Mon Petit, Choose: In The Deft, Whimsical 'A Faithful Man,' A Couple's Bond Is Tested
"You have time, but before the 26th is best."
That's Marianne (Laetitia Casta) going over some awkward practicalities with her live-in boyfriend Abel (Louis Garrel) in the opening scene of A Faithful Man, a French romantic comedy that's as dry as kindling — and nearly as combustible. Moments before, Marianne has informed Abel that she's pregnant. And that his best friend Paul is the father. And that the two have plans to get married later in the month. And that he should probably move his stuff out of the apartment before then.
Keep in mind, Abel has absolutely no idea that Marianne has been unhappy in their relationship, which has lasted several years. And she hasn't been, really. But he takes the news surprisingly well, which Marianne had predicted and which dedicated watchers of French cinema might have predicted, too. Jealousy does percolate in A Faithful Man, but it takes eight or nine years for it to reach the surface. Even then, there's nothing in the way of emotional outbursts or other shows of passion, but the quiet escalation of a scenario that seems insane in about a dozen different ways. Watching it unfold can feel at times like an anthropological study of the French species.
The film's director and star, Louis Garrel, is best known as an actor, having played Eva Green's twin brother in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers and a number of roles for the prolific Christophe Honoré. But Garrel's roots in French cinema go much deeper: His father Philippe is a director who's carried the creative restlessness of the French New Wave forward in films like 2005's Regular Lovers, his mother Brigitte Sy is a veteran performer, and his godfather is New Wave legend Jean-Pierre Léaud, who played Antoine Doinel in a series of François Truffaut films, starting with The 400 Blows. With A Faithful Man, his second feature behind the camera, Garrel operates in the familiar realm of l'amour fou, or "crazy love," and his total lack of affect is large part of the appeal.
Garrel and his seasoned co-writer, the brilliant Jean-Claude Carrière (Belle du Jour, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), tell their story through multiple narrators, an essential device for understanding decision that so often seem inexplicable. After the opening bombshell breaks Abel and Marianne apart, the two reunite eight years later after Paul dies in bed unexpectedly, leaving their peculiar son Joseph (Joseph Engel) and an empty space in Marianne's bed. It doesn't take much convincing for Abel to move back in with Marianne, though he naturally has some questions about Joseph's true paternity and how he measures up to Paul, then and now. The kid secretly raises the possibility, too, that Marianne poisoned his dad in conspiracy with her doctor, who declined to do an autopsy.
But wait, there's more! Paul's little sister Eve (Lily-Rose Depp) has had a crush on Abel since adolescence and now, as a young woman, she makes an aggressive play for his affections. How Abel and Marianne handle this intrusion on their delicate reunion is, again, extremely surprising and extremely French, but slyly calibrated as a stress test on their own relationship. If it can survive the betrayal that opens the film and survive the threat of a third party years later, then perhaps the bond is deeper than it appears. The title of the film is A Faithful Man, after all, and faith can only be understood as strong after it's tested.
With a running time short of 75 minutes, A Faithful Man is a deft little wisp of a romantic comedy, treating love as a mystery that's elusive in its chemistry and often inexplicable in its machinations. Even the family doctor has a decidedly whimsical understanding of the human heart: When asked about Paul's cause of death, he speculates, "The heart can stop. It's capricious, like it's fed up with living." That's what happens when you go to medical school at the Cinémathèque Française.
Garrel delights in such absurdities, but they expose an absence of sincerity that harms the film over time. Love may be a mystery, but it's also a many-splendored thing, and there's no evident passion that animates Abel and Marianne's relationship, despite all the drama that swirls around it. As attractive and funny and dizzily perplexing as it can be, the film nonetheless feels like an exercise in style, half-invested in its characters' emotional destinies. They're not the only ones not in touch with their feelings.