Sunday, December 2, 2012

La moustache. (2005) Emmanuel Carrère

Shaving Away at the A&F Nominations.

I first encountered this film three years ago when my ex and I were going through the initial stages of our separation. The film had a profound impact on me, and it has never left my mind. It's a film that could have been a sonnet, might have been a verse from Ecclesiastes, but is anything other than just a story.

When the fine folk at A&F recently began the nominating process for a list that will eventually become our Top 25 films about marriage, this was the only immediate nominee that sprung to my mind out of the thousands I scoured over, from the past ten years of keeping film journals.

I must admit a kind of superiority complex regarding my thoughts about the film, from my recent strolling over at the IMDB message boards. There is nary a thought there in two pages of posting that doesn't want, in some way, to read this film in a literal sense. Whether it's an alternate universe or a dimensional shift, or Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia, people tend to view it as though what they're watching represents reality, albeit a fictionalized form. But if La moustache were a square, it would never really be the square. It would be all of the beautiful space inside and outside the lines of that square.

There is nothing literal about La moustache. It is as figurative as figurative gets. Perhaps a better way to say it is that, like films like Mulholland Dr., or Reconstruction, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it is as abstract as abstract gets, at least in its forward, plot-like motion. Its plot certainly references and resembles the real world, and how things work in the real world -- but this is stronger than a linear or a literal story. It's easy to fall into the trap of reading a film about a man who shaves his mustache as only a man who shaves his mustache, but to do so somewhat misses the point. A key to fulfillment with La moustache is seeing it as representational in its plot, and more literal in its themes.

So what are its themes? Loss. Isolation. And our need to be connected and stay true to our vows. The idea that love is a superior force, stronger than the problems it faces and willing to reconnect when the world goes haywire.

When Marc, known for years for sporting his signature mustache, asks his wife what she'd think if he were to shave the thing off, her first tepid thought is that she might not even recognize him. She's only known him for sporting this one particular look. For whatever reason, he immediately shaves it anyway, and when he playfully reveals himself to her she doesn't even notice.

That night at a dinner party, his friends don't see a difference, but in his disappointment he doesn't say a thing. At work the next morning Marc is blown away by his office teams' lack of response. No one is noticing this thing which seems so trivial, but the thought of it scratches at the back of Marc's mind. That night he finally blows up at his wife.

The response he gets from here on out is that he never had a mustache and she has no clue what he is talking about, which sends Marc searching old photo albums and pictures, and on a whirlwind mental ride in which slowly, other things begin disappearing from his life. Friends, family members, the house on the street where he grew up all disappear in the unraveling process. Marc slowly begins to understand that a reconstruction of sorts has begun in his life; that his memory is completely different from all evidence of nearest reality. At this notion, Marc fearfully skips town and country, and looks to separate himself from everything he has ever known.

Agnès, Marc's wife, loves him dearly but is obviously concerned. He is obsessing about his mustache, is making up friends he says they've hung out with, and he can't even remember the death of his dad last year. The unraveling process increases in strength and it's never clear whether Marc, or his wife, or the world at large is to blame. We don't know who misremembers what, even though we do know we saw Marc shave in the first few frames. Things that would once be seen as small problems begin to pile up. The issues take a toll on the once strong relationship.

It's at this point that the mind plays a trick on the viewer. Does this couple love each other? Surely they do. Agnès has heaps of love for Marc and what he is going through. Is what is happening here truly a narrative experience? Surely it isn't, at least not in this viewer's way of thinking. What are the small things that add up that lead us to separating ourselves from our most dearly beloved?

Looking at situations like this in day to day living, it might not be so small: He was unfaithful. She spent too much money. He developed an addiction. She had an illicit affair.

But what about the smaller reasons we forget about? What about the fact that he likes to squeeze the tooth paste, and she likes to roll it up? He leaves the toilet seat up and she leaves the toilet seat down? What about the dirty socks he somehow never gets into the hamper? What about the times when she forgets to feed the cat?

Two people can be in love as well as they can be in blame. And as they grow, their memories and perceptions about themselves and their significant other will differ. La moustache is a film with no real ending, other than to show us that these things can be managed if the two are willing to try. Sure, something as tiny as a missing mustache can be the impetus for leaving a marriage and a home behind, but a need to relate can help overcome some of these problems, and our differences. Relating brings healing from isolation.

La moustache is a very French film. It hails back to a tradition of films that do not care whether their structure is sound at all. In fact, structure might be seen as something conveniently tossed aside in favor of pushing the medium's limits. (Think: Last Year at Marienbad.)

There is a lot at work in this very French film, but to read it as any structure outside of its themes (of loss and change and loyalty and dedication), is to miss its focus entirely. Remember: it's the beautiful spaces inside and outside the lines of that structured square.

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