Philippe Garrel’s “Lover for a Day” looks like a dream. A singular filmmaker, Mr. Garrel makes intensely personal films about love, family and intimacy that are filled with romantic agonies and beautiful faces made for close-ups. Often shot in luxuriant black and white, these are movies to swoon over, though how long you do so in “Lover for a Day” depends on whether you find its ideas about love, faithfulness, men and women charmingly old-fashioned, exasperatingly naïve or merely deterministic. As is often the case with other people’s reveries, you may not necessarily want to share in this one.
The story involves a neatly constructed triangle that is almost parodically French, or perhaps just cinematically so: a 23-year-old woman, her doting father and his 23-year-old live-in girlfriend. Shortly after the film opens, Jeanne (Esther Garrel, the director’s daughter), flees to her father’s apartment. Distraught and nearly frantic, she broke with her boyfriend that very evening and is seeking refuge and comfort in her father’s insouciantly bohemian digs. It’s a bit crowded, what with all the books and his new girlfriend, but Gilles (Eric Caravaca) loves his daughter.
Trailer: ‘Lover for a Day’
Gilles also loves Ariane (Louise Chevillote), one of his students. A philosophy professor, he teaches at a school with atmospherically peeling walls that are ideal settings for sexual assignations, as you discover in the two scenes that effectively bookend the movie. In between, a great deal happens, mostly on an intimate level in modest rooms. In bedrooms and across tables, Jeanne, Ariane and Gilles pour out their hearts and reflect on love as they — word by word and with discreet and grand gestures — stake claims on one or another’s affections. Like chess pieces on a very small board, Ariane and Jeanne advance and retreat, even as Gilles remains more or less in place.
“Lover for a Day” beguiles the eye. Shooting in 35-millimeter black-and-white film, Mr. Garrel fills the wide screen with a ravishment of tones, from inkiest black to crystalline white and every imaginable gray in between. There’s a deceptive casualness to his visuals. Every image looks harmonious without being fastidious, which means that you see the picture rather than the intention. Yet even when you see the thought behind his images, the gentle disorder of his characters’ lives, with their patched walls and messes, creates an inviting informality that strengthens his realism. He’s a master of near-perfection, of dazzlingly lit and shot wisps of hair and tear-streaked cheeks.
Quite a few tears splash down in “Lover for a Day,” which tracks Jeanne after she moves in with Gilles and Ariane. It’s a surprisingly smooth transition, or so the film insists. Mr. Garrel, who shares screenwriting credit with three others (including the veteran Jean-Claude Carrière), puts a lot of words into his characters mouths, not many of them persuasive. Soon after Jeanne arrives, she and Ariane talk about love, breeze past the fact that they’re the same age and quickly shift from the personal to the platitudinous. “You’ll get over it,” Ariane assures Jeanne about her breakup, “we always do.” When pressed on who she means, exactly, Ariane earnestly replies: “I mean every woman.”
The solemnity of this exchange — with its lilting piano chords and the Raphaelite tranquillity of Ariane’s face — suggests that Mr. Garrel sincerely believes this about women, which would be fine if his characters were more convincingly individual. Yet even though each is given a moment (a near-suicide, one affair and then another), Jeanne, Ariane and Gilles stick to a disappointingly familiar script. While Jeanne embraces her role as the dejected, apparently unconscious daughter with daddy issues, Ariane plays the part of the free-spirited object of a rather different kind of paternal desire. Gilles, meanwhile, settles into the role of the obliging patriarch who’s hot or warm as needed.
There are times when the characters — and their director — surprise and genuinely delight. In one heart-piercingly elegiac sequence, Jeanne and Gilles head off together, leaving Ariane behind. As he does elsewhere in the film, Mr. Garrel introduces this interlude with a lovely piano flourish and a few words from the intermittent narrator (Laetitia Spigarelli): “That evening, Gilles went out with his daughter.” The voice-over briefly suggests the start of a once-upon-a-time story, yet as Jeanne and Gilles walk and talk, the scene becomes something far more enchanting: two people whose unforced intimacy speaks to a bond that feels shaped by a shared history rather than clichés.