Carrère’s La Moustache: Are We Really Alone?

Emmanuel Carrère’s La Moustache, based on a screenplay by Jérôme Beaujour and Mr. Carrère (in French with English subtitles), opens a Pandora’s box of paranoid suspicions after a man, acting on a whim, changes his appearance by shaving off his mustache. When no one notices the change—not even his wife of many years—the shorn narcissist begins to doubt his sanity and ends up fleeing from Paris to Hong Kong, where he melts into the workaday world, until one day he is mysteriously reunited with his wife and his mustache.

At the seemingly normal, humdrum outset, Marc (Vincent Lindon) and Agnès (Emmanuelle Devos) are sharing the bathroom as they prepare to go out to dinner with friends. They are an attractive, well-connected Parisian couple, married for years and seemingly happy together. When Marc asks Agnès half-jokingly if he should shave off the mustache he has worn all his life, she distractedly dismisses his whim. Marc then proceeds to shave off his mustache in great, almost portentous detail, with many close-ups of the process.

Yet when he emerges almost defiantly clean-shaven for his wife’s inspection, she doesn’t register any reaction to the change. Though somewhat taken aback, Marc decides to bide his time. When they arrive at the party, he tells Agnès to go on ahead while he looks for a parking space. Yet when he joins the others, none of their friends can remember ever having seen Marc with a mustache. What’s going on? Marc begins to suspect that Agnès has alerted their friends not to acknowledge his missing mustache. Since we see and hear everything in the film exclusively from his point of view, we have no way of ascertaining whether Marc is merely being paranoid or whether he is actually being persecuted by Agnès, in tandem with their friends, to drive him mad through some sort of variation on the old Gaslight plot (though with the sexes reversed).

When Marc goes to work the next day, he finds that no one at the office notices the change in his appearance either. Is the whole world arrayed against him? Then he overhears Agnès telling their mutual friend Bruno (Hippolyte Girardot) that the people from the asylum will be coming to take the clearly disturbed Marc away. At this point, Marc panics and flees into the rainy streets without his shoes, hails a cab, and uses his cell phone to get Agnès and Bruno out of the apartment by informing them that he is at another location. Watching them both leave from his hiding place in the taxi, Marc recalls that he has always suspected Bruno of being too close a “friend” to Agnès. Once they’re both gone, he sneaks back into the apartment to get his passport and some money.

Marc then flies to Hong Kong. He writes a postcard to Agnès, telling her that he loves her and wants to see the world only through her eyes. But he never mails the postcard. As he sinks into a self-chosen obscurity, he mingles anonymously with the native-Chinese ferry traffic. The director and his co-scenarist spend a great deal of time on the repetitious rituals of a pseudo-commuter’s life cycle. Along the way, we may recall that one of Marc’s friends told a long story early on at the party that Marc and Agnes attended; the gist of the story was that Agnès has a tendency to dissemble when caught in a lie. It was a barbed joke, but Marc seemed too infatuated with Agnès to notice. But we always suspected her thereafter.

When Marc hops a steamer from Hong Kong to Macao, imagine our surprise when he runs into Agnès again, as if they had never been separated—and he has his mustache back. Only now it is Agnès who suggests that he shave it off before they return to Paris. Marc still has the postcard he wrote to Agnès in Hong Kong and never mailed. He surreptitiously removes it from his inside pocket and disposes of it in the trash. The important thing is that he has been reunited with Agnès, the great love of his life. They make love in the Macao hotel room and fall asleep in each other’s arms. In the middle of the night, however, Marc’s eyes open wide and remain open till the final fadeout.

What does it all mean? We are never quite sure. All we learn from this relentless saga of mental and physical solitude are the many varieties of suffering one can endure when one feels alone in the universe.

Romance Languages

Cédric Klapisch’s Russian Dolls (Les Poupées Russes), from his own screenplay, has been lingering around the art-house circuit, and it’s well worth a look in this very lean season for grown-up entertainment. Many of the same characters and actors appeared in Mr. Klapisch’s 2002 international hit, L’Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment), a romantic fantasy of interlingual chemistry inspired by the dawn of the European Union. True to its predecessor, Russian Dolls lurches back and forth between Paris and London on a high-speed tunnel train and spends a great deal of time in St. Petersburg as well. Hence, French, English and Russian are spoken interchangeably, in addition to some Spanish and Italian.

Xavier (Romain Duris), who left for Paris at the end of L’Auberge Espagnole, is back in Russian Dolls, an older but not wiser 30-year-old journalist and television writer of sappy love stories in which he doesn’t really believe because of his own unhappy experiences with the opposite sex. He is living with—but not sleeping with—his ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tatou), now an equally disillusioned single mother who helps to nourish his cynicism about the romantic pap he’s compelled to churn out to pay the rent. Then his French employers send him to London to collaborate with an English writer named Wendy (Kelly Reilly), with whom he’d once roomed for a year (along with a half-dozen other people) in the Barcelona apartment of L’Auberge Espagnole. Wendy has since hooked up with a loathsome lout whom she despises and tries to keep away, albeit unsuccessfully, until Xavier finally tosses him out. But Xavier’s own subsequent blossoming romance with Wendy is briefly interrupted when he is asked to ghostwrite a supermodel’s tell-all autobiography—and the supermodel, it turns out, has no inhibitions about sleeping with her ghostwriter. This luscious morsel, Celia (Lucy Gordon), induces Xavier to betray Wendy for a bit, and it takes Wendy the rest of the film to forgive him for it. But Kelly Reilly’s Wendy is a luscious morsel herself, and intelligent besides—so there is little suspense, but a great deal of compensatory humor and stylistic invention to jolly things along. See it.

Facing the Void

Dominik Moll’s Lemming, from a screenplay by Mr. Moll and Gilles Marchand, manages to be less pointedly malignant than their previous collaboration, the Hitchcockian thriller With a Friend Like Harry (2000). Lemming professes to be all about control and its loss, but along the way it becomes a ghost story with violent consequences for everyone concerned.

The narrator-protagonist, Alain Getty (Laurent Lucas), is an engineer entrusted with the development of new electronic devices to enable homeowners to increase control of their day-to-day existence. Alain and his wife, Bénédicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), have just moved into their new suburban home, to which they have relocated after his job transfer.

Their troubles begin after they invite Alain’s new boss, Richard Pollock (André Dussollier), and his wife, Alice (Charlotte Rampling), to dinner. First, the Pollocks arrive very late. Richard apologizes profusely and offers to reschedule the dinner; Alain and Bénédicte insist that no harm has been done. When Richard goes to get Alice from the car, Alain and Bénédicte notice that she is wearing dark glasses.

After this awkward beginning, Alice brings the dinner to a halt by blurting out that they were late because Richard was busy with his “whore.” When Richard asks Alice to be quiet, she throws a glass of wine in his face, after which he very calmly gets up from his chair to offer his apologies. Then he and Alice depart.

Later that night, Alain discovers a lemming in the pipe to the kitchen sink, after Bénédicte tells him that the sink was blocked up. The next day he is working late in the office when Alice appears and offers herself to him. When Alain refuses, she leaves quietly, but she visits Bénédicte the next morning to tell her that Alain did accept her offer. When Bénédicte remains calm, Alice is puzzled and asks if she can take a nap. Bénédicte shows her to the spare bedroom and leaves her there. When Alain comes home that evening, Bénédicte tells him of Alice’s visit, and that she is still sleeping upstairs. When they go upstairs to ask her to leave, they hear a shot in the bedroom. Alice has committed suicide.

From that point on, Alain and Bénédicte are haunted by both the lemming in the sink and by Alice’s ghost. Their marriage begins to crumble, dreams start to merge with reality, and more violence is in the offing for them—especially with Bénédicte behaving as though she were possessed by the reckless spirit of Alice. The various segments of the story don’t always cohere satisfactorily, and the mysterious lemming is both more and less than a red herring in all the chaos and disorder of two marriages gone awry and the disasters that ensue. Nonetheless, the actors are more than equal to their eccentric roles, and the film is well worth seeing as a tantalizingly cerebral and unpredictable thriller. Carrère’s La Moustache:  Are We Really Alone?