Object of His Affection
By Demitra Kampakis

NYFF 2018:
A Faithful Man
Dir. Louis Garrel, France, no distributor

A Faithful Man begins with a very unceremonious breakup: after establishing domestic bliss with his gorgeous girlfriend Marianne (Laetitia Casta), Abel (Louis Garrel) is now being told with deadpan indifference that his lover is leaving him for his best friend, Paul. Not only that, she’s having Paul’s baby. You’d think this would warrant some kind of heated exchange, outrage, or at least a vocal inflection on Abel’s end, but the entire interaction unfolds with an amusing farcical blankness from both parties. With no choice but to pack his things and move out, the good-looking, bed-headed bachelor resumes his life and career as a journalist.

That is, until nine years later, when one day out of the blue Abel learns of Paul’s sudden death. (Paul is never seen onscreen.) At the latter’s funeral, he sees his former lover for the first time, and it’s clear Abel is still hung up on Marianne, as he harbors every intention to win her back. At the service, Abel also meets Marianne’s nine-year-old son, Joseph (exceptional straight-faced newcomer Joseph Engelstein), a precocious lad who holds a fascination with the moribund, and a bizarre fixation on his mother’s sex life (he has an inexplicable habit of leaving a tape recorder under his mother’s mattress during her dalliances). Much to the chagrin of Joseph, the two former lovers gradually rekindle what they had, despite the youngster insisting to Abel—with a hilarious poker face—that his mother murdered his father with poison. Could this actually be true? It’s not that Abel doesn’t believe Joseph—in fact, he sets out to investigate for himself. But what’s the harm in continuing to sleep with Marianne while getting to the bottom of it?

Complicating things further is Eve (Lily-Rose Depp), Paul’s younger sister who, since childhood, has harbored intense—nay, obsessive—feelings for Abel, and now that she’s blossomed into a young woman, she sets out to finally claim the handsome object of her desire, and make him at last see her as a sexual being. With the help of Joseph, Eve’s scheming eventually brings her face to face with her competition, and she plainly gives Marianne an ultimatum: dump Abel, or it’s war.

An attractive, airy film about attractive, somewhat airheaded people, A Faithful Man manages to be both a stale and fresh iteration of the rom-com. Rather than rolling up her sleeves and fighting for her man, Marianne insists that Abel move in with Eve for a trial period, so that he can decide for himself if the two have chemistry. Skilled at cloaking her jealousy and insecurity under a beguiling veil of ambivalence, Marianne knows exactly what she’s doing, for she is orchestrating a classic game of reverse psychology. And in doing so, the widowed bombshell demonstrates her understanding of the heart’s fickle nature in wanting what it can’t have. As Abel at one point notes, Marianne’s machinations all but ensure that he won’t be able to get her out of his mind.

Drawing inspiration from Truffaut and Godard’s early work, particularly in its use of sustained close-ups, the film has a French New Wave sensibility that reads as a nostalgic love letter to the romanticized Parisian glamour of yesteryear. Often filmed outdoors in idyllic locations like the Latin Quarter, A Faithful Man shows a faithfulness to its New Wave forebears primarily in its philosophical underpinnings, as well as its disregard for a straightforward romantic narrative that handholds or provides closure while traversing complicated emotional terrain. Instead, Garrel maps out all the nuanced nooks and crannies of this strange romantic set-up, and allows us to glean our own reading of each character’s thoughts and actions. In exploring love, sex, death, and adultery this way, Garrel and legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière’s script adequately probes the meandering contours of relationships and commitment, as well as the elusive nature of monogamy and desire.

While A Faithful Man may not provide direct answers to its queries, the film’s positing of them does invite contemplation. The mind games that permeate the film, and the characters’ zigzagging reversals of lust and longing, serve as a vehicle for interrogating the illusory nature of love and the “what-if” conundrum of matters of the heart. When we’re in love with someone, are we really just in love with our projections of who they are, and what they symbolize? Do we yearn for someone simply because we can’t have them? How can you truly resume a romance with someone knowing you were the second choice? And in such situations, does love allow room for one’s pride, dignity or self-respect?

In many ways, Marianne intuits the answers to these questions, and in allowing Abel to live out what is essentially every straight man’s fantasy, she is banking on the “be careful what you wish for” adage. This is why Marianne is confident enough to risk losing Abel—because she ultimately knows that if she doesn’t let him play out the possibility of being with the young beauty, there will always be a shroud of resentment hanging over their relationship. And once he is given the go-ahead, the ease with which Abel pivots from Marianne to Eve seems to validate the former’s master plan.

Yet it’s clear that in catalyzing these shenanigans, Eve had no idea what a formidable opponent she had in the manipulative Marianne, whose emotional experiences and acumen wildly juxtapose with Eve’s childlike naiveté. In fact, the film’s psychological tug-of-war seems to qualify Marianne’s strategy, for it isn’t until Eve finally wins Abel over that she eventually bores of him. With her previous paramours, Eve was unable to achieve an orgasm without thinking of Abel, and in a rare moment of keen observational insight for the film, she muses on who she will now have to think of in order to cum while having sex with Abel. Indeed, we always want what we can’t have.

Despite these insights, the film works from an emotional remove that stunts their impact. Casta’s impenetrable Marianne, and the relative swiftness with which she resumes her affair with Abel following Paul’s death, leaves us wondering if she really is ever grieving, or whether she’s just mourning the loss of a warm body to sleep next to. And throughout much of the film, each character’s yearning seems to run parallel to others’, with little points of intersection—as if their love just happened to miss each other a little too late. Yes, A Faithful Man provides some amusing reshuffling of couples, but none of them seems substantive enough to warrant our emotional investment, let alone allow us to root for a particular pairing. We witness their desires, but we don’t feel their chemistry. And while the film’s breezy pacing plunges us right into the breakup without any melodramatic trappings, it also means that the characters’ lack of backstory minimizes the emotional stakes. Paul is a faceless entity in the film, and because we never witness the incubation of Marianne’s relationship with either man, let alone the friendship between Abel and Paul, their romantic dilemmas and breakthroughs never resonate. This is particularly egregious given that Paul’s death looms over every amorous transaction.

There’s also a frustrating passivity in Abel’s character, for he rarely asserts himself or takes command of his own fate. He just seems to perpetually go with the flow, and both his lovers, as well as Joseph, engineer almost everything that happens to him in the film. As a result, Garrel’s Abel seems more like a malleable pushover than an autonomous, three-dimensional person with specific wants and needs; merely swaying with the emotional tide as it comes. And though this does lead to an effective running gag about Abel constantly having to schlep all his belongings to the apartment of whichever woman he’s living with—an amusing nod to the idea of literal and emotional baggage—his pliability begs the question: if he doesn’t care enough to take charge of his own situation, why should we? As Marianne says to Abel, “You’re so easy to have.”

A Faithful Man is a fun, if shallow watch, one that’s important to take at face value, for its conspicuous, male-gaze-centered sexual politics stymie our suspension of disbelief, as well as any revelations the film may offer. Here, Garrel has fashioned a film wherein he is either the subject or the object of desire at all times—and almost every scene, conversation, or internal monologue involving Marianne or Eve inevitably leads back to their pining for Abel. While not impossible, the idea of such an inert character being fawned and fought over by two fantasy women—who are essentially vessels for Garrel’s age-conscious wish fulfillment—is more than a little incredulous. And in failing the Bechdel test with flying colors, Garrel and Carriere’s script can’t help but retread the same hackneyed territory of traditional trite rom-coms. Abel, Marianne, and Eve embody the ways in which we are all insecure and narcissistic beings—and while that itself could make for a thoughtful character study, the film’s vapidity keeps it at arm’s length. In his second directorial feature, Garrel wishes to make the incisive observation that each of us wants to be the only one to have our cake and eat it too—which is why it’s such a shame that his film is too milquetoast to properly stick that landing.