Shot in the same gritty black-and-white style as Regular Lovers, his sprawling homage to the cinema and political revolution of France in the late 60s, Philippe Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn is a film at odds with itself. William Lubchansky’s stark and expressive cinematography is undoubtedly gorgeous, but both its austerity and general stripped-down aesthetic stifle the story’s emotional content. Indeed, it's another melodramatic retelling of star-crossed lovers, but its execution does little to convince us that we can gain a new understanding or appreciation by draining it of emotion and avoiding histrionics. And while such a tale is usually steeped in the traditions of melodrama and fantasy, it is rendered flat and detached by Garrel’s odd directorial choices.
François, a photographer played by Louis Garrel (the ever-photogenic son of the director), and Carole (Laura Smet), an emotionally unstable actress, are a couple befitting a French New Wave bedroom romance, but Frontier of Dawn lacks the cinematic playfulness to make that comparison stick. Many have drawn comparisons to the cinéma fantastique of Jean Cocteau, but while its somber tone, omnipresence of mirrors, and dual realities fit ostensibly within that realm, these surreal flourishes are rarely present. Where Cocteau’s flights of fancy are genuinely magical and otherworldly, Garrel’s are mundane and direct. One gets the sense that this is precisely the effect the director was aiming for, but his deconstructive approach to the genre remains interesting only in theory.
Much of the film’s second half relies on the obsessive, unbreakable bond between François and Carole, yet there is little evidence of deep love or passion between them. Instead, Carole is shown as bipolar and her desire for François develops from deep-seeded insecurity and a need to fill the void left by her husband’s perpetual absence. When her husband does return, their decision to separate ultimately leads to François meeting and marrying the more conventional Ãˆve (Clémentine Poidatz), a decision that sends Carole to a mental institution and eventually suicide. The transition is abrupt and signified merely with a “One Year Later” title card, leaving the audience to wonder how strongly François loved Carole if he was able to leave her with such ease.
In the third act, when Garrel and Lubchansky finally attempt to create a sense of atmosphere through the play of shadows and Carole’s ghostly appearances, there is not only little emotional investment in the characters, but a sense of confusion as to why the former lovers are bound so tightly. The film’s dynamics are at odds with the story we’ve been told to this point. Carole’s pleads for François to join her in the afterlife stems more from psychosis than true love, while François seems merely disappointed to have settled for the life of a bourgeois as opposed to being irreparably distraught over her death. Unfortunately, the film emphasizes the couple’s ill-fated separation rather than where the tragedy truly lies -- in Carole’s tortured soul. It is in this incongruity that a film supposedly about a love lasting into the afterlife ultimately leaves one doubting the authenticity of that love. Coupled with Garrel’s impassive approached to the material, Frontier of Dawn is a conflicted film whose striking imagery simply cannot make up for the void left by its deficient storytelling.