By Karina Longworth
When Philippe Garrel’s most recent film premiered in competition at Cannes last year, it carried the French title "La Frontière de l’aube;" that was translated in English in the Cannes guide as "Frontier of Dawn", but the subtitle at the beginning of the film read, The Dawn of the Shore. None of these titles give any indication of what this film is: a story of amour gone so fou that the natural world becomes subject to the supernatural. Hands down the most accessible Garrel film I’ve seen, it’s still a strange, swoony, genre-bending challenge. I named it as the best undistributed film of 2008; now, IFC is screening it theatrically in series at BAM in Brooklyn (starting tonight) and at Cinefamily in Los Angeles (Saturday, March 14), before it premieres on VOD.
When I reviewed the film last May at the festival, after it had been roundly booed at its Cannes press screening, I wondered if those critics who gave a dismissive but hardly as cruel reception to James Gray’s "Two Lovers" earlier in the festival would bother to grapple with the similarities between that star-studded American production and Garrel’s infinitely cooler, warm-toned black-and-white capital-A work of Art. For the most part, they didn’t, even though on paper, they’re essentially the same film: a Jewish photographer falls for a difficult, substance-dependent blonde; even though that relationship is clearly doomed from the start, it haunts him and prevents him from happily settling into a domestic routine with a still-beautiful but less troubled and exciting brunette. The big difference, at least narratively speaking: in Gray’s film, as the director told Andrew O’Hehir, the protagonist ultimately “does choose life.” Spoiler alert! The resolution to Garrel’s story is the diametric opposite.
Movie star Carole (Laura Smet) is living half a world away from her filmmaker husband when she meets Francois (Louis Garrel, son of Phillipe, his eyes dark, as if eye-linered naturally), a photographer who comes to her hotel to take her picture. It’s not clear if Francois is a journalist or an artist or what, but the project seems to take him weeks to complete, and by the second photo shoot, Francois and Carole have fallen into bed. They pledge undying love, but the sharp violin/piano jazz-horror score alerts us right away that things aren’t going to work out. Gin-swilling serial suicide attempter Carole seems destined to go the way of Frances Farmer, and though she seems convinced that Francois can save her from herself, he can’t stop what’s coming for long.
After Carole’s husband comes home suddenly and just misses catching Francois in her bed, Francois leaves and, despite Carole’s pleas, stoically refuses to come back. Carole’s heartbreak leads to a swerve into "Shock Corridor" territory. Meanwhile, Francois takes up with the lovely but fairly normal (and thus comparatively boring) Eve. A year after Carole violently exits the picture, Eve becomes pregnant; just as Francois has accepted that he’s about to become a father, the spectre of Carole comes back to try and drag his happy home life into the grave.
Perhaps because there are more than a few members of the press corps who could be described as socially awkward Jewish males, there’s been a lot of attention paid to the fact that in "Two Lovers," Gwyneth Paltrow’s character is able to push Joaquin Phoenix’s as far as she does because she embodies his bad girl shiksa fantasy. When in that film, the nice Jewish boy threatens to abandon his family and local community in order to run off with the dangerous blonde instead of settling for the sensible match of his same background and faith, it might be a mistake and it might be a disappointment to his parents, but it’s hardly a tragedy of biblical proportions.
Garrel’s film takes the mystical threat of the shiksa far more seriously, literally turning her into something out of a horror-movie as the film morphs from classical, almost slight romance to a serious meditation on love, faith and eternity. Garrel tells us twice that Francois is Jewish––once directly, once implicitly (Francois thinks talk of concentration camp survivors is fit for pillow talk; amazingly, Carole agrees). Taking place in Paris, far outside "Two Lovers’" world of Brighton Beach second-and third-generation immigrants, this information only seems significant after the final scene. At the risk of giving away more than I’d like to, the film’s denouement requires its Jewish protagonist to believe in an afterlife.
When confessing his bind to a friend, the friend has no sympathy for Francois’ inability to concentrate on his impending nuptials and push Carole out of his head. “Bourgeois happiness,” says the fri end, as snarkily as such an ultra-serious French film would allow. “Scary, isn’t it?” Apparently, it is. There are shots in this film’s second half that are spookier than anything I’ve seen in a horror film in recent years –– without the aid of any effect more special than a basic optical print –– and simultaneously, incredibly moving in their invocation of a love that won’t die. Or, at the very least, refuses to abide by traditional boundaries of love and death.
This review appeared in slightly different form during the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.