A man shaves off his moustache, and not only does nobody notice, but his wife and friends all insist that he never had a moustache. Funny, huh? But not so funny in La Moustache, the feature-film debut that thriller-novelist Emmanuel Carrère adapted from his book. Here, the moustache man, Vincent Lindon, gets increasingly irritated at his wife Emmanuelle Devos for not acknowledging the shave. Even when he confronts her with old pictures of himself with a moustache, or the stubble he digs out of the trash, she still insists she doesn't know what he's talking about.
The weirdness persists. Husband and wife alike quit smoking years ago, but now they're picking up cigarettes again. Devos buys Lindon a garish green jacket that wouldn't have fit either of their tastes before. When he asks her about their vacation in Bali, she doesn't remember it; when he talks about his parents, she insists that they're dead. A little lost facial hair has reshaped Lindon's whole life.
La Moustache recalls the "everyday suspense" films of Roman Polanski and the existential woe of Michelangelo Antonioni, but it isn't as strange or penetrating as the former, or as artfully shot as the latter. Early on, Carrère gets a lot of juice out of the idea that Devos is only playing an elaborately cruel prank, and since Lindon's afraid of looking like a poor sport, their strained relationship is the result of a benign gender war. But Carrère overplays his hand, and once the couple begins to get frightened of each other and Lindon scrambles away to Hong Kong, La Moustache stops being a meditation on fluid identity, and becomes yet another dry art film about a guy walking around.
But it rallies at the end. Throughout La Moustache, Carrère plays with the idea of starting over—"Can you put the CD back to the start?" is one of the first lines of dialogue—and he uses bleary water imagery to suggest how hard it is to really see ourselves. So it's only natural that while Lindon's on a soul-searching retreat in a city by the sea, his ship begins to right itself, just as mysteriously as it started to list. And Carrère holds his shot on his star's face in those closing scenes, letting viewers decide whether Lindon is thankful for a return to normalcy, or dreading the possibility that he could lose himself again the next time he steps up to the sink.