There’s no ennui like French ennui, a message given another big screen treatment in “The Salt of Tears,” a tale of a young cabinet-maker apprentice who cannot find love to fill the void in his empty soul.
The latest from French baby boomer filmmaker Philippe Garrel (“In the Shadow of Women,” “Wild Innocence”) is a somber story of a provincial rake’s progress, a genuine old school “skirt-chaser” with the attention span of a salmon. It’s about his “does not believe in love” drift through existential angst, a brooding film that feels strangely out of its era, perhaps on purpose.
Maybe we’re meant to loathe this fellow, wandering from woman to woman, his narcissistic story filmed in black and white because of course it is.
Luc (Logann Antuofermo) may seem like the awkward hick, new to Paris and trailing after the first pretty face (Oulaya Amamra) he sees at a bus stop. Djemila is wary, letting him tag along on the bus, then follow her afterwards. He is there to take an exam. He wants to get into cabinetry (joinery) school. He is leaving soon, but “Can I see you later (in French with English subtitles)?”
Their courtship is tentative and abrupt, and when he finally gets her alone, he doesn’t take her “Not that” well. But not to worry, no hard feelings. Yet for some reason, she’s smitten.
“I’ll never forget you” is how he leaves it.
Luc goes home and promptly takes up with an old flame (Louise Chevillotte), lures Djemila back for a visit, stands her up, gets accepted in joinery school and is back in Paris, flirting, coming on to and stalking every lovely lady he meets.
Periodically, voice-over narration reassures us the Luc has a soul, that he is “preoccupied with the idea that love may not exist.”
Elderly Dad (André Wilms) points out stars and constellations, something he must have done 20 years earlier (Luc is 25 or so), instructs the kid on how to build a coffin and shakes his head at the furniture-free future he sees.
Kids these days — “We’ll all be nomads soon.”
Does that drive Luc’s philandering? We don’t see lust in his eyes, only emptiness.
Garrel, who co-wrote the script, follows Luc into class and into clubs, exposing his true self when one of his lovers gets pregnant. “You can’t DO this to me. You TRAPPED me!” Brothel to to bedroom, meet-ups through friends and literally stalking one stranger down the street, Luc is a satyr seen as “lost,” without core values or kindness.
There’s a casual cruelty to most of the men here, save for Luc’s father, who is appalled at what he sees in his boy. And when we note the nude scenes only women are subjected to, here, we wonder what the fellow behind the camera sees in this jerk.
As a film, only the women register as having emotions, save for Luc’s moment pregnancy panic. Antuofermo plays this rogue at arm’s length, not charming or pitiable — blank-faced pretty much from the first to the last.
The pointless, pretentious narration and overcast black and white cinematography make “The Salt of Tears” play like a parody of French cinema of the ’60s, the films of Garrel’s teens and 20s. That’s the most charitable view of this film, that he’s sending up attitudes that nobody should be nostalgic for, except for maybe Woody Allen.
Let’s hope that’s the intent, because the alternative is too creepy to consider.
Cast: Logann Antuofermo, Oulaya Amamra, André Wilms, Louise Chevillotte, Souheila Yacoub
Credits: Directed by Philippe Garrel, scripted by Jean-Claude Carriere and Philippe Garrel. A Wild Bunch production on Mubi.
Running time: 1:40