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A key scene near the beginning of Philippe Garrel’s new drama In the Shadow of Women finds the middle-aged Manon (Clotilde Courau) sitting in a café in Paris with her mother, discussing her work and love life. Her husband, Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) is a documentary filmmaker; Manon helps out on set with sound and camerawork. She expresses the personal fulfillment she finds through this work: “It’s my choice, not a sacrifice. What’s better than working with the man you love?” Her mother remains doubtful, suspecting that Manon’s unacknowledged efforts only keep her “in the shadow” of Pierre.

The film is a tale of infidelity which, like many, foregrounds the abject neediness of the male infidel. Merhar, employing the same boyish smolder that served him well in Chantal Akerman’s La Captive (2000) and Almayer’s Folly (2011), steps right into the part. The deadpan narration (that’s Garrel’s son, Louis) offers up not once but twice the phrase “typical male behavior”. Yet despite Garrel’s evident interest in critiquing male entitlement, his soul-baring dialogue and mise-en-scène stages a kind of reversal that feels oddly conservative.

Like Roberto Rossellini’s history films, where the audience is didactically reminded that the man who wears a crown is really a slave, and the the slave is really the king, Garrel’s film asks who, really, is in the shadow of whom? Towards the beginning of the film, Garrel feeds his audience a bunch of Bergman-esque close-ups in which, true to Manon’s mother, Pierre’s profiled face quite literally overshadows that of his out-of-focus spouse. But the film’s twisted web of interpersonal exchanges soon undermines such easy appraisals. With each narrative reveal, one gets the creeping sense that Pierre, too, by virtue of his very infidelity, his childish behavior, his destructive impulses, lives in the shadow of the woman he’s betraying.

This is the exact kind of apparently egalitarian impulse which, when set in such stark terms, becomes rather problematic. However ontologically “enslaved” the king may be by his crown, he’s still got all the money and power, and Garrel’s democratic approach to his character’s offenses at first appears suspect along these same lines. The good thing about In the Shadow of Women, then, is that it’s not merely an episteme or lesson presented for our scrutiny. It is a wonderfully performed drama, and the very friction thereby produced between Garrel’s empathetic direction and his unbalanced power play lends it a sustained and sustaining vitality throughout its brisk 73 minutes.

Those enamored of the French New Wave from which Garrel emerged at a young age will appreciate the handsome, crisp B&W domestic interiors and city streets on display courtesy of DP Renato Berta, a collaborator of Rohmer, Malle, and Straub-Huillet. The unyielding intensity with which those photographic environments are invested, however, is almost entirely the work of excellent acting. As I already mentioned, Merhar, all droopy hair and hunched defensive stances, seems physically constituted for his role. But it’s Courau that thoroughly steals the show, bursting from the visual and narrative framework and bringing an uneasy mixture of resentment, anger, humor and confidence that feels lived-in, through and through. Her performance is so compelling that those same frameworks are thereby invaluably strengthened: whatever the formula of push-and-pull, you-cheat-I-cheat in which In the Shadow of Women participates, one leaves the theater with the utmost conviction that this narrative marrow has been drawn from the very bones of real life.

The 53rd New York Film Festival ran from September 25 to October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.