The impact of the French New Wave on the stylistic development of cinema is almost immeasurable. While more recognizable formal elements associated with the movement like jump-cuts and non-linearity can be easily identified, the youthful spirit that characterizes the work of directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, and Jacques Demy can be felt in genres ranging from the teen coming of age films of the 1980s to the rebellion at the heart of Fifth Generation Chinese cinema. In this case of Louis Garrel’s strange love triangle A Faithful Man, Francois Truffaut is the most cogent point of reference – from Jules and Jim to Stolen Kisses, he was a man with an acute sense of the complexities and fickleness of young love. In his second feature, Garrel captures his oeuvre wonderfully, bringing it forward into the modern-day while retaining the sense of freshness that characterized French cinema in the 1960s.
The film starts with a gut punch – Abel (played by Garrel himself) is told by his partner Marianne that she is pregnant with the child of his friend Paul, and he needs to leave their apartment before the marriage in ten days time. What makes this scene work is the complete lack of melodrama. Despite the situation at hand, they both treat it so casually that when we find ourselves at Paul’s funeral almost a decade later, the tone is primarily that of cruel humour. This is enhanced by the fact that Abel is still interested in getting back together with the woman who betrayed him, and Paul’s younger sister Eve is obsessing over her long-time crush Abel rather than mourning her deceased brother. None of the characters really take joy in the unseen Paul’s death, but he is what ultimately pulls the three back together again; death and love are inextricably linked.
But none of this would work without the likeable, enticing performances on offer from each cast member. Marianne, as terrible as she is on paper, is given a certain allure by actress Laetitia Casta that prevents her from feeling entirely reprehensible, or too much of a stereotypically evil adulteress. She’s clearly mature enough to understand how the world works and to bend it to her advantage, but her complex and mysterious motivations keep her intriguing rather than off-putting. In fantastic contrast is Eve, played by Lily-Rose Depp, who embodies such forthright, naive desperation that you can’t help but relate to her on some level (though maybe not to behaviour as extreme as the stalking she’s taken part in).
Balancing out these two extremes is Abel, the ‘faithful man’ of the title who falls increasingly into a moral grey area, unsure what to do with the opportunity the death of his old friend has provided. Garrel must realize how charming and appealing he is as an actor – not any director could believably put themselves in the middle of a love triangle between two beautiful women and not come off as self-serving and creepy, but somehow he pulls it off.
At only 75 minutes in length, A Faithful Man is short and bittersweet, a wonderful love letter to the era of free love while not ignoring the complexity, pain, and changeability portrayed so brilliantly in Truffaut’s early works. While you could easily view it as perhaps too derivative, Garrel’s film is still engaging, thought-provoking, and certainly worth your time.