Boys Will Be Boys
By Demi Kampakis

NYFF:
The Salt of Tears
Dir. Philippe Garrel, France, Distrib Films

Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears is a lean and sporadically astute picture that manages to be both of the moment and strangely dated in its examination of family and foiled intimacy. Co-written by Garrel and his longtime collaborators Jean-Claude Carrière and Arlette Langmann, it is quintessentially post-New Wave in its aesthetic and postmodern take on selfish young love. Following Jealousy, In the Shadow of Women, and Lover for a Day, The Salt of Tears in many respects serves as another installment in the filmmaker’s loose anthology that chronicles the ways romance and fatherhood coexist and influence the life of young adult children.

Like those previous three works, this new film uses a black-and-white visual palette to create a sense of slick timelessness, a postcard capturing the exploits of a young male protagonist for posterity. Luc (newcomer Logann Antuofermo) is a “joiner,” that is, a skilled furniture maker, following in his beloved father’s footsteps. Handsome in the casually ruffled pretty-boy way, he is a serial flirt and heartbreaker, as we’ll come to see throughout the film’s three acts, each structured around a different romantic interest. Living in a small provincial town with his widowed father, Luc has traveled to Paris for a few days to audition for a spot in France’s elite cabinetry school, École Boule. That’s where he meets the mysterious and guarded Djemila (Oulaya Amamra), a beautiful local who politely gives him directions. Riding together on the bus, Luc and Djemila strike up a conversation that brims with awkward flirtatious tension, the kind of tentative back-and-forth between two strangers who are obviously very attracted to one another but unsure how to proceed. He successfully pursues her, and less than 24 hours later the two are engaging in cloyingly romantic public affection. It’s all sentimentally over-the-top (and satirically old-fashioned) hugs and handholding, with very little actual kissing, as though we’re privy to some strangely modest fifties-esque courtship. Djemila rejects Luc’s advances to sleep with her, and though this wounds Luc’s pride, all seems well when he leaves Paris for home. They promise to regularly communicate and visit. (“I’ll never forget you,” Luc soothingly reassures her.)

Back in his hometown, Luc’s cohabitation with his aging father provides a tender glimpse into their deferential relationship, one of the film’s few sympathetic moments for its capricious bachelor. Veteran actor André Wils plays Luc’s Dad, a proud Papa and humble woodworker who rather regrets settling for his simple, odd-job-driven life, and who wants more for his son in terms of ambition and recognition. While on a house call, Luc runs into his high-school girlfriend Genevieve (Louis Chevillotte), and things heat up again almost immediately, as the pair quickly gets back together as much out of convenience as attraction. It’s here that we start to see the film’s antiquated gender politics, as it heavily leans on the contrast between virginal Djemila and the carnal Genevieve, the Madonna and the whore.

Though he clearly has strong feelings for Djemila (perhaps stronger than those for Genevieve, as their chemistry has withstood a lack of physical intimacy), Luc is unwilling or unable to confront these desires, because that would mean having to be honest with himself and Genevieve, and possibly end things. Such a decisive act requires a moral courage that Luc simply doesn’t possess. He’s too much of an inconsiderate coward and narcissist to put himself in the uncomfortable position of being disliked, or possibly hated, by a woman. So he forgoes any obligation toward decency and more or less just moves along on a current of callous, inconsiderate passivity, essentially ghosting Djemila and allowing his inaction to speak volumes—as devastating and consequential for her as open rejection would be.

The honeymoon phase with Genevieve is also short-lived, coming to a close when Luc is accepted into the prestigious academy and decides he doesn’t want to maintain a long-distance relationship with his adolescent flame. In the film’s third section, while studying in Paris, he meets the beguiling and disarmingly sensual Betsy (Climax’s Souheila Yacoub), a nurse who finally proves to be the challenging partner Luc has been searching for. Betsy stands out because she’s anything but needy—she is, in fact, an equally self-indulgent seducer operating on Luc’s wavelength. Her unapologetic sexual hedonism and wandering eyes prove to be the exact dose of humility Luc thinks he wants, and he’s totally enchanted. So much so that he’s willing to ignore his own personal boundaries and agree to a polyamorous domestic arrangement with Betsy and one of her old male friends.

When his father comes to visit and learns of this setup, the look on Wils’s face is heartbreaking, encapsulating the film’s casual critiques of the shortsighted egotism that plagues today’s love-stricken youth. His son has carelessly and remorselessly sacrificed a life and family with his loving girlfriend back home for this cramped ménage-à-trois domicile that he knows Luc doesn’t want, and in that moment, a look of pathetic pity washes over Dad’s face, as if he’s truly seeing his son for the self-destructive fool that he is. Devoted and sacrificing, Luc’s father always believed in the transparency of their relationship, not realizing until it was too late that Luc’s shame at his own fickle and callow heart drove a wedge of secrecy between them. This reaches a crescendo of absolute yet understated betrayal in the film’s most gutting sequence: Luc, giggling in bed with Betsy after a bout of day sex, refuses to answer the door for his father, who has missed his train back home—a moment that best conveys Luc’s essential callousness.(This moment echoes an earlier, poignantly observed scene where Luc, on his last night home before school, jokes about how his father will miss the little chores he does around the house, to which his dad replies, “I’m going to miss you.”)

Luc is supplied with just enough persuasive interiority to make him a reasonably complicated figure, so that his choices are driven as much by conflicting motivations and desires as they are by senseless whims. (He’s a hopeless romantic and a horny opportunist, a range that Antuofermo admirably sells, despite a script that doesn’t really demand enough of him.) This doesn’t make him any less unlikeable though—in fact, as a character Luc is too impenetrable to invite robust empathy—but it does ground his insouciance in a familiar, generational apathy and male insecurity. As with his son Louis’s feature A Faithful Man, Philippe Garrel’s persistent commitment to exposing the cynicism, myopia, and recklessness at the heart of jejune youth—and the thwarted romantic connections that result—remains as fascinating as it is frustrating, and this thematic clarity is served well by the film’s frugal visual approach and breezy pacing.

Whatever generational tensions and character insights the film offers into Luc are undermined by its portrayal of the three women. Djemila, Genevieve, and Betsy have been boxed into separate, clean categories: the chaste Girl Next Door, the everyday monogamous clingy girlfriend, and the outright promiscuous Jezebel, respectively. One woman could of course be all of these things, but such psychological complexity is only reserved for his lothario. (Or maybe these three tropes are Garrel’s projections, templates that combine to form his image of the “perfect woman”). And like A Faithful Man and Lover for a Day, despite impressive and distinct performances, each female character functions as little more than a prop to advance Luc’s story and inform his complexity.

These gender dynamics also disorient the era Garrel is trying to convey. Is this a retro love letter to a bygone era when it was still possible for a bus stop meet-cute to blossom into a full courtship—when long-distance lovers unironically corresponded through postcards? The film’s restrained camera and slow-fade transitions, lovely formal touches that channel mid-20th-century cinema, would suggest this—as would its voice-over narration, a romantic aesthetic choice that recalls classic noir films, and reinforces a polished and chic sense of nostalgia. Or is it a more progressive look at unconventional modern dating, where near-strangers gyrate to electro music at the club before going home together, and female desire barely raises an eyebrow? It seems the answer is both: like his meandering, indecisive and insatiable hero, Garrel wants to have his cake and eat it too.