Film Review | Lover for a day

This dramedy about a father-daughter relationship in which both parties are either on the cusp or at the tail end of the romantic spectrum is about as “French” as they come... but no worse for it • 3/5

Louise Chevillotte (back) and Esther Garrel form an unlikely bond in this ingenious and charming French dramedy
Louise Chevillotte (back) and Esther Garrel form an unlikely bond in this ingenious and charming French dramedy

The labyrinth of love is a well-trodden trajectory for French storytelling, and veteran director Philippe Garrel has once again opted to mine this rich fount of human desire with his latest film, a Cannes Festival favourite and a low-key showcase of his ability to wring out complex emotions from a humble and direct dramatic set-up.

And the set-up is this: a divorced Parisian philosophy professor, Gilles (Eric Caravaca) has shacked up with a young and attractive student, Ariane (Louise Chevillotte) – who is his daughter's age. But the relationship is only  a few month's old when his daughter, Jeanne (Esther Garrel) tearfully returns to the homestead after a heart-rending break-up with her boyfriend, Matéo (Paul Toucang).

Despite the complex romantic situation at home, the girls do form a bond that starts to resemble a strange variant of the mother-daughter dynamic. But as Gilles and Ariane's relationship runs its natural course and Jeanne slowly but surely recovers her lost confidence, the viability of this strange new domestic situation starts to be put into doubt.

Opting for a black-and-white palette more out of a desire for simplicity rather than retro showiness, Garrel similarly allows the story and his characters to do most of the talking. And talk they do – at length and to varying degrees of earnestness and irony. Deciding to make Gilles a philosophy professor is especially helpful in this regard, as it gives him the license to expand upon key ideas relevant both to his unnerving new romance as well as his relationship to his daughter. As a result, it's a film that's largely devoid of sentimentality, but not without its heart and charm: perhaps therein lies the distinction between French treatments of romance and that of their Stateside counterparts. A semi-ironic voiceover provides a somewhat sobering overlay to what we're seeing, further deflating the proceedings away from melodrama and into safer, more mature territory.

Newcomer Chevillotte is affecting and effective as the fey beauty Ariane, capable of projecting the necessary statuesque power she initially wields, but whose defenses are also revealed to be somewhat hollow once things get too knotted to handle. Esther Garrel, so touching as the put-upon summer girlfriend figure in Luca Guadagino's Call Me By Your Name, on the other hand, enjoys something of an opposite – if strangely parallel – journey. From total lachrymose vulnerability, we see her crawl back into her own. A transformation that is the most enjoyable thing to witness here, even amid all the WC-oriented erotic escapades that punctuate some of the film's key moments.

This is hardly surprising, given how, in this film about fathers and daughter's, one such duo forms a crucial part of the creative team – the actress Esther being the daughter of director Philippe.

The verdict

Lover for a Day will almost certainly appeal to Francophone cinephiles, but it may even have a wider reach owing to its mildly risque premise and Garrel's elegant storytelling. Aesthetically unassuming but emotionally resonant and performed by a trio of competent performers, this dramedy offers an olive branch to filmgoers tired of Hollywood cliches but who remain uncertain about which alternative path to set out on.

Lover for a Day is currently showing at Eden Cinemas