The Salt of Tears is a film with a swathe of issues: two-dimensional character writing, an overstretched runtime, a murky understanding of modern relationships, and a distinct lack of self-awareness. But the most consistent fault, and that which makes Philippe Garrel’s film such an unbearable mess to sit through, is The Salt of Tears’ downright, unapologetic misogyny.
Luc (Logann Antuofermo) is a confident twenty-something who studies woodwork, a career path inherited from his father (Andre Wilms), with whom he shares a strong bond. The only thing he loves more than carving chairs is chatting up women, an act he fulfills mechanically, like a snide pickup artist. The Salt of Tears’ narrative (if, indeed, there is one) essentially follows Luc throughout the course of a year or so, in which time he manipulates three women into sex: Djemila (Oulaya Amamra), Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), and Betsy (Souheila Yacoub).
The first indication that you’re in for a bad time comes with the film’s aesthetic: a grainy, filmic monochrome, which serves absolutely no stylistic or thematic purpose. Perhaps Garrel’s intent is to cynically communicate the void inherent to romance; the only justification I can try to form for what is, otherwise, a purely superficial device. I could’ve easily been fooled into thinking that The Salt of Tears was the feature debut of a NFTS grad – although I imagine a fresher director might have a more coherent understanding of gender politics and healthy relationships.
What the black and white look does contribute to is the film’s overall air of antiquation. The film feels like a stunted callback to days gone by, when the voyeuristic gaze of Jean Luc-Godard’s Breathless was celebrated as the epitome of cinema, or when the preferred purpose of women was purely sexual and domestic. One example of how Garrel seems to think this all works is aound a third of the way into the film’s runtime: after he has unceremoniously abandoned Djemila in Paris, Luc is reunited with Geneviève, a high school sweetheart that he hasn’t seen in six years. Some two minutes later we cut to Luc aggressively fingering Geneviève in a bathtub.
Perhaps there would be some redemption to the film if Garrel acknowledged – even once! – that Luc’s actions are morally devoid. But he’s clearly on the side of Luc, as are all of the film’s men. Luc later arranges to meet Djemila in a hotel, but drops her in favour of Geneviève (he’s playing the two, what a prince!) The hotel’s barkeep blames her for her sadness, “I’ve seen some women wait for a man for years,” he states, “and now they’re alone in their grave.” Some men might be assholes, but hey guys, it’s not the boys’ fault for just being boys!
It’s a shameless conceit. In another example of the film’s tone-deafness, Luc claims that one of the women’s heavily signposted pregnancy is akin to “betrayal.” He is, with no exaggeration, one of the most morally reprehensible, unlikable characters to be committed to the screen.
If Garrel’s film has any reason to exist – which, really, it doesn’t – it’s to remind us why we must continue to demand for more films directed by women. Aggressively, unabashedly sexist films like The Salt of Tears have to stop being platformed. Yet, international film festivals continue to disappoint. They posture commitment to gender equality and uphold films like The Salt of Tears in competition within the same breath.
The Salt of Tears premiered at Berlinale 2020
By Jack King
Jack King is a queer film and culture writer living in South East London. He has written for i-D, Little White Lies, British GQ, NME and The Playlist, among others. You can find more of his work here and follow him on Twitter here.