Christian Vincent directed this 1994 film, based on a novel of the same name by Parisian writer Dan Franck, and it was written for the screen by Vincent and Franck. Both book and film tell a man’s story of losing the woman he loves. The film begins slowly, as Pierre (Daniel Auteuil) begins to notice a certain inattention on the part of his partner Anne (Isabelle Huppert), and inexorably proceeds to its devastating conclusion. It’s a story that could have been about a woman dying of cancer, told from the first sign of symptoms to the tragic death in hospital. But it’s worse. It’s a story of self inflicted pain. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, but here we are asked to look at the many ways people can destroy their own lives and happiness.
In any kind of a relationship one needs to distinguish between the emotions that power it, and the bond these emotions form between the partners in such a relationship. In Vincent’s film there is no doubting the affection between Anne and Pierre. But the relationship itself has become stale. The trust between them has now been further damaged by Anne’s admission she has become involved with another man.
When Pierre questions her, Anne reveals one of the traps the couple have fallen into. Pierre doesn’t talk to, or listen to her, she says. He has come to rely on the mechanics of a relationship to supply its content. As a character in another film says: “You know I love you. Why the hell do I have to keep telling you all the time!”. A thriving relationship is constantly being re-invented, but it doesn’t always happen: in the one depicted in the film, little doubts and insecurities feed on themselves and the rift widens. This account is astonishingly true to life and sends one looking for parallels in the life of the film’s writers and actors.
The film doesn’t delve into causes too deeply though. It doesn’t try to understand why people act in a way to destroy their relationships. It wants you to know what it’s like when it happens. The film is acted by Isabelle Huppert and Daniel Auteuil, two of the best actors out there. It’s pretty much their film, as other characters only have walk on, supporting parts. And not much is said by either partner. The film is carried by the subtle ways Auteuil and Huppert convey their character’s every shift of emotion. Portrayals where every gesture, expression and movement tells a story. One can only watch with amazement at how the actors work, alone and with one another, to convey so much. True enough, by the time a relationship has reached this stage, there is so much to say but none of it is worth saying any more. Like any death, it’s too late to change anything.
Auteuil had had a child with Emmanuelle Béart the previous year and the couple were to divorce in 1998, and one can wonder if he drew on pressures in his relationship with Béart to portray the role of Pierre. Then again, Auteuil is one of France’s best actors (as is Huppert).
At the film’s start the couple are in a cinema, and in the darkness Pierre reaches for Anne’s hand. She brushes him away, annoyed: she’s involved with the film. Later she tells him, in explanation of her coldness, that she has met and fallen in love with another man. Then, to excuse this, her resentments come out. They seem petty, but have obviously rankled. Pierre leaves the care of their two year old boy Loulou almost entirely to her while he concentrates on his job as a children’s book illustrator, working long hours in his studio, where he cannot be disturbed. He has deadlines he cannot miss. He doesn’t speak to Anne as he did, they have lost intimacy, and are sustained by the routine of their daily lives. We don’t learn what job Anne does, but she too is busy and under pressure. Gradually, without realising it, the couple have ceased to find time for being a couple. They’ve been concentrating on the inessentials.
One weakness in the film is that Pierre and Anne are depicted almost entirely in relation to one another. There is another couple, friends of Pierre, in whom he confides, and a babysitter, who is sympathetic to him, but these roles are incidental. Not developed enough to portray to any extent what kind of a man Pierre is. The same is true about the portrayal of Anne. Here we have even less to go on, as Anne has no social context at all in the film other than as Pierre’s dissatisfied lover. As characters experiencing a crisis, we know them only through the crisis, which diminishes the impact it has on their lives. Instead, we get a vivid picture of what anguish that crisis inflicts on Pierre.
Not so much Anne. She is at times the mere cause of Pierre’s pain. It takes great acting from Huppert to flesh out Anne’s character, as there is little about her in the script. It takes great acting from Auteuil to flesh out the part of Pierre, to show why he might have been the partial cause of his tragedy. Both actors give a “warts and all” portrayal of their characters, and save the film from being a somewhat overwrought melodrama, which is where the script might have left it.
Here it is Huppert’s coolness as an actress that gives bulk to her part and helps give the film a real emotional depth. She conveys emotions such as fondness without passion, affection based on memories not the present, a realistic assessment that her ‘affair’ was over, and would never have amounted to much, together with a sad acceptance of what she has lost with Pierre. She wryly acknowledges she’s been living in the past.
Auteuil for his part shows Pierre’s self pity, selfishness mixed with sensitivity, pain at being rejected followed by anger, attempt to be understanding and recourse to physical abuse. The script gives him agony to express, and he moderates that with a portrayal of a lover too busy to be with his love, and then resentful at being neglected. He knows he loves Anne. But she doesn’t.
So the two actors steer the film from an agonising portrayal of betrayal and loss to a more balanced story of the many ways couples fail in relationships. True, we never learn much about Pierre and Anne, but thanks to the actors’ artistry, we know more about why relationships fail than we are comfortable about. Without the context it needs to be truly tragic, the film is, as was probably intended by its makers, an accurate depiction of a separation. At the end we’re left with a distressing picture of Pierre, lost and confused and so upset he can’t find his way home. There’s so much still left in his affair with Anne. But it’s all over now.
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