La Moustache

One evening before dinner, a cozily bourgeois Parisian architect (Vincent Lindon) decides to shave his mustache. His wife (Emmanuelle Devos) doesn’t notice. His friends don’t notice. When pressed, they tell him he never had a mustache. Are they nuts? Is he?

Shaken, he tries to remain a good sport, but shame and rage consume him. Before long he’s rummaging through the trash for evidence. Finally, reeking and deranged and clutching a handful of damp whiskers, he pounces on his wife as she sleeps. “I’m not lying to you Marc,” she later whispers. “I’ve never lied to you.” “I know,” he replies. “That’s the worst part.”

La Moustache is the auspicious feature debut from director Emmanuel Carrère, already an acclaimed novelist here adapting his own book with Jérôme Beaujour. With stylish confidence (and a good haunting by Philip Glass’ circular “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra”), the film steadily spirals out from a low-key drama of domestic psychology into an emotional labyrinth, mapping and connecting the many chancy whorls of intimacy, vanity and identity.

Carrère knows, and shows, how a simple midlife-crisis signifier might cause one couple’s most desperate and destructive communication breakdowns. Marc and Agnès elude and frighten and repel and cherish each other; they’re both frantic to rescue the suddenly crumbling marriage. Whether whiskered or not, Lindon’s broad, hangdog face holds the camera magnificently, and Devos radiates nuanced, challenged empathy.

It’s easy to appreciate the dignity of La Moustache — its refusal to overdo a Kafkaesque scenario. What makes it great, though, is that it doesn’t dip into the glum oddity of later Polanski or the arty distrust of Antonioni either. Carrère’s concern is his characters and our identification with them, not his own auteur persona. That’s what most makes him worth watching.