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Love and Unhappiness, in Soft Shades of Gray

‘Jealousy,’ Directed by Philippe Garrel

“Jealousy,” Philippe Garrel’s new film, begins in tears and proceeds through seasons of romantic melancholy, unfolding on Paris streets and in Bohemian apartments filmed in lovely shades of gray. The black-and-white images (captured by the great Belgian cinematographer Willy Kurant) seem to float free of time, accompanied by the disarmingly sweet tones of Jean-Louis Aubert’s music. The main character, a young actor named Louis, is based on Mr. Garrel’s father and played by his son (also named Louis). This tale of emotional ambivalence and wayward passion seems to be happening equally in the present, in the Nouvelle Vague era of the director’s young manhood, and at any other point in the long history of Gallic love trouble.

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Which is not to suggest that there is anything generic or imprecise about the film. On the contrary, it is almost achingly specific, a close and rigorous study of the nuances of feeling that bind and separate Louis and the women in his life. When we first meet him, he is leaving Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant), with whom he has a daughter, for reasons that seem both urgent and abstract. Clothilde begs him to stay, but Louis breaks free and goes to live with Claudia (Anna Mouglalis). At first, Claudia is terrified that he will leave or betray her, but as time goes by the poles of their relationship reverse, and he becomes the jealous one.

There is obvious potential for melodrama here, but Mr. Garrel has never been interested in the traditional telescoping of feeling into big scenes and confrontations. At times his films feel as if they were entirely composed of what more conventional narrative features would leave out — the interstitial and transitional moments that invisibly link the well-marked stations of the plot. Those are the places where the richest information is stored, where the mysterious and self-evident truths of personality and feeling reside. Mr. Garrel’s method goes beyond realism to achieve a kind of psychological intimacy that is rare and, in its low-key, meandering way, tremendously exciting. It is almost uncanny how well you feel you know these people, even as their motives and behavior remain opaque to one another.

In a brief 77 minutes, “Jealousy” provides a remarkably full — and also an intriguingly partial — portrait of a group of struggling artists as no-longer-entirely-young men and women. Louis belongs to a theater company that performs intense and rigorous productions of French classics, while both Clothilde and Claudia are actresses whose careers have stalled. Claudia, while professing her love for Louis, also impulsively hooks up with a stranger in a bar and later gravitates into a cynical affair with an architect.

Ms. Mouglalis, tall, angular and inclined to frowning, is a perfect match for the younger Mr. Garrel’s moody sensitivity. If “Jealousy” contained just the two of them, it would be beautiful and agonized, a duet of star-crossed passion not unlike “I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar,” Philippe Garrel’s 1991 film based on his affair with the German singer Nico. This film feels lighter, warmer and more accessible than some of its predecessors, in no small part thanks to Olga Milshtein’s lively performance as Charlotte, the daughter of Louis and Clothilde. A natural screen presence with an authentic sense of mischief, Ms. Milshtein, like her character, disrupts the self-absorption of the adults with her frankness and her expectation of attention.

You may wonder how much she understands about what her mother, her father and her father’s lover are up to. To the extent that this is autobiography, of course, she is the director’s surrogate, and her perspective is therefore his — curious about grown-up love and its discontents, inclined to forgive but too honest to forget anything.

Fire Starters; Julianne Moore, Liv Freundlich, Jessica Chastain, Domhnall Gleeson, Amy Adams, Karen Elson, Madison Stubbington & Florence Welch by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue US, August 2014 

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