"La Separation" is dire, no matter how you look at it. Looking at it
in 35mm is always grim. If the images have any weight, they fall off
the screen and into your memory, only to revive feelings you thought
you had safely buried under the thin veneer of civilized friendship
with your ex.
"Pierre, I think I fell in love with someone," says Isabelle Huppert
to Daniel Auteuil, playing her husband. She might as well have said,
"Daniel, I think I'm not in this movie with you, but I'll stand here
and watch you act." Oblivious to the larger threat, Pierre blinks,
then squints to keep this information at the back of his brain where
it will hurt the least. We are all in familiar territory. An affair,
after all, is a very French thing. We know where they lead, however,
and since the road to hell is paved with good inventions, we settle
back in our seats to see if these French folks are really as urbane as
their reputations. We are soon very unsettled.
I don't know the work of Christian Vincent, but he is sure to draw
favorable comparisons to Cassavetes. Justifiably so, but where
Cassavetes was modern (think abstract expressionist painters), Vincent
is a post-modern minimalist who can illustrate with a few lines and
muted colors the collapse of the spirit (say, Rothko). Vincent works
with essence, not illustration, but keeps his work invisible.
La Separation shows what happens when people don't cover up. Anne is
a modern woman who seems exasperated with men in all their guises - as
little boys, as lovers, as husbands and fathers. Huppert is all too
credible as a woman who would like to erase the y-chromosome from
reality, despite her adorable child Loulou, who is the fulcrum of her
teeter-totter tolerance of his father Pierre. Anne is a French
professional woman without the French, i.e., one of those awful
American women that people like to blame for the reactionary
anti-feminism of our times. Isabelle Huppert is inherently dry and
unforgiving; add to that a total loss of charm in a role as the bread
winner and alienated lover of a whimsical graphic artist whose most
endearing quality is his love of his son.
Huppert is an actress whose stock is in her denial. As foil, this
film uses the generous warmth of the nanny Laurence, played with
genuine affection and sex appeal (such as one expects from a French
woman, but without a touch of cliche!) by Laurence Lerel. Ever
resistant to any such expectations, Huppert usually just strolls
through the movie as the non-French French-woman, refusing to give
anybody anything, not her fellow actors, not the audience; she's even
stingy with the camera in scenes where most stars fight for face-time.
It's fascinating to watch her fight her own metier.
But Auteuil is Huppert's equal and he backs her into acting.
Auteuil's strategy, as an actor, is almost the same as that of the
character he plays: alternating between endearing helplessness and the
patience of Job, Auteuil's Pierre sacrifices his pride to salvage his
family. The only decent thing is not to watch, and yet Vincent has
not made a voyeuristic film. It just goes deeper into the particulars
of separation in an age when a woman can be in control of the house
and family and, with all that, the destiny of her husband, so that, no
matter how much he loves her, he is lost.
An interesting contrast can be seen in an equally affecting film by
Paul Cox in 1983, My First Wife, made with Australian actors, who are
naturally more effusive, but who - in the dry docks of divorce - also
seize up and deliver similarly concentrated, seering performances.
Watching Huppert and Auteuil tear up the screen with infinitely subtle
movements and true emotion revives hope in contemporary French films -
sans l'histoire, so to speak. For the only narrative of marriage can
be: does it work? La Separation is an organic film in that it feels
as if it came into being on the celluloid; no script hangs inscribed
behind the dialog. No obvious cuts or transitions of traditional
montage help us through the narrative. In fact, there is no
narrative, per se. It's just: how will this couple again break into
two people? Is it possible without inflicting maximum damage?
Christian Vincent brings us back to the world we all live in as
husbands and wives, where the boundaries set up by commitment,
fidelity, children and shared roofs can come crashing around our
heads, never to be restored. That feeling, which is so alien to
classic cinema's need to resolve things into hopeful endings, is built
and delivered by intelligent direction and effortless acting, so that
the final scene of Pierre in a daze, simply unable to catch a cab, is
doomed to become one of my most vivid memories of French cinema.
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