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In The French Film 'Lover For A Day,' A Mai-Décembre Romance

Jan 11, 2018

When you're in love, "you just feel good, like you're wrapped in a big coat," says a character in Lover for a Day. Yet there are no big-coat moments in veteran director Philippe Garrel's latest examination of French erotic discontent.

In the establishing scenes, one woman has stand-up sex in a grubby college bathroom while another weeps as she lugs a suitcase out of her now-ex-boyfriend's apartment. Both are headed for the same spot in a black-and-white Paris that appears timeless and a bit shabby — a city of striving students, underpaid professors, and eternal youthfulness.

The outcome of the two prologues is a three-way relationship. University student Ariane (Louise Chevillotte) has recently moved in with Gilles (Eric Caravaca), the philosophy instructor with whom she dallied in the lavatory. Then the newly homeless Jeanne (Esther Garrel, the director's daughter) claims a place on the sofa, as Gilles is her father. It's a small apartment, but the most awkward thing about the arrangement is that both women are 20.

Ariane and Jeanne are pretty, vivacious, and authentic; they're not glamorized into unbelievability as in a Hollywood movie. They bicker at first, but soon develop a sisterly rapport — sharing clothes, life stories, and potential paramours. Their bond is tightened by the way each keeps one of the other's secrets from Gilles.

The story's fireworks spark not from their rivalry, but from Jeanne's broken heart and Ariane's penchant for extracurricular sex. She thinks she has tacit permission from Gilles for the occasional one-night stand, but he — like many of Garrel's recent characters — is not so accepting of infidelity as his bohemian lifestyle might suggest.

This is the first time the director has given a leading role to his daughter (fresh from her thankless part as the third wheel on Call Me By Your Name's bicycle built for two). Yet the off-screen kinship doesn't mean that Gilles is a stand-in Garrel.

Despite its neo-new-wave style, Lover for a Day is neither offhand nor autobiographical. Garrel sees it as the third in a trilogy (after Jealousy and In the Shadow of Women) about Freudian female psychology. The script was carefully constructed by the director and three collaborators: Caroline Deruas, Arlette Langmann, and the venerable Jean-Claude Carriere, who's known for adapting such novels as The Tin Drum and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

The movie's most literary element is its sporadic narration, delivered impassively by Laetitia Spigarelli and restricted to just a few sentences each time. These economical cues allow Garrel to hop from one episode to another, condense months of activity into 76 minutes, and still have time for a musical number. (It features a song by Jean-Louis Aubert, a Garrel regular.)

The film's visual style also offers contrasts. The format is widescreen, yet the images are far from epic. Many shots are closeups, and well-known Parisian backdrops are avoided. The characters travel entirely on foot, and never seem to stroll far from Gilles' apartment. If not for Ariane's lovers and the shadow of Jeanne's mostly unseen ex, the three characters' hometown would seem barely a village.

As in In the Shadow of Women, the use of cellphones is the main clue that Lover for a Day transpires recently, and not 50 years ago. Perhaps Ariane, Jeanne, and Gilles' feelings are not exactly those of humans throughout history. But the trio's tale might be easily be transplanted, as so many of Garrel's movies could, to 1968.

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