This is one of those films that sorts the pseuds from the cynics. I am firmly on the former side. After initial groans at ANOTHER French movie about logorrheic sexual relationships (and yet another May-December coupling, although, happily, the elder in this case is the woman), one finds oneself wholly compelled without ever really knowing why. Because the content is frequently less than exciting - two men talking (or not) on a lengthy road trip; endless snakes of pristine Euro-motorway; interminable shots of a woman silently climbing floors of stairs, entering an apartment, getting it methodically ready for afternoon coitus (feminised Melville?).
Even when the content is beautiful - an overhead vista of a sun-parched Neapolitan town; an overgrown cemetery - the manner of filming remains detached. The camera often stops on a road or a wall, long after the human drama has passed by, or waits for a character to come into view, rather th an following her. There is very little of the editing that would draw us into the characters and their situations. Camera movements that break with the generally static style become heavy with their uniqueness - see the remarkable scene where Catherine Deneuve stares out the window; the camera follows her gaze, making it solid, pregnant, until it stops being a gaze, and we return to Deneuve, who is no longer looking out.
These two uglinesses, or rather excessive plainnesses, manage to create something very beautiful. I was reminded very much of the films of Manoel d'Oliveira - not just because Deneuve's ex-lover and daughter starred in his last two films. There is the same deceptively air-brushed, non-commital style that steadily accretes to become emotionally powerful. The image, in its unnatural cleanness, seems to be weighed down with nothing, to exist entirely in the present tense - and yet this is a film obsessed with history, the past, creating echoes and gaps in the present tense, through which seeps the emotion and subjectivity the distant style and performances initially forbid, like the traces of light that linger after a scene dissolves into darkness.
The film is a mystery story with the viewer as detective - we are given clues about each character, fragments of motivation and backstory; we have to sift the possible disparity between actions, what people think, what people say, and what people say about them. The film's mathematical structuring and patterning (especially doubling) does not prevent the ending being profoundly moving.
In many ways, the film is one of the stranger buddy-buddy road movies; we are never allowed get very close to characters who only offer of themselves piecemeal, yet the relationship between Xavier Beuvois and Daniel Duval is wholly engaging, so much so that you hope there are more roads for them to drive down so the film doesn't have to end.
Deneuve is the nominal star, but this is a very different Deneuve to the majestic grande-dame projected in the last two decades - frumpy, plump, lined, prepared to be humiliated to keep her young lover, knowing it will only drive him away. Whenever she appears, you just want the road movie to start, and she is conscious of this marginalising - when she brings her lover to her husband, she is even ignored as the hoped-for fall-out becomes a discussion about an obscure right-wing anarchist. A suicidal cry for help (a jolting, bloody, physical scene is such a refined film) serves to marginalise her from the film further, failing to break its masculine grip.
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