TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "Lover For A Day," the latest movie from the French filmmaker Philippe Garrel, premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Set in contemporary Paris, it stars the director's daughter, Esther, as one part of a romantic triangle. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The director Philippe Garrel makes moody, romantic fables about beautiful young people falling in love, falling out of love and agonizing over issues of sex, monogamy and fidelity. The talk is both sophisticated and earnest, the gender politics sometimes charmingly quaint. To the uninitiated, these movies might seem so unrepentantly French as to border on self-parody. But Garrel, one of the most noteworthy filmmakers to emerge from France following the new wave of the late '50s and early '60s, is nothing if not sincere. His work has a kind of willful naivete, an innocence that can prove enchanting and exasperating in equal measure. Garrel's latest picture, "Lover For A Day," is one of his more enchanting specimens. It's an elegant, wistful, romantic drama that completes a spiritual trilogy with his previous two films, "Jealousy" and "In The Shadow Of Women."
Like its predecessors, the movie runs a little over 70 minutes and unfolds in the streets and apartments of modern-day Paris, shot in timelessly radiant black and white. The occasional cellphone inside, its gossamer-thin story could easily be set two or three decades earlier. The film begins with a philosophy professor in his early 50s slipping into a public restroom with a 23-year-old, whom we later learn is his student. The professor is Gilles, played by Eric Caravaca. The student is Ariane, played by Louise Chevillotte.
Despite the judgment their romance might invite from their peers or, for that matter, from the audience, there's nothing sordid about the way Garrel presents it. He takes these two lovers and their relationship as seriously as they do. Ariane has moved into Gilles's apartment, which is about to get even more crowded. Gilles's daughter, Jeanne, played by the director's daughter, Esther Garrel, has just had a stormy breakup with her live-in boyfriend. With nowhere else to go, she temporarily moves in with her father and with Ariane. The situation would be awkward even if the two girls weren't the same age. Ariane gets mad when Gilles returns home one evening and bestows the first kiss on his daughter. Gilles and Ariane's sex life cools a bit, too, when they realize Jeanne can probably hear them from the next room.
The raucous American comedy version of this movie might have cast Jeanne and Ariane as instant enemies, but "Lover For A Day" is a subtler, more empathetic movie than that. Gilles, 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, still heartbroken over the loss of her first love, contemplates suicide, but Ariane stops her just in time. You'll get over it, she says, we always do. But Ariane's worldliness has its pitfalls, too. She and Gilles have a more or less open relationship, allowing her to lust after and pursue the younger men she invariably meets around town. Gilles prides himself on being secure enough to abide this arrangement, but like Jeanne and Ariane, he will have to admit he doesn't live up to his own ideal self-image.
A devoted chronicler of heterosexual romance in all its foibles and frustrations, Philippe Garrel has sometimes been accused of making the same movie again and again with only slight variations in story and theme. What distinguishes this one is the cuteness of the performances. You may recall Esther Garrel as the actress who played Timothee Chalamet's on-and-off girlfriend in "Call Me By Your Name," and her work here is marvelously spiky and spirited by comparison. But the most captivating presence is Chevillotte, whose lightly freckled face the camera can't resist holding an extreme closeup. Making her first feature film appearance, the actress gives Ariane a vivid emotional range, kind and nurturing one minute, jealous and impulsive the next. She rivets your attention, and so does the searching and delicate movie.
GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson, whose new film "Phantom Thread" is nominated for six Oscars, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: Our executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.