The opening vignette of In the Shadow of Women shows a man in front of a wall, slightly off-center in the widescreen frame. Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) does little more than chew on a bite of sandwich for about a minute, an opening that suggests this will be one of those French films that takes its time in pondering the ordinariness of daily life.
It isn't. Director Phillipe Garrel, who's been making movies since the late 1960s, still favors the low-budget spontaneity of the early French New Wave. But he has a carefully constructed script this time, one that disassembles a marriage in about 70 minutes.
Pierre is a documentary filmmaker who works with his wife, Manon (Clotilde Courau). Their apartment in north-central Paris is shabby, but beyond their means. The landlord arrives in the movie's second scene, demanding back rent from Manon.
Yet Manon is happy to be working with Pierre, at the moment on a movie about a hero of the French Resistance, Henri (Jean Pommier). A couple that spends most of its waking hours in an editing room needn't worry about a swanky place to dwell.
The relationship is explained in terse, occasional voiceover by actor Louis Garrel, the director's son. Also offering commentary is Manon's mother (Antoinette Moya), who says she likes Pierre, but might like him better if he got a real job. Her questions give Manon a believable context in which to detail what's so great about her filmmaker husband.
For Pierre — like Garrel, who shot Women in black-and-white 35mm — film means celluloid. It's at a picturesque archive, where movie cans are stored like bottles of fine wine, that the documentarian meets Elisabeth (Lena Paugam), a pretty but hardly glamorous grad student. They begin an affair.
Pierre demonstrates his form of gallantry by immediately telling Elisabeth that he's married. But he doesn't reveal anything to Manon. He's shocked when she, intuiting the changed situation, takes a lover of her own. Interestingly, Pierre gets the news of Manon's infidelity from Elisabeth. The wayward husband probably imagines that his relationship with Elisabeth, which consists of little more than sex, is simple. But jealousy is complicated.
This concise tale was scripted by the director and three others, including Jean-Claude Carriere, whose signature is on many literary international productions (including The Tin Drum and The Unbearable Lightness of Being) that are far better known than any of Garrel's efforts. While the screenplay is solid, parts of its story are underdeveloped. Notably, the writers don't make much of an intriguing parallel between Pierre and Henri. Acknowledging the two men's similar characters could have rendered the movie both more playful and more profound.
What distinguishes In the Shadow of Women are its naturalistic performances — especially Courau's — and its elegantly composed shots and offhand rhythm. The narrative cadence is accented by infrequent use of Jean-Louis Aubert's modern chamber-music score.
The film also has a strong sense of place, in part because it shows so little sense of its era. Viewers may be surprised when Elisabeth pulls out a mobile phone, the first concrete detail to place the action in contemporary times. The movie is on set on streets that may not be mean, but are certainly ungentrified. Their existence is proof that, as a cinematic location that evokes bohemian urbanity, Paris will always have us.