressive in her first screen role), this approach informs even his direction of the performers: “Act as if you are in a dream.”


In this dreamlike framework, it is perhaps better to approach the trio of Jeanne, Ariane and Gilles less as realistically discrete, flesh-and-blood characters than as unstable – and frequently interchangeable – packets of emotions, moods and drives. The film traces an arc of reversibility. In the opening scenes, Garrel vividly contrasts the orgasmic jouissance of Ariane with the hysterical, suicidal depression of Jeanne – “two states, two emotions, two ideas” that, according to Stéphane Delorme’s Cahiers review, obey a strictly “abstract logic”, not a narrative one. By the end, the positions of the two women will have swapped almost exactly.


In fact, much of Lover for a Day is built on rhyming schemes that permutate different arrangements of characters into the same type of situation: side-by-side conversations framed in close two-shot, people walking and talking in the street, and even certain sex positions recur. One can detect here the influence of Chantal Akerman, particularly her triangular romance Night and Day (1991), with its serenely serial eternal return of particular spoken phrases and physical gestures. Indeed Garrel recalls the “lesson” imparted to him by his late friend and colleague: “You see, Philippe, everything must be rendered flat – on the same level”. In this spirit, even the dream sequences in Lover for a Day (there are two, according to Garrel) are depicted like any other part of the story.


Gone are the days (particularly of the 1980s) when Garrel made a Godardian show of violent disjuncture between the various parts and levels of his film narratives. Now – and sometimes to the dismay of his former fans from an avant-garde milieu – everything is smoother, more fluid and coherent in terms of traditional movie craft. Yet odd events still intrude into the fabric (such as an amusing moment when Gilles in the street is drenched by somebody watering plants above his head – a practice he decries as “bourgeois”), fumbled actions (like Jeanne trying to delete a compromising photo of Ariane from her phone) are retained in the final cut, and extraneous characters glimpsed only once deliver grave speeches – such as the bar proprietor who declares that, while wholly sympathetic to Algerians during the ‘nameless war’ of 1954-1962, he still loyally fought against them on the French side when conscripted.


Loyalty or fidélité is another recurring and fully ambiguous theme woven into the film. It is discussed as a philosophical issue between father and daughter: “One can be faithful to memories, details”, observes Gilles, but he adds, “I don’t know what I’m faithful to, or who.” A fellow teacher, his head spinning from so many attractive young students, asks Gilles about his marriage: “Fidelity, how did that go?” – to which Gilles blandly replies, “Badly”. Like Godard, Garrel is fascinated by the complicated, sometimes fatal interplay between political loyalties, intellectual ideals and relationship codes.


Issues of gender and representation have rarely been so pointed in the director’s career as in Lover for a Day. More than ever, Garrel insists in interviews on his essentially feminist viewpoint, and on the creative means he employs to ensure gender equality on screen: men write the male parts, women the female parts. In practice, this obliterates neither Garrel’s penchant for gender dualism – the characters endlessly discuss the supposedly universal differences in behaviour and outlook between men and women – nor the evident trace of male fantasy. How could a film in which the director’s own daughter plays the Elektra figure, where both her and the rival are student age in relation to a teacher-father, be anything but suffused with an aura of erotic reverie?


Although this is, for Garrel, a surprisingly graphic and sexual film, Lover for a Day keeps a tight lid on such disquieting insinuations. All the films in his “Freudian trilogy” arrive at an enigmatic but satisfying equilibrium for their faithful viewers – an almost Mozartian sense of optimistic, second chances balancing out the black holes encountered along the path, and the catastrophic mistakes that every character inevitably makes. If Lover for Day, like Contempt, is about the mysterious process by which a relationship unravels, it also shows – to appropriate one of Garrel’s own titles – the rebirth of love.

MORE Garrel: L'Enfant secret, J'entends plus la guitare, Sauvage innocence, The Salt of Tears

© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin December 2017

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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