Marriage Material

Sophie Fillières, If You Don’t, I Will, 2014, color, sound, 102 minutes. Pomme and Pierre (Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric).

THANKS TO THE VAGARIES of release schedules, sometimes a modest, intelligent movie can seem even more accomplished when it arrives in the wake of a similarly themed, lumbering white elephant. Writer-director Sophie Fillières’s fifth feature, If You Don’t, I Will, concerns the strained, often caustic interactions between a long-term couple—what the filmmaker herself has felicitously called “the more or less low-level violence of conjugality.” Unlike David Fincher’s ghastly commercial hit Gone Girl, in which the platitude “marriage is hard work” is carried out to its grimmest, most cartoonish extreme, If You Don’t, I Will pursues a more fruitful topic: exploring the ways that spouses become fiercely invested in perpetuating their own immiserating dynamic.

Though the length of their union is never specified—they’ve been together at least seven years—Pomme (Emmanuelle Devos) and Pierre (Mathieu Amalric) have long settled into a passive-aggressive push-pull. Their communication barely conceals the fury that simmers beneath each exchange; husband and wife appear incapable of not finding a slight in the most benign remark. Like most unhappy couples, they feel no shame in performing their acrimony in front of others, whether mutual friends or strangers at a party. If marriage is hard work—that is, a series of arguments and sulks resolved through unsatisfying compromises—then Pomme and Pierre seem to never be off the clock, outrageously in violation of French labor laws.

Speaking of work, the specifics of the professional lives of Pomme and Pierre, like other key details about this bobo Lyonnais couple, are parceled out in a pleasingly oblique way. Though we never see him at the office, we learn that Pierre works in some capacity at a local TV-news show owing to his habit of too eagerly insisting that one of his colleagues, weather forecaster Mellie (Joséphine de La Baume), stop by the squabbling spouses’ apartment, especially when his wife is there. Fillières’s film is well underway before we discover that Pomme is on medical leave from her managerial profession, having recently had a benign tumor removed from her brain. The twentyish son whom Pomme coddles turns out to be her child from a previous relationship—key information that isn’t bullet-pointed but transmitted in a casual, offhanded way.

In fact, the loose confidence on display throughout much of If You Don’t, I Will helps make the material, however frequently (and often enervatingly) mined, seem fresh. Although dour, Fillières’s movie is free of cynicism and bad faith, and buoyed by sly wit. That Pomme and Pierre are played by two of France’s finest actors (and frequent costars; Devos and Amalric are veterans of Arnaud Desplechin’s piquant yet compassionate ensemble-driven productions) also ensures that these scenes from a marriage aren’t unremittingly bleak. Even in Pomme and Pierre’s lowest moments, there are still flashes of tenderness, reminders that these adversaries once really liked each other and maybe still do but have forgotten how to. By film’s end, they’ve reached a fragile, touching entente, one that follows Pomme’s extended solo sojourn in the nearby woods. Need I mention that watching Devos rough it in a forest in the Rhônes-Alpes region is far more rewarding than tracking the woman’s journey undertaken by Reese Witherspoon in Wild, another gassy prestige picture?

If You Don’t, I Will plays at Film Forum December 17–30.