The Salt of Tears is a young man’s story made by a filmmaker in his 70s. Director Philippe Garrel’s movie, co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière and Arlette Langmann, looks like an unsentimental memory play that hasn’t been screened since the early days of the French New Wave. It’s shot in black and white, a call out to early Godard and Truffaut, and randomly punctuated with the voice of an omniscient narrator. Without the inclusion of a letter dated 2019, there’s no other sign that the film is taking place in the 21st century.
The main character Luc (Logann Antuofermo), his father (André Wilms) and none of Luc’s three consecutive girlfriends are shown using cell phones. They don’t send emails, watch television or play video games. Not a single brand advertisement insinuates itself on screen. The world that Garrel creates is visually pure, remarkably quiet and stripped of any signs of recognizable modernity. The single exception is the director’s contemporary depiction of (female) nudity and (hetero)sexuality.
The plot is indebted to every Eric Rohmer film concerned with the vagaries of love. But Garrel takes his characters more seriously than Rohmer does. There are fewer touches of whimsy and grace as Luc fumbles through his romantic relationships. His father is a highly skilled carpenter and Luc is following in his footsteps. When the film begins, he takes the train to Paris for an entrance exam at an exclusive school that’s dedicated to the craft of woodwork.
En route, he asks Djemila (Oulaya Amamra) for directions. Luc is handsome and charismatic, if genuinely opaque. The narrator tells us what he’s thinking since Luc’s thoughts and emotions are kept under wraps in the script. Luc would have a lot more to say if he’d been a character in a Rohmer film. He woos Djemila for a couple of days and gets her into bed, but she refuses his gentle request for sex. She’s genuinely shocked when he abruptly leaves. Djemila’s fallen for him quickly, too quickly, and suddenly realizes he’s not pursuing her for a mutually requited affair of the heart. The scene is a fine blend of comedy and tragedy.
Luc then returns to the house where he lives with his father. While he’s waiting for the results of the exam, he runs into an ex-girlfriend from high school. He meets Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte) at the home of a family she babysits for. Within minutes Luc’s massaging her naked body in a bathtub. This is what a French nanny is encouraged to do on her lunch break. Luc and Geneviève seem like they’re made for each other. They’re familiar with each other’s bodies, which makes them uninhibited and unashamed of their renewed passion.
Luc acts the part of a devoted boyfriend but he won’t commit to her. He distracts himself with thoughts of Djemila but eventually moves on to Betsy (Souheila Yacoub). Before they meet, the narrator tells us that, with her, he’s finally met his match. That comment only seems to apply in one sense. Betsy registers as a match because she’s unwilling, uninterested, or as unable to commit to a monogamous relationship as Luc is. Garrel’s camera, though, is committed to recreating — but not mocking — Luc’s furtive and titillated male gaze. He showcases both Geneviève and Betsy in full frontal shower scenes.
The Salt of Tears isn’t solely devoted to objectifying the actresses’ bodies. Djemila and Geneviève both come across as wholly formed characters. Perhaps that’s why Luc doesn’t stay with them. He’s unformed and not yet mature. Luc’s personal melodrama is a madeleine that the director can still taste. The anguish of these attractive people in their 20s falling in and out of love is right-sized. It’s laced with melancholy rather than weighted with an oppressive air of despair. The jilted girlfriends will cry for awhile but they’re not suicidal. And there’s something in Luc’s impassive eyes that suggests, despite his limitations, he’ll never be without a lover.
The Salt of Tears opens at the Smith Rafael Film Center on January 22.