As a keen student of French cinema, I have often bemoaned the fact that in this country we rarely see anything of contemporary French cinema other than the slick blockbusters – the historical epics and so forth. But there is another, more interesting realm of lower-budget French films that are more intimate and lyrical. In Australia we mainly know this cinema through the films of Éric Rohmer, in his "Moral Tales" and "Comedies and Proverbs" series – but we haven't even been getting Rohmer films locally since his 1989 Tale of Springtime.
Christian Vincent's first film La Discrète (1990), which did get a release in this country, was somewhat in the Eric Rohmer vein – talkative, sunny, playful, sophisticated, edged with just a little bit of doubt, angst and human awfulness. The Separation is closer to the darker, more malaise-ridden side of Rohmer's work – Full Moon in Paris (1984) or The Green Ray (1986). It's even closer to the work of Philippe Garrel, another French filmmaker who is, sadly, virtually unknown and unscreened in Australia.
All of Garrel's semi-autobiographical films are about the tiny cracks that enter relationships between men and women, and the almost incomprehensible malaise that grows and creates rifts within a marriage and a family. Garrel's camera acts like a microscope, gazing, exploring, brushing past the various signs and glimpses of a disintegrating union. His melancholic characters tend to remain as mysterious to us as they do to each other.
In the span of contemporary French cinema, The Separation stands somewhere between the costume blockbusters and the quasi-experimental features of Garrel. In fact, it resembles a cleaned-up, ironed out version of a Garrel film, which is both a good and bad thing. Vincent, as a director, is a classicist: not for him the passing technical imperfections, the raw sound, the slightly out-of-focus shots, the over– and underexposures that give Garrel's films their unique poetic power. The Separation is clear, controlled and lucid, but it shares with Garrel's cinema a taste for ellipsis, for the fragment, for having much of the narrative action and narrative chronology happen off-screen, in between the precious, fleeting glimpses we are offered.
The Separation has a small, intimate subject: the rift that opens up, suddenly one night, between Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and her husband Pierre (Daniel Auteuil). Contradictory emotional signals start to come from Anne. She brusquely, casually rejects the slightly anxious emotional advances of Pierre, who wants to hold her hand while they're watching a rather depressing Rossellini film called Europa 51 (1952). But she is also strangely happy and at ease, and she has suddenly dispensed with the little rituals of nagging and arguing that seem to have comprised much of the daily life of this couple.
Anne finally confesses: she has fallen in love with someone else. When Pierre hears this, he falls to pieces. The welcome novelty of this film is that it is not about the eternal triangle – we never see, or learn anything about this other man, and Anne's relationship with him seems to end at some point off-screen. The film is about what the title says it's about – the movement, the act, the process of separation between two people who once loved each other; not a definitive moment of separation but a slow growing apart.
There are only occasional, tiny moments of violence, shouting or anger in this story. Principally, it is a film of dialogue. Anyone who has ever seen a Rohmer film has some idea of what the typical talky French movie is like – characters over dinner or in the kitchen, by a lake or strolling to work, talking about all kinds of witty, colourful and sophisticated things. But the model of screen talk which The Separation draws on, the Philippe Garrel model, is a little less sparkling in its complexion. It's crisis talk. Anne announces to Pierre during one of their tortured sessions, "You never paid attention to me", and immediately we cut to Pierre in a cafe or restaurant, or standing on top of the Pompidou Centre, waiting for one of his confidants to arrive. Immediately they plunge into a painful, agonised post mortem on his feelings, her feelings, on the nature of love and crisis, marriage and family.
Vincent directs these conversational scenes with great finesse. They are simple shot-reverse-shot scenes, passing from a mid-shot of one person to a mid-shot of the other, but they are cut to the bone, with great attention to the telling flicker of the muscles on a face, or the split-second gesture of a hand drawn through hair. (In fact, you don't have to have seen a Garrel film to be familiar with this mode of crisis narrative and crisis talk – they did it for years on the television show thirtysomething).
Like Garrel's films (and thirtysomething), The Separation has a hushed, sombre quality. There are not too many laughs here, the sort of laughs you'd probably get in even the most pained of American screen love stories. Vincent refuses the opportunity of using music for easy emotional manipulation or underlining, and only gives us a snippet of Glenn Gould playing one of Bach's Goldberg Variations at the very start and end of the film.
It's a film you will value or not, depending on how truthful and resonant you find its details, and in this regard I had mixed feelings. On the plus side, it captures well the massive disturbance that a separation causes in the routines of everyday life. As Pierre eloquently testifies, he can no longer say to Anne even "See you tonight" or "How was your day?" because the answers to these questions can no longer be taken for granted, and truthful answers could well hurt or haunt him. The film also gives us a darkly poetic sense of the domestic space of this couple, suddenly evacuated of all warmth and comfort. As Anna Dzenis asks in her excellent review in Cinema Papers, "who should remain in this house, this house of shadows?" That turn of phrase made me think of the Leonard Cohen song which likewise asks, "is this what you wanted, to live in a house that is haunted by the ghosts of you and me?" The Separation is a film full of shadows, and ghosts.
But not every nuance was as well captured as these. It was Philippe Garrel himself who once remarked that depicting children is often a problem for French filmmakers; the films of the New Wave, he said, were good because they were about love, not about marriage or family. The children in Garrel's own films, whether newborn babies or sullen teenagers, are remarkable presences who cannot be ignored by either the adult characters in turmoil or by us, the viewers. The Separation tries hard to be a film about the intimate, difficult triangle between man, woman and child. But it's the child who tends to disappear here, reduced to a cipher on the home-videos that Pierre so obsessively records. Anne's deep emotional tie to this child is particularly weakly conveyed.
Some will say that this particular weakness or lack happens because it's a man's film, a male weepie, which excludes almost entirely the woman's private life and her point of view. However, the film pretends to be nothing other than what it is, a story constructed upon what the man in this story sees, hears and knows. Even given that premise, or that bias if you like, it's an achievement of the film that it does give us a fleeting but very powerful sense of Anne's inner emotional life. Much of this is due to the wonderfully fine and delicate performance of Isabelle Huppert.
Much of the weight and texture of The Separation depend on the principal performances, and these remind me of yet another of Philippe Garrel's maxims: that every film should serve as a kind of documentary on its actors, a patient attempt to record, capture and appreciate their souls in motion. What a delight it is, no matter how sombre the mood of this film, to observe these two great actors next to each other: Auteuil, sad, perplexed, unshaven, roaming like a caged creature, literally lost in the final moments of the film, grazed and wounded by all the missiles of the daily, physical world. Huppert, more withdrawn, calmer, placing a tender hand on her husband's slumped back, yet also quietly, almost imperceptibly besieged by troubling doubts and desires. There's an old Bing Crosby song in which Bing implores the love of his life to set him free – "free from doubt and free from longing". Anne and Pierre, like the rest of us, will never be free from doubt or longing.
© Adrian Martin September 1995