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NYFF Review

THE SALT OF TEARS

Philippe Garrel’s career-long command of heartache and romantic pitfalls continues.

Patrick Preziosi on Philippe Garrel’s ‘The Salt of Tears’ (2020)

Carrying itself near-identically to its director’s recent run of modestly constructed romances, Philippe Garrel’s The Salt of Tears / Le sel des larmes opens within expected emotional and physical climes. Even with the continued co-writing efforts of Jean-Claude Carrière and Arlette Langman, the film is no mere retread, but an inviting return to an evolving filmic world that, within the past two decades, has become sympathetically attuned to the inevitable folly of early adulthood. 

Luc (Logann Antuofermo), a young man from the provinces, is in Paris to take the joinery entry exam for the prestigious École Boulle. He gets to talking with the equally-young Djemila (the luminous Oulaya Amamra) at a bus stop when he finds himself turned-around in the unfamiliar city. She’s on her way to an admittedly uninteresting job, and agrees to meet him when they both finish with their days. As is typical with Garrel, Luc and Djemila are surveyed incidentally, telling half-finished stories to one another on their informal date as they walk down anonymous Parisian boulevards, before their crowded living situations force them to bid goodbye. 

Garrel sources his cast from both acting classes he teaches and from veterans of French cinema, giving his talented nascent-types the opportunity to enact a real-life spectrum of experience both within and without the film, and thus, craft the illusion of true interage relationships. The affable and subtly rugged Luc has a strikingly honest relationship with his father (played by Aki Kaurismäki regular André Wilms), his sole parent and carpentry teacher, as the two operate the family business together. The elderly joiner becomes the most constant figure in his son’s life, as Garrel unveils a triptych structure which shuttles between Paris and the unnamed provincial town. Each is dedicated to a love interest of Luc’s, whose initially puppy-dogged courtship corrodes into a sex-first attitude. Each woman only marginally appears in the romance that follows hers, as Luc spirals in audience estimation.

As has been customary in everything from Liberté, la nuit (1984) to Lover for a Day / L’amant d’un jour (2017), the crux of The Salt of Tears falls upon a man or a woman who can’t help but to repeatedly act on masochistic impulses within their relationships. Luc’s second meeting with Djemila occurs inside a café, and the effect produced by the camera dollying in on their introductory, full-bodied embrace is overwhelmingly sensual, the manifold possibility of their relationship suddenly visible in the surrounding air. But Luc grows immune to Djemila’s affection, his own physical desires rudely superseding hers. When he returns home to wait for his exam results, he falls in with an old high school girlfriend, Geneviève (Louise Chevilotte), who’s eager to engage just as carnally as he is. Geneviève is then left behind when Luc is admitted to École Boulle, and while in Paris he offers a new lover, Betsy (Souheila Yacoub), a night nurse at a nearby hospital, to move in with him. 

From this three-act device, Garrel casually pulls a sleight-of-hand wherein, rather than maintain Luc as a standard-issue protagonist, the director instead maps the reverberating effect he has on family and girlfriends, the sparingly deployed narrator only supplying a few inklings of interiority (when description of Luc’s “cowardice” appears in voiceover, it seems that the narrator himself is encouraging this lessened opinion). Luc’s march from heartthrob to blinkered bastard would be almost misanthropic were the film purely a study of such; Garrel, clearly cognizant of this, tests our patience in the amount of time we spend with Luc, considering the loveliness he can derive from each dalliance. There’s a gnawing tension undergirding the film, a push-pull relationship between each scene that only grows more pronounced as The Salt of Tears mounts towards its finish. 

Garrel’s balancement is deftly exemplified by two diametrically opposed scenes, one which retains a singular viewpoint, and another which captures the thrill of communal catharsis. In the former, Djemila comes to Luc’s town for a planned night in a hotel, but he finds himself then with Geneviève, and chooses to abandon the one who’d travelled hours to see him. Amamara brilliantly and eagerly expresses giddy excitement as Djemila prepares herself and the room, an elativeness that soon unravels as she correctly suspects Luc isn’t coming (which cinematographer Renato Berta aids to convey, his long takes and simple black and white palette perfectly suited for the kinds of emotional epiphanies that the film generally trades in). The latter is another signature of Garrel’s that’s taken shape through his work these past two decades, as Luc and Betsy, amongst friends and strangers, are captured in an undeniably choreographed—though remarkably, seemingly spontaneous—dance at a club.

This sequence affirms the quiet sense of fantasy that The Salt of Tears houses, similarly to the nested film-within-a-film dance set to “Friday’s Child” in Sauvage Innocence (2001) to the pouty ebullience soundtracked by “This Time Tomorrow” in Regular Lovers / Les amants réguliers (2005) (All three of these films feature choreography by Caroline Marcadé.) Garrel’s avant-garde beginnings have slid welcomely into moral tale territory, and like Éric Rohmer, his films have a tendency to ensconce themselves within situations that are narratively self-enclosed. Realism is the working method, for all intents and purposes, but what’s most worthwhile is how Garrel imbues such banal issues of attachment—between family, between friends, between lovers—with a cinematic grammar that implies something more beyond the edges, a melodrama uniquely in service to the ambivalence on display. Every film of his closes on a rug pull and The Salt of Tears is no different in dealing the necessary wallop considering the preceding ambiguities portend such.  

Not all of the director’s movies perfectly embody this approach, but the reason for watching a Garrel film is to not only experience its successes but its attempts as well; The Salt of Tears is prone to a lack of embellishment that renders some of its interstitial passages ineffectual. But Garrel is one of the last great emotionally-minded filmmakers of his era, one who’s admirably unknotted the fallouts that have marked his own life (his disappointment in the aftermath of May 68, his relationship with the singer Nico) over and over again, which has always given even his baggiest work a burnished melancholy. 

His newest now interpolates the death of his own father and frequent star, the actor Maurice Garrel, who passed away in 2011. When Luc’s own father tearfully rereads his son’s university acceptance with a shaky hand, or when he and Luc sand down a project together, Garrel is mining the relationship for its fablesque qualities, without sacrificing what makes his films feel truly lived-in. 

‘The Salt of Tears’ is playing as part of the 58th New York Film Festival.

The Salt of Tears / Le sel des larmes

Director Philippe Garrel

Writer Jean-Claude Carrière, Philippe Garrel, Arlette Langmann

Cinematographer Renato Berta

Editor François Gédigier

Cast Logann Antuofermo, Oulaya Amamra, André Wilms, Louise Chevillotte

Duration 100 minutes

Patrick Preziosi

By Patrick Preziosi

Patrick Preziosi is a freelance critic from Brooklyn, NY. He’s written about film, music and literature for photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Metrograph Edition, Little White Lies, America Magazine, and Screen Slate.