It takes confidence and a healthy amount of narcissism to direct yourself in a farce about two women who engage in competitive psychological gamesmanship for the pleasure of your company. That is true even if you are not the script’s sole author (and the other is the veteran screenwriter and longtime Luis Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière).
But in “A Faithful Man,” the director-star, Louis Garrel, plays with the premise’s surface egotism in funny, understated ways. Although Garrel is French-cinema royalty — his father is Philippe Garrel, a director who also specializes in autocritique — the movie delights in the spectacle of seeing the actor rendered powerless. His character, Abel, is cuckolded, manipulated and misled, but Garrel rarely deviates from his signature gaze, which makes him look adrift and slightly vacant.
In the first scene, Abel’s girlfriend, Marianne (Laetitia Casta), with whom he lives as a freeloader, informs him that she is pregnant with his friend Paul’s child, and that she plans to marry Paul on the 26th. (“Of this month?” asks Abel, unruffled, considering the circumstances.) And by the way, it would be best if he moves out by then.
Nearly a decade later, when the never-seen Paul drops dead, Marianne becomes available again, an opportunity that Abel hopes to seize. Marianne’s young son, Joseph (Joseph Engel), a mystery buff who uses an iPhone recorder to keep tabs on intimate goings-on in his home, suggests to Abel that Marianne has gotten away with murdering Paul — a theory that Abel investigates without ever quite resolving. Complicating matters, the funeral puts Abel back in touch with Eve (Lily-Rose Depp), Paul’s younger sister, who has nursed a crush on him for years and is prepared to announce as much to Marianne.
Although Abel is the movie’s fulcrum, Marianne and Eve also participate in voice-over duties — a destabilizing choice that seems perfectly in keeping with the characters’ one-upmanship and the movie’s off-kilter comic tone. Garrel finds visual ways to emphasize a lack of balance. (Indeed, given who is holding hands in the closing scene, asymmetry may be the film’s overriding theme.)
Conversations are often shot in uncomfortable close-ups, and the cinematographer Irina Lubtchansky’s unobtrusive shading hedges against the potential for talky drabness. In some respects, the film resembles Éric Rohmer’s moral tales, but amorality — all three principal characters are effectively dancing on a man’s grave — seems to be the order of the day. In this low-key, engaging comedy, a protagonist must become unfaithful to prove his fidelity — and turn selfish to prove that he cares about people beyond himself.
A Faithful Man
Not rated. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.