Nobody does a simple, disarming love story like the French. France’s The Salt of Tears, with its black-and-white photography and its quiet, unforced naturalism, is a charmer about how young people meet, get to know each other, and form a deep bond. It’s a lovely, enchanting little tale. For the first 20 minutes, anyway.
The Salt of Tears doesn’t yet have a U.S. release date but is coming out in France next month. Meanwhile it is a standout offering from this year’s New York Film Festival; in an unforced and unassuming way, it says a great deal more than it depicts on its surface. Philippe Garrel, the 72-year-old French writer-director who has been making films since the 1960s, has devised a romantic odyssey that has a timeless quality and yet seems fully apprised of the alarming details about how the game works today; he doesn’t use American terms like “ghosting” or “kidult,” but he doesn’t need to. Garrel wonders what contemporary dating conventions are doing to young people, particularly vulnerable women, and so should we all. Restrained and low-key as it is, The Salt of Tears gradually opens up to become a powerful moral tale on a par with the great films of Eric Rohmer, with a hint of François Truffaut.
Luc (Logann Antuofermo) is a tousled, sensitive young man visiting Paris from a village in the provinces to take an exam in hopes of being admitted to a school for makers of fine furniture. Shyly, he takes an interest in a girl named Djemila (Oulaya Amamra) while each is waiting for a bus, and awkwardly strikes up a conversation with her. Only after standing cloddishly near her in silence for quite some time can he work up the nerve to ask: Would she like to meet up after work? She would. When she finds out his only ambition is to be a joiner — essentially a carpenter — like his small-town father, it’s easy to share her sense of trust in Luc. Luc seems gentle and safe. In another age, a fellow such as Luc might be an excellent partner for a young woman — thoughtful, centered, devoted to his father, dedicated to his craft. Who can fail to trust a man who lovingly puts together furniture and lives with his old man?
But when he’s back at his dad’s house in his hometown, a girl he dated in high school, Genevieve (Louise Chevillotte), turns up, working as a babysitter nearby. As they rekindle their acquaintance, Luc and Genevieve are shadowed by the question of whether Luc will return to Paris to study at the crafts school. When a third woman (Souheila Yacoub) enters Luc’s life, things begin to seem a little complicated.
Overlooking all of this is a relic of a previous age, Luc’s kind-hearted dad (André Wilms), a crusty but lovable throwback who seems to have stepped out of a fairy tale. One look at him, and we know he’s the sort of man who would not have gotten entangled in the situation into which Luc is sinking. The father is so attached to a sense that everything is being lost that he worries there will soon be no demand even for the coffins he makes, as though the modern world will lose interest in death the way it has discarded so much else. He’s a slightly pathetic figure, but there is a well-earned wisdom about him, too. And through his eyes, we see that Luc is making one mistake after another.
What kind of man is Luc? He wonders whether his own cowardice, rather than any choices he might be making, is what is steering his life, and the word is brutally apt. Cowardice: The word might describe any number of handsome young men who carelessly rip through one woman’s heart after another, never actively deciding to create havoc but doing so anyway, out of gutless passivity.
Although the film’s structure (along with its unfortunate title) suggests a soap, Garrel’s straightforward style as both a director and a writer keeps the plot from feeling forced or contrived, and anyway everything that happens will sound depressingly familiar to anyone on the dating market. A plaintive, but not insistent, piano-based musical score by Jean-Louis Aubert does much to keep the film on the right side of the line between affecting and corny.
What begins as a beautiful, tender story that’s so ingenuous it’s practically a fable becomes a tortured tale of love and sex in an age when so many young men have allowed any semblance of responsibility and honor to drain out of them. Bobbing along on a current of his own errors, Luc becomes a sad emblem of our time.