It’s not often that a Phillippe Garrel film makes it over to the United States, and if the one that’s alighting at the Museum of Fine Arts for two weeks is a minor entry in the canon, it’s no less a pleasure. “In the Shadow of Women,” a portrait of a troubled French marriage, has the simplicity and subtle punch of a good short story.
If nothing else, the film demonstrates what happens when you take the couple from “While We’re Young,” Noah Baumbach’s recent Manhattan satire, and transport them physically, culturally, and psychologically to Paris. Pierre (Stanislaus Merhar) is a financially threadbare documentary filmmaker in his 40s, slaving away on a film about the French Resistance that may never get finished. His wife and colleague, Manon (Clotilde Courau), is devoted to him and to the work to the point where she’s a chic doormat. Naturally, Pierre has started cheating on her with a young film intern, Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), who has a masochistic streak of her own.
Before you start feeling too sorry for Manon, remember that we’re in France, where adultery is a competitive sport. What in the hands of a different filmmaker might become either tragedy or farce is here melancholy and knowing, pitched somewhere between the specific and the universal. Merhar’s Pierre is lanky, attractive, and a cipher even to himself; he seems almost generic until you realize he has made himself that way on purpose, the better to avoid feeling anything. By contrast, Courau’s exquisitely fraught Manon feels everything , and the actress creates a heartbreaking little portrait of a woman so devoted to her man that it’s starting to annoy even her.
Garrel has written and directed over 30 movies since his 1964 debut (at the age of 16!), but he remains virtually unknown in America. He isn’t so much a member of the French New Wave as one of its earliest acolytes, and “In the Shadow of Women” has the pearlescent black-and-white photography, the Paris street scenes, the omniscient narration (by the director’s actor son, Louis Garrel), and the interest in messed-up amour of a vintage Truffaut or Godard. All that’s missing are the artistic eccentricities.
In fact, the new movie is almost too smooth on the surface, and its characters initially seem like archetypes: the rat husband, the timid wife, the grasping mistress. But Garrel’s gaze is cool and steady, and he’s not interested in villains. He knows this is an old story and an eternal one, and that men and women are helpless to avoid repeating it. As “In the Shadow of Women” rolls inexorably forward over its characters’ egos, it shows us that people are foolish and selfish and small — and that, every so often, they’re blessed to realize it.
IN THE SHADOW OF WOMEN
Directed by Phillippe Garrel. Written by Garrel, Caroline Deraus-Garrel, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Arlette Langmann. Starring Stanislaus Merhar, Clotilde Courau, Lena Paugam. At Museum of Fine Arts, Wednesday and various dates through March 23. 73 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: marriage problems Paris-style). In French, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.