In Philippe Garrel’s “Lover for a Day,” it doesn’t come as a surprise that Ariane (Louise Chevillotte) first fell in love with her professor Gilles (Éric Caravaca) during a lecture in which he argued that “philosophy is not a divorce from life.” After all at the young and idealistic age of 23, she feels free to act without consequence, believing strongly in love and her ability to give it as she pleases. Gilles himself is almost an idea rather than an actual partner to her, a bastion of wisdom and stability that she can return to while tends to her desires elsewhere, and with his tacit consent (though he doesn’t want to know the particulars), she’s able to construct an ideal lover for herself through the combination of anonymous flings and a steady boyfriend to come home to.
Of course, this arrangement doesn’t seem sustainable, but it’s unexpectedly durable, opening up a number of interesting avenues for Garrel to explore in his latest feature, particularly when Gilles’ daughter Jeanne (Esther Garrel) takes up residence with the couple after a tearful breakup with her boyfriend. Although an omniscient narrator (voiced by Laetitia Spigarelli) informs us that Jeanne feels as if she’s “being flayed alive” in her knowledge of that she’s single while her father has taken up with a woman the same age as she is, the two bond relatively quickly over their romantic quandaries, diametrically opposed to one another in how much they’re each willing to invest of themselves personally in their relationships, yet wrestling with how they want to be loved rather than who they’re loved by. Quite literally the odd man out, poor Gilles finds himself forced to reckon with his life’s work when the emotions he feels don’t quite square with the philosophy he teaches.
As is often the case in Garrel’s lighter fare, you wouldn’t know there was much discontent onscreen from the feeling you get from them aesthetically, with the playful “Lover for a Day” lovingly lensed in lush black and white, as sanguine piano keys often underline conversations that are far more cutting than the music would make them out to be. But this allows the rumination of its lead trio to float around in the air as if it were a daydream, the import of their actions often sneaking up on them when they think they’re outsmarting one another.
Although Garrel has showcased his son Louis in his previous five films, he turns a welcome spotlight on his daughter Esther, who has been apt to turn heads in recent supporting turns in “Call Me By Your Name” and “Thirst Street,” but really gets the chance to own the screen here, playing the tortured Jeanne. With so much of the film, penned by Philippe Garrel, Jean-Claude Carrière, Caroline Deruas-Garrel and Arlette Langmann, spent with its characters unloading what’s on their minds, the expressive Garrel fille turns what’s roiling around her skull into continual visceral intrigue, captivating when she’s alone in a room with her own thoughts or toying with those around her to exert some control over her life which she’s felt she’s lost the thread of. By so ably closing the distance between the head and the heart, she makes Jeanne’s struggle to do the same wrenching yet ultimately bittersweet, as one suspects as much pain as this divide causes her, the passion to reconcile the two is a crucial part of her drive — as it continues to be for Garrel, still as wily as he was during the early days of the French New Wave.