Published October 1, 1998
La Séparation, directed by Christian Vincent from a screenplay written by himself and Dan Franck, tells the story of the unraveling of a marriage, except that it is not a marriage. Pierre (Daniel Auteuil), a book illustrator, and Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who is some kind of professional or businesswoman, have lived together for years, and they have a fifteen-month-old son called Loulou (Louis Vincent) on whom Pierre dotes. Periodically during the film the point of view shifts to that of Pierre as he tries to record on a videocamera whose operation he has not quite mastered Loulou’s sleeping, eating or playing. In fact, the film begins with videocam shots of clothes and unfamiliar body parts and Pierre muttering under his breath, Comment ce marche? or “How does this thing work?”
Neither Pierre nor Anne know how to make the relationship work either. We commence our observation of it at the point where things have already started to go wrong. Anne withdraws her hand in irritation at the cinema when Pierre tries to caress it. She can barely suppress her impatience to be gone when he urges her to linger over a lunch — an occasion already looking like a rare event when once it was so common. Before long she comes out and tells him, as they are leaving a party one evening: “I think I fell in love with someone.” Pierre is the sort of person who doesn’t react to things right away. He absorbs this information like a python swallowing a camel — so of course its lumpy outlines are clearly visible beneath the surface. He drives Anne home on his motorcycle, and the image of the two of them speeding through the night, Anne clinging to Pierre’s back while Pierre contemplates the misery his life is about to become is a memorable one.
What is curious to me about this film is that Vincent specifies that Pierre and Anne are unmarried without making anything much out of the information. They are close friends with another couple, Victor (Jérôme Deschamps) and Claire (Karin Viard) who are also unmarried and who serve are confidants and counselors to their troubled friends. When we first meet them, they are dining with Pierre and Anne in a restaurant and reminiscing about the good old days of demonstrations and sit-ins. Victor asks Pierre about the Workers’ Feasts at which radical young men could often hope to pick up willing girls of the movement, but Pierre appears embarrassed and said that he never went to them. One strains to catch in these echoes of youthful radicalism some hint of what is happening now to two people whose union is unblessed by church or state, but if they are there at all they are too muted to be heard. Late in the film the announcement by Victor and Claire that they are, after all these years, planning to get married precipitates the final crisis of Pierre’s and Anne’s relationship.
The best moments in the picture come in more or less detached observation of the way love dies. Just after Anne’s bombshell, for instance, she seems unnaturally interested in how Pierre is reacting to the news, as if she is both fascinated and appalled by what she has done. He says it has not sunk in yet. She then asks him what he thought when she first told him. He says he didn’t think anything. It seemed unreal. He felt as if he were dreaming. Then he asks her “What did I do wrong?” She says nothing and then amends it a bit: nothing big, just a lot of little things. Maybe we didn’t talk enough. She had too high expectations of him. Anyway, she has now met someone who listens to her, who is interested in her — and who, although she doesn’t say this, holds out to her romantic love’s ancient promise “to solve and satisfy and set unchangeably in order” (as Philip Larkin says).
But in spite of all she doesn’t want Pierre to be sad. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”
It’s all too sadly true, I’m afraid, as anyone will recognize who has been through it. As the relationship continues in its death throes, Pierre tells Victor how he is most disturbed by the fact that during the last fortnight Anne has not been nagging as usual. “Normally we bicker all the time,” he says miserably. “I’m not crucial to her. That’s what hurts.” His friend, with amazing insensitivity, indulges in a radical fantasy about prehistory when “people used to mate as they liked” and tells Pierre that it would be better for him if Anne sleeps with “ce type” — this guy, which is all the lover is ever known as (he never appears) — right away so that they can find out as soon as possible if the relationship is merely physical. Later Pierre asks her why she is being so nice after her earlier impatience and irritation. “Since you met that guy, you’re been sweet to me,” he says, puzzled.
“Bastard!” she replies.
The psychology seems right but too pessimistic. Anne quotes a graffito she saw in a lavatory which said: “In a couple, one suffers and one is bored.” Underneath it someone had written: “And vice versa.” Pierre counters with the proverb: “Never two without three.” But such banal folk-wisdom is uncomfortably close to all that the movie has to offer.