A Faithful Man is a funny, dry, confident and time-efficient glimpse into the ways in which anxiety interplays with love.
In the opening minutes of A Faithful Man, the latest from actor-director Louis Garrel, an efficient and masterfully simple scene plays out. A woman named Marianne (Laetitia Casta) tells her longtime boyfriend, Abel (Garrel), that she is pregnant. Abel is happy until Marianne delivers the gut punches — the father is actually his friend Paul, and she’s going to marry him, so Abel needs to have all of his things moved out in the next 10 days.
It’s a swift defeat for Abel, a single scene into the movie. But this surprisingly civil breakup lays out the foundation for the real story, which picks up nine years later. When Paul passes away, Abel starts dating Marianne again, only to have Paul’s sister, Eve (Lily-Rose Depp), confess that she loves Abel as well. Eve declares a “war” against Marianne, and Abel, stuck between them, spends the film trying to figure out whose affections to return.
It seems like an enviable position to be in, yet in this specific situation, it’s hard to envy Abel. Eve and Marianne are both complex people who appreciate and love him for complex reasons; neither one is perfect–in fact they’re both far from it. Marianne cheated on Abel while they were together (and also might be a murderer? More on that later), and Eve is much younger than Abel and spent her teenage years adoring an idealized version of him. Thanks to a crafty plan of Marianne’s that involves Abel actually giving it an honest shot with Eve, he winds up dating both women for different periods of time — but rather than enjoying this solution, he spends most of his time worrying what Marianne is thinking, lugging his duffel bags (so many duffel bags) between various residences, and getting sent to Marianne’s voicemail.
This is what makes A Faithful Man so successful: it’s never what you think it is. The premise of a man choosing between two different women is bound to engender certain expectations, but Garrel eschews them all before they can even materialize. Despite being the protagonist, Abel is surprisingly passive in his relationship to the main conflict. Not only are the two women completely aware of the situation from the start — at no point does Abel need to comically hide one from the other — they’re also the ones who, acting independently, construct the situation themselves and then eventually dissolve it. Poor Abel is for the most part just along for the ride.
But the scene-stealer is Joseph (Joseph Engel), Marianne’s son. He’s a wild card from the beginning, when he whispers to Abel in Marianne’s living room that Marianne murdered Paul with poison. He makes clear from this first scene that he’s not just around for kicks; he has a deft, independent mind, and the confidence to wield it, yet he also maintains a sense of childhood innocence. Joseph’s early accusations prompt a lot of plot-maneuvering that seems aimless to begin with — Abel investigates the doctor who examined Paul after his death, questions Marianne after growing increasingly anxious around her, etc. The significance beneath all of this materializes slowly as Joseph reveals himself more and more as, in many ways, a regular kid: affected by his father’s death, resenting Abel for swooping in right afterward, and wanting to find some way to control his own home life.
A Faithful Man is a funny, dry, confident and time-efficient glimpse into the ways in which anxiety interplays with love. There are more lies, deceptions and plot twists than one might expect for 75-minute film, but the script is tight enough to make every scene feel even and graceful. Eve and Marianne are both unwaveringly confident, and the shifts in point of view between the three major characters, with thoughts and monologues laid over the action, are illuminating but not overwhelming. Marianne’s confident plot to win Abel once and for all by having him try dating Eve is the perfect nail in the whole coffin: It hinges entirely on human emotion and flightiness, yet she sees it as being foolproof, and it is.