Love is a universe of two in Philippe Garrel’s fatalistic romance “Frontier of Dawn.” Shot in richly textured and contrasting black-and-white celluloid, it centers on a young photographer, François (Louis Garrel, the filmmaker’s son), and the two women with whom he finds and loses love. After his affair ends with Carole (Laura Smet), a famous actress given to flare-ups and meltdowns, he immerses himself in a new life with Eve (Clémentine Poidatz), who promises him a child and perhaps a chance at real happiness.
There’s more, including madness, electroshock treatment, a discussion about the cost of baby diapers, and the sudden emergence of a ghost in a mirror, all of which Mr. Garrel connects so loosely that they feel more like moments out of time than narrative fragments. His elliptical storytelling style probably explains some of the unhappy reactions the film earned after (and during) its first press screening at the Cannes Film Festival last May, though the ghost didn’t help. This isn’t new: Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” was jeered at Cannes in 1960. Serious movies that insist on their own seriousness almost always face a difficult reception, whether they are intellectual puzzles or, like “Frontier of Dawn,” romantic cries from the heart.
One of the most important French filmmakers of the post-New Wave generation, Mr. Garrel (born in 1948) has only lately begun to receive the attention he deserves in this country. Although many of his films remain out of easy reach for American viewers (a handful are available on DVD), the recent release of “Regular Lovers,” his heartbreaking 2005 look back at May 1968, and “I Don’t Hear the Guitar Anymore,” a crushing 1991 drama about his doomed affair with the singer Nico, have helped fill in the gaps. “Frontier of Dawn” doesn’t reach the eloquent heights of either of those earlier titles, but it’s a lovely work, suffused with a deep melancholy that seems etched into each of its beautifully lighted images.
The nakedness of this melancholy, its unvarnished, unapologetic blatancy, partly explains, I think, the difficulty some viewers have had with the film. That, and love. It seems strange to say, but even as cinemas of all national origins continue to find new and expressive ways to convey violence on screen, many now seem at a loss when it comes to love. Certainly that’s the case in America, where passion is often tempered with laughs (as in innumerable buddy romances) or becomes an excuse for sublimation (as in those orgies of consumption known as chick flicks). But love is the drug in “Frontier of Dawn,” the thing that pulls people together, tears them apart and defines their relationship with other people and the world.
The film opens with François going to Carole’s Paris apartment to photograph her. Not long after, the two fall into bed. They keep falling. Carole, it emerges, is married to an actor (an almost phantom presence played by Eric Rulliat), who is trying to make it in Hollywood. Bored, perhaps lonely and self-absorbed, she doesn’t initially seem as taken with François as he is with her, though she might be just accustomed to adoration. Ms. Smet, whose physically graceless, at times almost impassive performance works better earlier in the story, when her character seems detached from both François and the passion he clearly feels, is short on technique and natural appeal. She’s an unfortunate object of desire in more ways than the filmmaker may have intended.
The younger Mr. Garrel, whose free-flowing tears and beauty were designed for tragedy, never seems to have to work hard to seduce an audience, and the easiness of his charm can make him appear overly callow. But because he wears it lightly, that charm can also seem like a flimsy defense, which in turn invests him with an acute air of vulnerability. François succumbs easily to Carole, who loses him as her grip tightens. Things fall apart. And as Carole ends up terminally alone, François, even with Eve and a baby ready to bring him down to earth, quickly drifts into the ether. One day, looking at his own mirrored image, he instead sees Carole, who urges him to join her. In Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus,” perhaps an inspiration for this film, Orpheus steps through a mirror that leads to the underworld where his beloved Eurydice waits for him. The mirror is a border between two countries, a frontier between life and death, love and its absence. Whether Carole’s ghost is real or a risible narrative contrivance is immaterial next to Philippe Garrel’s commitment to love as an absolute and to his own artistic vision. Time and again, he inserts two lovers inside his meticulous compositions, where they reveal passions that by virtue of their excesses remind us of how drained of life the modern world truly is. He transforms a private reverie into a public sacrament, invokes the eternal, risks absurdity, invites derision, seduces, shocks, transcends.
FRONTIER OF DAWN
Opens on Friday in Brooklyn.
Directed by Philippe Garrel; written by Mr. Garrel, Marc Cholodenko and Arlette Langmann; director of photography, William Lubtchansky; edited by Yann Dedet; music by Jean-Claude Vannier; produced by Edouard Weil and Conchita Airoldi; released by IFC Films. At the BAMcinématek, BAM Rose Cinemas, 30 Lafayette Avenue, at Ashland Place, Fort Greene. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Louis Garrel (François), Laura Smet (Carole), Clémentine Poidatz (Eve), Emmanuel Broche (Jean-Jacques), Olivier Massart (Eve’s Father) and Eric Rulliat (Carole’s husband).