Director Christian Vincent’s La Séparation treats the breakup of a relationship with the muted meticulousness of a very civilized sensibility. With the stately opening of Bach’s "Goldberg Variations" on the soundtrack, a color palette which tends toward the darkening end of the spectrum and two central actors who seem to do most of their emoting from behind their eyes, the film fairly glows with its refined intentions — it’s suffering as an objet d’art.
When Anne (Isabelle Huppert) tells Pierre (Daniel Auteuil) that she’s fallen in love with another man, he receives the news with remarkable equanimity. Sure he’s bothered, but in a distracted, slightly puzzled, rather than a passionate and wounded sort of way.
Partly this is because their relationship has reached the point of being on automatic, having achieved a level of polite coexistence with too many unexpressed feelings hanging in the air. In fact, the two have become quite distant from each other, Anne crouching secretively somewhere behind her enigmatic stare, Pierre turning away from anything painful. It’s only when interacting with their 15-month-old son Lou-lou that they both come alive, brighten and become playful, freely expressing love.
But there’s another factor at work here, something very important and not mentioned until near the end of the film, and then almost as an aside — Anne and Pierre aren’t married. So obliquely is this information delivered that several reviewers have written about the film as if it were about the breakup of a marriage — even the promotional material handed out by the distributor refers to the couple as having "been married for several years."
And yet it’s only when one realizes that this isn’t a marriage but a modern arrangement that Pierre’s behavior makes sense. The film is the story of a man coming to a slow boil, and his hesitancy to express anger is a way of being true to the unbinding implications of the couple’s original pact. The viewer is invited to contemplate a rather nuanced study in disgruntlement as Pierre spends the better part of the movie convincing himself he has the right to be pissed off.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].