Acting for a living isn't as easy as it looks. Actors almost never know where their next paychecks will come from or how long their careers will last. The 51st New York Film Festival features two films about actors whose careers put a strain on their romantic relationships. In Jealousy, theater actor Louis leaves his girlfriend and mother of his daughter to be with an unemployed actress named Claudia. In When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, film actress Alina becomes romantically involved with her director Paul while concealing this fact from her boyfriend. In both films, the profession of acting helps test the limitations of romantic love.
Shot in black and white, Philippe Garrel's Jealousy is a contemporary take on classic French cinema that explores the timeless themes of love and commitment. Evening, on the other hand, begins with a lengthy discussion of filmmaking in the digital age. The first in a series of long conversations raises the question of whether movies in 50 years will exist in the same way they do now. Evening marks a new chapter in Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu's study of characters engaged in quiet philosophical debates about their jobs. Paul and Alina spend the majority of the film rehearsing or speaking in virtually emotionless tones about the movie they're working on and movies in general. Even seemingly random conversations have clear parallels to cinema. "To what extent do you think Chinese cuisine has been influenced by the chopstick?" Paul asks Alina, immediately conjuring up the earlier topic of digital technology's influence on filmmaking.
The one issue Paul and Alina almost never discuss is their romance. Were it not for a brief kiss in the first scene and a single shot of Alina lying naked in Paul's bed, the audience might not even know these two are romantically involved. Instead, we become intimately acquainted with a number of logistical issues facing Paul and his movie. The portrayal of his relationship with Alina as tedious, however, lends realism to the film that is further enhanced by the fact that every scene is shot in a single, long take. While an appreciation for this style of filmmaking is largely an acquired taste -- one could argue Evening is the cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry -- the ingenuity of Porumboiu's technique is remarkable. Just as the tension in his 2009 film Police, Adjective built slowly to a calm climax, the emotional currents between Paul and Alina collide in a similarly controlled fashion. "It's an unnatural relationship," she says bluntly after telling Paul he's not the first director she's slept with. "It's because of the script and the nature of the job and our insecurities."
While Evening explores the flawed romantic relationship between an actress and her director, Jealousy focuses on two struggling theater actors in Paris, only one of which is working. Louis has a part in a local production, leaving Claudia to wander the streets while he attends rehearsals. The couple is happily in love, though part of Claudia's devotion to Louis seems to stem from an irrational fear of being left alone. While in a cafe with a friend, she leaves suddenly, running to Louis' apartment and collapsing at his side. "I was so scared," she says. "I thought you'd gone." Shortly thereafter, while Louis rehearses, Claudia goes to a bar and quickly attracts the attention of a young man. The two go home after having exchanged only a few words. Though Louis never cheats on Claudia to the same degree, he briefly falls prey to the advances of one of his female cast members.
Ironically, it is the financial hardship of acting for a living that causes the greatest rift in Louis and Claudia's relationship. Still, Jealousy's depiction of lovers as being susceptible to sudden turns of infidelity does raise the question of whether Louis and Claudia are truly in love or just acting in love. Contrasting their tenuous relationship is the bond between Louis and his daughter Charlotte, which feels as strong as any father-daughter relationship in the history of cinema despite Louis' separation from Charlotte's mother. The beauty of this film, in addition to the shadow-laden shots of a non-descript Paris, is its singular focus on Louis and Claudia's troubled relationship.
"Maybe you understand fictional characters better than the people close to you," an elderly man says to Louis in perhaps the most insightful line of the film.
Romantic relationships are never easy. What Jealousy and When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism share is a unique compassion for actors struggling to balance love and work. "Everyone puts on an act," Claudia says. "It's terrifying."
This essay is one in a series produced by participants of this year's New York Film Festival Critics Academy. Click here for more on the writers.