Philippe Garrel’s movies feel like ghost stories: delicate, enigmatic, and haunted by some indelible, unnameable presence, which a viewer can’t help but suspect is the director’s own past. His early films—most of them still difficult to see—are stark and symbolic; his mature works bury thir metaphors within delicate, deliberately anti-climactic narratives whose details seem too specific to be completely fictional. Garrel’s latest, Jealousy, is one of his wispier efforts, a skeletal, two-part black-and-white feature about a stage actor (the director’s son, Louis Garrel, playing a character named Louis) who leaves his wife, Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant), to start over with neurotic, out-of-work actress Claudia (Anna Mouglalis). As in much of Garrel’s work, it’s nearly impossible to figure out how time has passed between scenes, or to pinpoint the moment when Louis’ relationship with Claudia crosses the line from “troubled” into “doomed.” Ominous references—Vladimir Mayakovsky, Seneca The Younger, The Sorrows Of Young Werther—circle the couple like vultures, ready to swoop in at a moment of emotional turmoil.
And yet Jealousy isn’t some howling portrait of self-destructive bad love, where every scene ends in a screaming match. In fact, it’s serene, even by the director’s standards. The air of romantic defeatism is pervasive; Garrel has long excelled at depicting the quiet moments of troubled lives and volatile relationships, framing them through dreams, spectral visitations, and scenes structured like memories, recalled years after the fact. Jealousy was reportedly inspired by a period from Garrel’s childhood when his father, actor Maurice Garrel, left the family to live with his mistress––a subject he first tackled as a teenage filmmaking wunderkind in 1965’s Droite De Visite. However, a viewer doesn’t have to know that to sense that there are some autobiographical details at play here; the opening scene––in which Louis and Clothilde’s daughter, Charlotte (Olga Milshtein), watches through a keyhole as her mom begs her dad not to leave—would register as personal even without that context.
Of course, context—timeframes, character relationships, whether something is real or imagined—tends to be elusive in Garrel’s work, which is more emotional than psychological. It’s this lack of explication that makes his films—including Jealousy—seem at once authentic and tantalizingly mysterious. (“Don’t ask my name or whether I come here often,” says Claudia to a prospective one-night-stand partway through the film. “I like secrets.”) What it resembles, in the end, is life as remembered from the afterlife. In Garrel’s cosmology, the great beyond is the medium of film; it’s pretty there and no one ever ages, but it’s also too removed from the world of the living to completely understand them. Jealousy—arguably the slightest film Garrel has produced since the 1980s—may not add up to a whole lot, but its sense of life and the medium is, as always, substantial and accomplished.