I think there are two aspects to Phillippe Garrel’s “In the Shadow of Women” that will lead to a critique of calling it simple; the first is its short running time of only seventy-three minutes. The second is that Garrel plays the story rather straight. In conclusion, its short running time and rather simple story mean that there might be some who call “In the Shadow of Women” short but sweet. But also consider the following: running time itself is not inherently indicative of a film’s quality. Furthermore, the story may not be a grand Shakespearian drama, but not all stories need to be. What matters here is that Garrel uses very minimal tools to achieve the most out of his story. In this regard, Garrel reminds me of Hong Sang-soo, although it should be noted that each one has a wildly different directing style. What’s important to draw from this comparison is that like Sang-soo, I see the strength of Garrel’s “In the Shadow of Women” being its characters, mainly Pierre and Manon. “In the Shadows of Women” isn’t “short but sweet” but focused and excellent.
Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) and Manon (Clotilde Courau) are husband and wife. Pierre is a documentary filmmaker, and in her spare time, Manon helps him. One day, Pierre meets Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), a film archivist, and the two begin an affair. Elisabeth, who wants Pierre all to herself, begins to spy on him and Manon. She comes to recognize how Manon looks which later leads to her identifying Manon at a café with a strange man—Manon has been cheating on Pierre.
I partly see “In the Shadow of Women” as being about the gender roles in a relationship. That is, what a man can do, and what a women can’t do. Garrel uses the premise of a cheating couple to explore this. Consequently, we see how the characters behave and learn why they do the things they did. Once again, like Sang-soo, with “In the Shadow of Women,” Garrel is focused on the psychology of his characters.
When Pierre finds out Manon has been cheating on him, he has an existential breakdown of sorts. Not necessarily, because his wife has cheated on him, but because a woman has committed the act of cheating. To explain what I mean, as Pierre is sleeping between the two women of his life, he performs mental gymnastics in order to justify his actions. As the voice-over narrator tells us:
“Pierre was seeing Elisabeth for the pleasure of flesh. He used to go to her place, do her and left right away. But he couldn’t help coming back to her regularly. He loved her body. When he was thinking of Manon…her way to live between him and her mother…he was afraid of losing her. But he has to see Elisabeth. He found excuses with the double moral men use. He thought…This is the way it is. I am a man. I didn’t choose to be a man (24:57)”
For Pierre then, there is a certain idea of behavior that men and women must conform to. Men are born men and thus have an inherent and insatiable lust for flesh. Men can therefore cheat without moral qualms; women simply can’t do the same. Of course that’s not true, and Pierre himself discovers this when it comes to light that Manon has been seeing someone else.
This also leads me to my second viewpoint on the film, and that’s that I see it as a more sincere, and ultimately more optimistic, version of Agnes Varda’s “Le Bonheur (1965).” This is the third time I’ve brought up this film; before, I discussed how “Le Bonheur” is about the roles of women, but this time around, I bring it up to compare the atmosphere of that film to Garrel’s.
“Le Bonheur” is also about a husband who cheats on his wife, and towards the end of the film, when he tells her this, she is at first accepting of it, but shortly commits suicide thereafter. The remaining portion of the film is very surreal to an ironic effect. The mistress becomes the husband’s new wife, and we then get a montage of her taking care of the children, being a dutiful wife and so on. Varda supplements the montage with a piece of classical music which builds into a cacophony as the end of the film progresses. Furthermore, throughout the film she uses saturated colors in order to give the appearance of an idyllic relationship. The husband and the wife make love in a bright green field, surrounded by beautiful flowers; it’s their paradise.
But suffice to say, it is not paradise. The women of “Le Bonheur” are forced into their roles of being a wife and a mother while the husband prances around.
“In the Shadow of Women” then would be as if the husband of “Le Bonheur” learned from his mistake and of course, if the wife had not committed suicide. Following the discovery of his wife also cheating on him, Pierre slowly learns that he was equally at fault. There’s no tragedy here (although of course, there is pain from the infidelity of Pierre and Manon). Equally, there’s no use of irony in the same manner as “Le Bonheur”—the film is in black and white in contrast to “Le Bonheur’s” bright colors, further contrasting the two.
I do want to note that irony is used in the film. Manon tells Pierre that she trusts him, because he never brought her flowers, a tell-tale sign that you’re being cheated on. Later on, Pierre does exactly that after feeling guilty. The difference between the irony here, and in “Le Bonheur,” is that Garrel’s irony is used to a comedic effect for the purpose of the story, whereas Varda uses hers thematically.
Personally, after watching many romance/drama films that end in some sort of tragedy, I was glad to encounter an optimistic romance film. This statement shouldn’t be conflated with the idea that “In the Shadow of Women” is sappy; it’s not. Garrel never plays up moments of pain or love into the realm of melodrama. Rather, I would describe “In the Shadow of Women” as being quietly intimate; it’s a story of an extremely small scope, focused on the complexities of romance between two people.