The United States and France have always seemed like two mismatched and eternally perplexed siblings desperately trying to prove to their parents that the other one was adopted. Naturally, both share characteristic marks of the same DNA, but like all siblings they find more fun in underlining their differences than in highlighting their overwhelming similarities. Where one is self-confidently brash and direct the other is proudly defiant and elusive. Where one prizes action the other exalts contemplation. Where one demands simplicity the other just as defiantly insists on complexity.
Applied to cinema it is fair to say that the French have generally preferred to play the role of the willful sibling, reveling in the intentionally difficult and purposefully vague. It is this enthusiastic embrace of the complex and willfully perverse which seems to leave American cinemagoers in such a state of extended and exasperated bewilderment. For audiences who demand a clear explanation and firm resolution of mystery I must warn you that this film may not be for you. But for those comfortable with exploring ambiguity, Emmanuel Carrère’s 2005 film, La Moustache, is an interesting and utterly delightful treat.
The plot of La Moustache is so paper-thin it seems to almost be daring its audience to call it a story. One evening, Marc (Vincent Lindon), a happily married and successful Parisian architect, impulsively decides to shave off his signature moustache. Anticipating that his wife Agnès (Emmanuelle Devos) will react with joyful surprise, Marc is instead met with silence. Assuming that his wife is quietly teasing him Marc plays along anticipating that at any moment Agnès will admit to the practical joke and reveal her delight. His annoyance, however, grows immeasurably when at dinner with close friends, Serge (Mathieu Amalric) and Nadia (Macha Polikarpova), no attention is paid to his newly shorn face.
After returning home Marc’s patience for Agnès’ presumed joke quickly turns to intense frustration when she gently tells him that he has never had a moustache. Enraged, Marc desperately looks through old photographs and even scours the garbage to retrieve wisps of his facial hair to prove Agnès wrong. Alarmed and fearful at his erratic behavior Agnès suggests that Marc consult a psychiatrist for help. Instead, consumed by the tornadic haze of his distorted reality, Marc jumps on the first available flight out of Paris and ends up wandering aimlessly through Hong Kong, going back and forth on the city’s water taxis. It is in Hong Kong where Marc – confused and literally stranded at the crossroads between East and West – finally begins to reconcile the duality of his identity.
On its surface a narrative so brazenly vague, so simplistically convoluted, and so thoroughly absurd should not work. Yet, because of director Emmanuel Carrère’s (who also co-adapted the screenplay from his 1986 novel) willingness to explore the multilayered and ever changing ‘face’ of reality, La Moustache succeeds on every level. This is not a paranoid fantasy thinly cloaked in science fiction, but rather a mature and immensely interesting examination on the nature of identity, love, and self.
The strength of La Moustache lay, in part, on the solid performances of its two leads. The impossibly sophisticated and upscale Parisian couple long ago became a cliché of French imports, but Vincent Lindon and Emmanuelle Devos manage to transcend such formula and are exceedingly strong and convincing in their roles. Infusing the physical passion of their characters’ love with an unspoken emotional loyalty that is both protective and vulnerable Mr. Lindon and Ms. Devos achieve an authenticity that is crucial to securing audience engagement in their story. For if there were no man (and no woman who genuinely loved that man) behind the moustache than the consequences of their loss would never feel as great as they do.
Though existential in nature, the inherent tension that plays at the heart of this film’s mystery is most clearly expressed by the love and dependency Marc and Agnès share as a married couple. Is Marc’s personal crisis borne from Agnès inability to no longer recognize him? Or has she never really seen him? Is his identity intrinsically tied to his role as a husband? Does perception alone define one’s character? Where is the nature of ‘self’ located? With its intentional ambiguity and minimalism La Moustache is willing to explore such metaphysical weightiness without presuming to have any answers.
For those who missed (or more likely were unable to find) La Moustache at their local Cineplex, the recent DVD release is a perfect opportunity to discover and enjoy this unique film. Extras including a making of featurette and director’s interview are admittedly modest, but when a film is more interested in putting forth questions than in answering them, I suppose we cannot ask for more.