Of late, the films of Philippe Garrel have felt less like standalone works than items in a series—variations on familiar themes and subjects (romantic love, sexual infidelity), all bound by a concerted stylistic consistency (pared-down plots, black-and-white widescreen frames). Co-written by Jean-Claude Carrière and Arlette Langmann (regular collaborators of Garrel’s since 2013’s Jealousy), the veteran French director’s latest, The Salt Of Tears, is no exception. Like his previous films, it features a selfish, callow man acting selfishly and callowly, romantic complications born of his actions, and ironic narration that intermittently comments on both. But though it runs longer than his last three features (all of which came in under 80 minutes), The Salt Of Tears is perhaps the slightest, most under-imagined of the bunch.
Our protagonist in this instance is handsome, soft-spoken Luc (newcomer Logann Antuofermo), a joiner/carpenter who, after years of apprenticing with his father (André Wilms) in his provincial hometown, travels to Paris to interview for a spot in the prestigious École Boulle’s furniture program. While there, he casually picks up and romances a young woman, Djemila (Oulaya Amamra), but when she later visits his hometown, hoping to see him, he cruelly stands her up. He also rekindles a relationship with a former girlfriend, Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), gets her pregnant, and then abandons her when he gets into École Boulle. Eventually, he meets “his equal,” per the film’s narration: a nurse named Betsy (Souheila Yacoub) who moves in with him, but also, to his chagrin, brings a “co-worker” (Martin Mesnier) whom she continues to sleep with and refuses to give up. The resulting scenario is something like an only partially consensual Design For Living.
None of these story elements are problems in and of themselves; many masterpieces have been made from less. But for all of the film’s focus on romantic relationships, it offers precious little in terms of behavioral or textural specificity. Garrel tends to favor mood over psychology, an approach that’s paid dividends in the past, giving his work a more fable-like tenor, as well as evoking a keening, haunted sense of anguish and regret. In The Salt Of Tears, though, the result is a largely monotonous, listless affair filled with unmemorable turns from capable actors. Only during a typically wonderful dance sequence in a club (recalling similar scenes in Lover For A Day and Regular Lovers) does the film depart from its oppressive air of romantic defeatism.
Ultimately, what registers most strongly in The Salt Of Tears is Luc’s relationship with his father, a through line that acts as a kind of counterpoint to his romantic entanglements. (That the film doesn’t star Garrel’s son Louis is arguably a missed opportunity, though he’s perhaps too busy directing his own variations on the same material.) Antuofermo and especially Wilms ably convey their characters’ mutual respect and affection near the film’s start, and though their exchanges never turn openly acrimonious, they do become more guarded and distanced as Luc’s sentimental Parisian education continues apace. At one point, Luc even pretends not to be in when his visiting dad, having missed his train home, knocks on his apartment door. The guilt from this brief episode carries through to the film’s cutting final scene, confirming that this father-son relationship is indeed meant to be the film’s core. And while this awareness doesn’t excuse the film’s thinness elsewhere—particularly in the conception of its female characters, who are each boxed into identifiable archetypes—it does provide some much-needed clarity as to Garrel’s intentions.
Close to a decade since the death of his father Maurice, who acted in a number of his films, it’s only natural that Garrel, now 72, should make a movie that’s explicitly about a man’s generational, artistic inheritance. (That Wilms’ character is something of a saint does distinguish the film from, say, In The Shadow Of Women, where the leading man’s “hero”/father figure is revealed to be a vain phony.) This undercurrent of filial piety doesn’t elevate The Salt Of Tears anywhere close to the upper echelon of the filmmaker’s work, but it does provide one of his skimpiest acts of self-plagiarism at least one singular idea: that the follies of one’s youth are not all created equal, and that at least for some, the tears one sheds for one’s father will be more bitter than those expended on any romance.