A brisk, featherweight romantic comedy with expertly sparkled elements of drama and mystery, A Faithful Man would be an accomplished sophomore directorial effort from Louis Garrel, if those labels and figures actually applied to him. Instead, for someone who is a product of the medium to such a degree – the son, the prolific actor, the husband to his co-star, the co-writer with a legendary author – influences, sensibilities and career steps can’t help but blur into a seamless flow of condensed cinematic essence.
If anything, it is a marvel that you are able to take this film in your hands and (almost) observe it as a stand-alone object, without having to wrestle too hard to separate it from the very fabric of French cinema. At once a contemporary, sleek prototype of the form and a hyper-derivative piece of dialogue with generations past, Garrel’s follow-up to 2015’s Two Friends is unsurprisingly another meditation on the holy institution of the love triangle, modulated here in the shape of an inescapable recurring destiny pulling people together by sheer force of weight, time, and death.
Garrel plays Abel, a Parisian journalist who one day, about to walk out the door to go to work, is ever so gently dumped by girlfriend Marianne (Laetitia Casta), who also informs him of her year-long affair with mutual friend Paul and of the resulting pregnancy. Oh, and if he could move out of the flat within ten days before their wedding, that would be splendid, have a great day!
There is barely time to fall down the stairs; just like that, ten years have suddenly passed, bringing about a discreet change of look (bland pullovers instead of juvenile hoodies and the appearance of Garrel’s trademark unruly, glorious locks) if not a full elaboration of Abel’s trauma. At Paul’s funeral, his eyes are still fixed on Marianne, much like Eve’s (Lily-Rose Depp) are fixed on him. She is Paul’s younger sister, and she has been obsessed with Abel since her teenage years. A father, husband, brother and friend dies off-screen, barely warranting a mention but effectively putting three people on a collision course of warring, scheming love.
The well-balanced, agile script by Garrel and Jean-Claude Carrière gives voice to all three main characters, granting them depth and elegant individuality even within a story dealing more with broad types than psychological nuances. Garrel is also smart in goofily undermining his sexy charisma, thus ensuring the film never turns into an insufferable, self-serious male fantasy. It is a trick he has pulled off before and one of the secrets to his massive appeal, but it is undeniably amusing to witness him blindside Abel at every turn and take away his agency to surreal effect.
While Depp is effective at injecting some heartfelt pathos into a character whose single-minded romantic purpose in life could read as merely ridiculous, Casta goes the other way by making Marianne a playfully enigmatic figure, basking in her own strategic foresight and almost toying with everyone around her. It is an enormously satisfying performance, handling the romantic notes just as effortlessly as the tentative forays into murder mystery territory that L’Homme fidèle sort-of-but-not-really folds into the plot. Marianne is certainly the most self-aware in an ensemble of clueless, figurative children characters, while the only literal child in sight (Joseph Engel) acts as an eerily-focused, pre-teen agent provocateur who ends up stealing scenes left and right.
In such an ocean of Nouvelle Vague echoes, of riffs on the familiar past, of casual classicism as visual style – which can all be a bit nauseating, in general – the most radical affirmation emerging from Garrel’s cinema is probably his faith in a sort of vintage and extemporaneous storytelling, which is certainly slight but ostentatiously and authentically so, and ends up feeling quaintly refreshing. It is a trait that A Faithful Man shares with Assayas’ masterful Non-Fiction, to name another example from recent months. Surrendering to tradition with the lightest of touches can sometimes be the most elaborate form of trickery.