Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Washington City Paper | November 3, 2006
The first film directed by French novelist Emmanuel Carrère, La Moustache offers confusion and alienation on a domestic scale. The opening half of this enigmatic tale is set largely in the sleek, modern home where Parisian architect Marc (Vincent Lindon) shaves off the titular mustache. But then the action moves to a bustling Asian city, a shift that energizes the movie visually while sidelining it emotionally.

One evening, just before dinner with another couple, Marc removes the hair that’s decorated his upper lip since before he met his wife, Agnès (Emmanuelle Devos). She doesn’t react, and neither do their friends, Serge and Nadia (Mathieu Amalric and Macha Polikarpova). Finally, Marc confronts Agnès, who insists that he never had a mustache. Physical evidence appears to be on Marc’s side, and an anecdote told by Serge—who is Agnès’ ex—suggests that she can be a willful liar. Yet Marc’s co-workers and regular barista side with Agnès, and soon the formerly mustached man is on the verge of conceding that he’s lost his mind. In fact, orderlies from a mental institution have just entered the house when a drugged Marc manages to escape and put more than a little distance between himself and his wife: He flies to Hong Kong.

Carrère and cinematographer Patrick Blossier make interesting use of the former colony, forgoing the neon-lit futurism that most Western directors emphasize when shooting in Asia’s more affluent cities. Yet Marc’s dazed wanderings don’t amplify the motifs established in the movie’s first section. The Hong Kong episode ultimately provides a sort of resolution, but one that doesn’t actually settle anything, and which is more convenient than meaningful. La Moustache is most potent when Marc and Agnès—their relationship given a lived-in assurance by the everyday Lindon and the elusive Devos—are working very hard at getting along, even as they each suspect the other is crazy or cruel. As a metaphor for the imperfect understanding that bedevils relationships, the case of the missing mustache is brilliant. But when Marc sets out to get lost, so does the film’s urgency.

I haven’t read the 1986 Carrère novella that he adapted for this film, but I suspect that those readers who compare it to Stephen King are as balmy as the filmgoers who compare La Moustache to Hitchcock. Based on the movie, Carrère’s affinities seem to be with Franz Kafka, Raymond Carver, and such ’60s French “new novelists” as Alain Robbe-Grillet, all writers who in some way rebelled against the psychological. The essence of La Moustache is its inexplicability, but that only works when Marc has someone close to him to baffle; Agnès may be her husband’s tormentor, but she’s also the audience’s surrogate. Once Marc attempts to vanish into Hong Kong, all he has left for imperfect companionship is the scenery.

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