During the rehearsals for his stage production of Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm a few years ago, Ingmar Bergman asked his actors to prepare for their roles by reading a French book, L’Adversaire, recently translated into Swedish. It was based on a real-life criminal case, where a doctor in a French province had killed his wife, children and parents and then planned to commit suicide, rather than facing the shame of being found out to be a pathological – and for a number of years very successful – liar and swindler. Bergman thought the book a brilliant treatment of the theme he saw at the center of Ibsen’s drama: the destructive temptation to build one’s life on lies.
The book was written by Emmanuel Carrère. His first feature as a film director, The Moustache (La Moustache), based on another book of his, completely fictional this time, was shown in the FIPRESCI section “New Directors Competition” at the 41st Chicago International Film Festival.
The film, scripted by Carrère himself, tells the story of Marc (Vincent Lindon), who one day decides to shave off the moustache which he has worn for most of his adult life. To his great bewilderment nobody, not even his beloved wife (Emmanuelle Devos), seems to notice, much less register any surprise at this change in his face. In fact, when asked by an increasingly disturbed Marc, his wife and friends all deny that he ever had a moustache.
Denial of reality was a central idea in Carrère’s L’Adversaire (as well as in the two films that came out of this book, one directed by Laurent Cantet, the other by Nicole Garcia). In The Moustache the consequences of denial are certainly less fatal. But they do set in motion a sort of infernal machinery where Marc and his wife become alienated from each other, where she becomes increasingly convinced that he has gone mad and where he, believing himself to be the victim of a hostile plot, flees to Hong Kong in order to avoid a threatening dispatch to a mental institution, and to ponder a predicament not unworthy of associations to Kafka’s heroes – here a modern day Josef K. trapped in a dilemma where doubts cast on a banal piece of facial hair gradually assume the dimensions of a conspiracy, a deep psychological and existential trauma.
The Moustache is a striking first movie. In a remarkably controlled manner it manages to integrated seemingly disparate motifs into a coherent thematic and stylistic whole: a ferocious domestic and marital comedy; an anti-bourgeois satire permeated with dark, absurdist humor; a moving love story; and an original probe into a frazzled man’s sense of disorientation and lost identity (it does not matter that the physical starting point for Marc’s troubled inner state – the moustache, fully visible to the spectator in the first shots of the film – is hilarious).
The acting by Lindon and Devos is impeccable, and Patrick Blossier’s camerawork is both visually stunning and sensitive, capable of intimating a rich subtext about the two main characters’ behavior. Despite certain confusing ellipses and even flaws in the construction of the story, the originality, esthetic density and psychological complexity of Emmanuel Carrère’s exploration of a married man’s unlikely dilemma after the trivial gesture of getting rid of his moustache are such that of the 14 films in the New Directors section, Carrère’s feature film debut was a jury favorite from the start, and remained so, as it was awarded the FIPRESCI prize.