Currently screening at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center are Louis Garrel’s A Faithful Man (Recommended) and Rick Alverson’s The Mountain (Recommended). The Kino Lorber double-feature barely share anything in common, but I thought it useful to consider both films in the same space. If anything, it’s their cultural and thematic contrasts that serve to illuminate my reading and thoughts on both. And more importantly, it’s their unexpected moments of similarity, Garrel and Alverson’s calculated use of elision, which makes a duel reading of the films more rewarding.
The considerably lighter of the two, Garrel’s sophomore feature A Faithful Man, carries on with the tradition of his father’s filmography, observing the emotional acrobatics of unhappy Parisians attempting to find some solace in their relationships. It begins with Abel (Garrel) being informed by his girlfriend Marianne (Laetitia Casta) that she’s pregnant with their friend Paul’s child. The two, in a comically low-key way, split before reigniting their romance following Paul’s funeral eight years later. But the circumstances around Paul’s death blur whatever romance still exists between the two, with the passage of time and Abel’s neuroticism complicating matters further. When Paul’s sister Eve (Lily-Rose Depp) attempts to win Abel’s affections, going so far as to confront and warn Marianne of an ensuing war, the film could have disappointingly reverted into banal theatrics. But mercifully, Garrel complicates the central relationship even further, utilizing the fractured narrative wherein eight years separated Abel and Marianne to speak on our inability to ever really know what our partners are thinking. It becomes an examination of characters who gravitate toward thoughts of what’s missing and lost, rather than holding on to what’s there.
Rick Alverson’s brand of confrontational, cerebral cinema reaches an apex in The Mountain. Set in America’s mid-fifties, the exercise follows Andy (Tye Sheridan), a despondent young man disconnected from the moving world, working at an ice rink as he observes a kind of grace that seem like fingertips away but nevertheless completely out of his grasp. His mother was institutionalized and his father (Udo Kier) passes at the start of the film, which prompts a visit from Dr. Wallace (Jeff Goldblum). Wally takes Andy under his wing in the kind of relationship that bares a striking resemblance to that of Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. A lobotomist practicing an exceedingly brutal method of surgery (as if there were any other kind of lobotomy other than “brutal”), Wally recruits Andy as a portrait photographer, having him take pictures of his patients before and after their surgeries. What comes out of this relationship is never explicitly understood. What you do get out of the film is a denial of closure, a refusal to provide the answers needed to make sense of Andy’s fraught upbringing and confused sexuality. There’s no answers per se, but rather a series of impulses, which is perhaps the closest that Alverson ever gets to suggesting how the traumas of the past not only haunt the present, but rob people of their futures.
A Faithful Man’s most intriguing insights tend to involve Garrel’s awareness that certain questions are asked merely to reconcile one’s ego. When Abel asks if Marianne ever slept with Paul and him on the same day, she sidesteps the question. When pressed about it again, Abel doesn’t necessarily get the answer he hopes. Or rather, the answer he gets doesn’t align with his expectations; so much of Abel’s masculinity hinges on Marianne’s answers. Similarly, Andy would seem to follow Wally as a means get getting closer to his mother. If he understood the procedure that his mother underwent, perhaps it would bring him closer to filling out the human-sized lesion in his heart. But Andy’s daily, dead-end monotony ends up being too much to bear as he strains for catharsis. Alverson will frequently show Andy on his knees as he prepares to take his photographs, as if in prayer, in some vain hope that the women whose photos he takes will provide him with the Truth. When the answers don’t come, Andy succumbs to violence. As a character in the film later suggests, “it is just a photograph.”
Toni Morrison once wrote about the notion of masculinity being “defined by acquisition”. Both Garrel and Alverson urge that this acquisition carries on a particular existential weight, not only some kind of statistic of experience. Alverson’s austere filmmaking may suggest that his concerns and preoccupations are of a more elevated variety, but Garrel too proves capable of asking some very tough questions about legacies and trust that can be clearly understood to be connected to his father’s robust filmography. What you get out of A Faithful Man and The Mountain are two examples of filmmakers reckoning with the colossal shadows of their past, beckoning on the comforts of a relationship to make sense of the chaos of their despair. And both are coming to grips with the reality that if they’re asking questions in the hopes of getting specific answers, then they’ve already lost.