jealousy

 

– That place will be the death of us.

– Not if we love each other.

 

Out of context, this exchange between Louis and Claudia, the two bohemian non-lovers at the center of Jealousy, Philippe Garrel’s twenty-fourth feature, sounds like the kind of bickering you overhear on the subway.  By the time it shows up in the film, though, it feels like warmth on a chilly night.  “Place” in Jealousy is a terrifyingly vague concept.  Though we seem to be in a thoroughly modern Paris, complete with rent hikes and traffic congestion, the film, thanks largely to Willy Kurant (the same cinematographer who shot Masculine Feminine), looks like it ought to be playing out in Godard’s 1960s, all handsome grays and inky blacks.  Garrel’s Parisians are always bouncing between boredom and romance, ending up lonelier than they’d be if they could remain in either state.  Loving each other, or at least saying they do, is all they have.

Garrel’s son, Louis, (best known as the beautiful Théo in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers), plays another, less successful actor named Louis, who seems oddly content with running through endless, moneyless rehearsals. In the film’s first scene, glimpsed through the eyes of his young daughter, Louis leaves his wife for his actress girlfriend, Claudia (Anna Margoulis).  While this kind of family grief has inspired plenty of great art (including not a few French films), none of the creative types in Jealousy comes close to making a masterpiece. What they’re missing is a genuine community, a wave of support and collaboration that they can ride to creative success.  In a different sense, then, Garrel uses a hybrid Paris to acknowledge both the New Wave, which inspired him to direct his first feature film half a century ago, and the current state of the industry, in which the kinds of films that used to be hits are chucked into the nearest art theater, and even the most successful directors sometimes feel as if they’re on their own.

It’s instructive to compare Jealousy with Inside Llewyn Davis, another wintry work about the perils of the creative life.  Llewyn is full of beautiful art: even its treacliest musical numbers have their charm.  The Coen Brothers put us in the privileged position of recognizing the music’s beauty; they allow us to escape the drudgery of Llewyn’s existence, even if he can’t.  The artists of Jealousy share none of their work with us; the closest thing we get to seeing Louis act is a quick run-through of his lines while he’s shaving.  Garrel is less interested in the way we enjoy art than in the way artists survive, or don’t.  Another way of putting this is to compare the structure of the two films.  As Richard Brody pointed out in the New Yorker, the Coens’ film is circular, with Llewyn making a long journey back to the same night at the Gaslight, only to be knocked on his ass by a younger, better artist named Robert Zimmerman.  As its first, primal scene suggests, Garrel’s film is a different creature, almost a Bildungsroman.  Where Llewyn gets kicked out of his way of life, Louis learns to settle into his, picking his kid up on weekends and showing up on time for rehearsals.  In the end, Jealousy pulls off a cinematic feat that’s much rarer than it sounds: depicting artists as they live, not as they perform.

If this all sounds a little odd, it should, since self-reference and deadpan honesty rarely make comfortable bedfellows.  Yet it’s exactly this strange combination that gives the film its genuine insight into what it takes to be an artist.  One reason why it’s so short (barely 75 minutes) is that little time is wasted endowing Louis’ character with psychological depth – we feel as if we already know him perfectly.  Perhaps that’s because Philippe Garrel knows him, has been him, and has seen hundreds like him.  There’s a lovely moment halfway through the film when Louis and Claudia walk his daughter through a park, and for a few minutes all familial nastiness is forgotten as the three of them bicker about lollipops.  At times like this, it’s clearest that Jealousy, for all its fascination with the young, was directed by an older man; the scene has the melancholy of a mistake made long ago.  Garrel’s great insight, delivered like a long, tired sigh, is that bohemianism, like love and art, is both the source of his characters’ problems and the shield they use to protect themselves.

But if bohemianism is a vicious circle, what happens when it inevitably collapses on itself?  The gunshot that arrives ten minutes before Jealousy’s end could easily be laughed off as another example of the superficial action cliché with which the existential crisis genre loves to spice itself up.  Yet unlike, say, the stabbing at the end of Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Louis’ decision feels less like his story’s climax than its denouement: betrayal and failure are just the way things are, so there’s no point in getting too angry about them, or too jealous.  Like Louis, my friends and I spend huge chunks of time worrying about our futures as writers, filmmakers, actors, and artists.  After watching this film, I wonder if creative people don’t eventually run out of energy, if they don’t simply choose to stop worrying, regardless of whether they find success or not.  Garrel crafts an insightful story about coming of age, but in its final minutes, we realize that it’s equally a story about blowing off steam.