Le Révélateur, 1968. One of the experimental works created from the cadre of radical, emerging artists financed under the rubric of Zanzibar films that captured the spirit of May 68 and the counter culture revolution, Philippe Garrel’s silent film is a fractured and elliptical, but instinctive, elemental, and haunting rumination on the process of awakening, maturation, psychological trauma, and transformation of childhood memory. As the film begins, the révélateur – the processor of the images – is embodied through the isolated, spotlighted shot of a young boy (Stanislas Robiolles) in the corner of the frame, looking on as his father (Laurent Terzieff), apparently unaware of his presence in the room, struggles to connect with his abstracted mother (Bernadette Lafont) in an act of implied intimacy through the (iconic) sharing of a cigarette before fading into the proverbial background through a doorway suffused in a halo of light. But despite the physical act of transitory connection, what is ultimately retained in the child’s camera/eye is not the residual image of tenderness and affection, but rather, a pattern of codependency, manipulation, madness, isolation, and perhaps even violence – an estrangement that is prefigured in the Freudian, reverse pietà image of the child emerging from a long, dark passageway towards his kneeling mother held in (apparently) resigned captivity tied to a cross at the end of the tunnel – a sense of pervasive emotional alienation and moral bondage that is further reinforced by the austerity and desolation of a seemingly godless, post-apocalyptic landscape. Pursued by an unseen, anonymous, but ubiquitous enemy (perhaps an allusion to the faceless nature of the embedded, guerrilla warfare tactics of the Vietnam War), the young family is compelled to leave the comfort of their dysfunctional home life and embark on an interminable journey to nowhere. Reduced to a life of perpetual exile and transience, the child begins to rebel, a defiance of parental control that is manifested in an act of literal repellance through his directed, repeated triggering of an aerosol can (in an elegantly composed, superimposed traveling shot) that further underscores his willful, symbolic act of distanciation from his parents. Reinforced by the subsequent shot of his parents posed as seeming trophy heads displayed on the corners of his headboard, the macabre image serves, not only to illustrate their role as trophic figures that he is weaning away from, but also represent their figurative impotence in his inevitable process of autonomy and independence. Concluding with the child donning his makeshift armor as he heads towards the sea, the image evokes a more primal Antoine Doinel (the adolescent alterego of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows) facing an alien and inalterable horizon – a silent and quixotic defiance against the oppressive and implacable forces of a cruel and inhuman human nature.
Le Lit de la vierge, 1969. There is an understatedly crystalline moment in Le Lit de la vierge when the scarlet woman, Marie Magdalène (Zouzou), having encountered the fragile and aimless Jesus (Pierre Clémenti) for the first time, cryptically explains that the men of the village pay for her company through the archaic currency of stones – and along the way, has amassed a collection that seemingly serves no other purpose than to have the potential having things to throw. The allusion to the casting of stones proves particularly incisive, not only within the loose, Biblical allegory of Philippe Garrel’s reconfigured tale of a dislocated, modern-day prophet who crosses paths with (and shows compassion towards) an adulterous woman, but also within the contemporaneity of the widespread social unrest that had defined the political and moral climate of May 68 – a turbulent, yet profoundly transformative era when emboldened, young radicals like Garrel who saw film as an integral instrument of protest were galvanized into direct social action, hurling rocks (as well as more incendiary objects) at riot police during the infamous Night of the Barricades (a personal watershed that Garrel would also recreate in Regular Lovers).
Filmed in the smoldered ashes of the failed social revolution as Garrel and a community of young artists from Zanzibar film (a film collective of like minded, radicalized artists financed by heiress Sylvina Boissonnas) abandoned the emblematic barricades of domestic protest and retreated to Africa to transfigure their ideological disappointment into subsumed cultural action through the creation of an intrinsically personal, revolutionary cinema, Le Lit de la vierge is, in a sense, the reconstitution of a fevered, post-traumatic creative manifesto – an impassioned, reflexive apologia composed in the fog of a drug-fueled delirium that not only reflected a not yet resigned sentiment of implicit denial over the failure of the revolution, but also served to reinforce the counter-culture generation’s delusive posture as alienated and discarded messianic ideologues who, nevertheless, continue to hold the keys to an ever-receding utopian paradise. In presenting an idiosyncratically distorted embodiment (or perhaps, resurrection) of fringe society through a sensitive, misunderstood, outcast savior plagued by self-doubt and dispirited by a pervasive sense of impotence against the weight of human suffering, Garrel illustrates, not only the profound loneliness and alienation caused by a singularity of vision (a recurring idealized representation of the May 68 generation as well-intentioned holy innocents that seeks kinship not only with the abstracted heroes of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s cinema – most notably, The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet – but also posits their intrinsic state of immanence, as revealed through their allusive alter-ego’s consuming empathy for the oppressed and the marginalized (an altruistic desire for connectedness that is reflected in Jesus’ despair over the seemingly anachronistic sight of bohemians being harassed by authorities within the sanctity of their own commune-like cavern dwellings).
But more intriguingly, Garrel’s fusion of iconic cultural history and allegorical social commentary also provides the prescient framework for what would become the inevitable mythologization of the events of May 68, where personal memory has been tinted by the idealized nostalgia of unrealized history, and irreparably altered by the intoxicated haze of (trans)formative years lived under the influence – creating an illusive (and delusive) romanticism borne of a need to reconcile a generation’s spiritual desolation with a sense of irrecoverable enlightenment that has been obscured (if not extinguished) by its own reclusive, escapist, and self-destructive behavior. It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that the seemingly irreverent, Freudian casting of Zouzou in the dual role of the Virgin Mary and Marie Magdalène alludes to a duality of human nature that filmmaker Jean Eustache would subsequently explore in The Mother and the Whore, a film that also chronicles a moral self-destruction in the aftermath of the failed revolution. It is this perverted romanticization of incorruptible idealism and integrality of vision that is inevitably captured in the film’s final image of Jesus marching out to sea that, like the indelible image of the wide-eyed innocent child of Le Révélateur, becomes a symbolic act of willful resistance against the raging tide – a gesture, not of benevolent self-sacrifice, but a staged, empty spectacle of quixotic defiance.
Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights…, 1985. Faceted, fragmented, and oneiric, Philippe Garrel’s film is more exorcism than expurgation, elegy than lamentation – an abstract, yet lucid chronicle of love and loss, death and birth sublimated through textural, self-reflexive impressions, visceral gestures, and metaphoric tableaux. A profoundly personal film dedicated to the memory of friend and fellow filmmaker (and May 68 idealist) Jean Eustache, and haunted by the unreconciled specter of Garrel’s failed relationship with Nico, the film opens to a crepuscular image of a couple – perhaps an actor and his lover (Jacques Bonnaffé and Anne Wiazemsky) as apparent surrogates for Garrel and Nico – in the midst of a breakup on a public street on a cold, winter evening, as their seemingly tenuous reconciliation is truncated by the subsequent shot of the couple returning home, and an all too familiar rupture as she once again lapses into the desensitized haze of heroin addiction in the distraction of his preoccupying rehearsals. A seemingly isolated shot of another woman, an actress named Marie (Mireille Perrier) waiting in the office of the Ministry of Art subsequently connects the troubled couple through the sound of the rapid, half-whisper, off-screen script reading, first by the actor preparing for the role in the apartment, then subsequently by the voice of the filmmaker, Philippe (Philippe Garrel) as he casts her in his latest project – the seemingly disparate narrative arcs reconciled through the intersection of the autobiographical nature of Philippe’s proposed project inspired by his own tumultuous relationship with model, singer, actress, and muse Nico (a transparency between art and life that is further compounded by the eventual appearance of Garrel as the director of the “film within a film” film). Another break in logic is created in the long shot of the actor, in the role of the film director, discarding a film reel from a bridge overlooking the river before meeting Marie, initially unfolding as the shooting of a film scene through the transformation of Marie’s visage at the moment of performance, but subsequently subverted by the repeated episode of the couple – perhaps no longer acting in character – driving away, a romantic liaison that is reinforced by a subsequent, silent image of the couple engaged in an (apparently) intimate conversation.
Gradually, the bounds between reality and fiction begin to disintegrate in the interpenetration of dreams and memories, passions and anxieties, becoming increasingly fractured and irresolvable. Like his alter-ego character on the bridge, Philippe has grown apprehensive over the seeming irresolution of the film, and enlists the aid of friends: Chantal Akerman who is, uncoincidentally in the process of shooting The Eighties, a metafilm on the nature of repetition and performance); Christa, also played by Wiazemsky, and who, in turn, also evokes a self-reflexive, permeable reality through reconstructed, iconic poses that not only allude to Nico’s early career as a fashion model, but also mimic the Bressonian model figuration of her character, Marie in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar); and actor Lou Castel, whose “new” character is introduced midway through the film shoot as Marie’s new paramour (and indirectly, replacing Philippe – through his alter-ego – from her life). It is interesting to note that in introducing Castel into the film, Philippe not only enables a means of closure for his failed relationship with his former lover through their surrogate selves, but also illustrates the emotional process of transference, transition, and figurative rebirth. In essence, the transfiguration of death – subliminally illustrated, initially, through the liberating image of Marie riding carefree in an automobile to the music of Nico that serves as an evocative counterpoint to Jean Eustache’s debilitation from a car accident, then subsequently, through the shot of a somber Garrel standing beside a collapsed noose that alludes to Eustache’s suicide – inevitably paves the way for the film’s second chapter (and metaphoric turning point), La Nativité. Inspired by the birth of his son, Louis, the film dissolves into an instinctual collage of quotidian portraitures – of actors waiting, pacing, observing – of temps morts. Concluding with the elliptical, parting shot of Philippe standing by a window in visible discomfort as evening approaches, his suffering becomes as a double entendred, metaphoric representation: the physical withdrawal (whether through substance abuse or the separation of death) of profound loss, and the implacable – but necessary – ache of realized creation.
La Naissance de l’amour, 1993. A dispassionate and bedraggled middle-aged actor named Paul (Lou Castel) bids a polite farewell to the lady of the house, Hélène (Dominique Reymond) before setting out into the street, accompanied by his solemn and equally impassive host Markus (Jean-Pierre Léaud) to the local convenience store to purchase a pack of cigarettes before saying goodbye to his old friend for the evening. Seeking to break the pensive silence of their evening walk, Paul steers their idle conversation into a conduit for personal reflection on Markus’ seemingly life-altering moment when he first met Hélène, a question that Markus – perhaps betraying an insecurity over the tenuous state of his relationship with her – responds to the question with initial, guarded skepticism, before proceeding to tell the genial anecdote of Hélène’s forwardness in her suggestive, inviting remark that had serve to validate their coy, thinly veiled pursuit of mutual seduction during their second encounter. However, a succeeding conversation between the couple reveals Hélène’s increasing apathy towards the cultivation of their relationship as Markus attempts to elicit a validation of her love for him to no avail, disguising their failed, awkward intimacy through the mundane rituals of the kitchen and random comments about the war. The inquiry similarly proves to be a reflection of Paul’s emotional ambivalence towards his own relationships with women as he spends the night with his lover Ulrika’s (Johanna Ter Steege) at an anonymous hotel, listening abstractly (but with feigned, obligatory post-coital attentiveness) as she recounts her traumatic and ultimately ill-fated affair with a troubled, aimless German lover whose compounding addiction and sentimental passiveness inevitably led to a complete psychological break with reality. Reluctantly parting early one morning near a train station, Ulrika concedes that Paul’s continued marriage to Fanchon (Marie-Paule Laval) prevents her from giving into the relationship completely. A subsequent evening encounter between Paul and Fanchon – now pregnant with their second child – for a pre-arranged meeting at a café mirrors Markus’ earlier entreaties to Hélène, as she repeatedly asks Paul if he loves her, and instead, receives an evasive, hollow reassurance of a conceptually abstract, generic love for their growing family. Proceeding in truncated, excerpted brief encounters, the film captures the quiet tragedy of irresolution and inarticulable longing that pervades Paul and Markus’ unfulfilled relationships.
Philippe Garrel presents an elegantly spare, lucidly eloquent, and captivating fractured tale of displaced idealism, spiritual resignation, and emotional inertia in La Naissance de l’amour. Using extended, extreme close-ups that visually isolate the characters from their environment and also serve to reinforce their intimate, yet emotionally dissociated encounters, the film illustrates the ambiguous and indeterminate structure of Paul and Markus’ lives as they struggle to reconcile with an idle intellectualism that has replaced their once determined, youthful idealism (note that the tangential references to the first Gulf War – particularly during the birth of Paul’s daughter – establish, not only a contemporary context for the film, but also provide insight into the characters’ melancholic impotence over their defeated ideology, a sentiment that similar pervades the lives of the settled, domesticated former revolutionaries of Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000). Garrel further incorporates fragmentation through episodically parallel, narrative ellipses alternating between Paul and Markus’ perspectives that obscure temporality and metaphorically reflect their own existential placement and interconnection within the chaos of the world around them. It is this search to return to the purity of a cherished ideal – the titular “birth of love” – that invariably propels the characters’ estranged relationships and meaningless, self-involved attempts to find unconditional love: a longing to overcome the complacency of aging and familiar comfort in order to recapture the passion of an inspired and uncompromised raison d’être.
Savage Innocence, 2001. In an early episode in the film, a struggling filmmaker, François (Mehdi Belhaj Kacem) meets with a producer named Hutten (Jean Pommier) in order to obtain funding for his proposed, self-described anti-heroin and anti-mafia film that serves do demythologize drugs called Sauvage Innocence that revolved around the tragic life of a presumably fictional character named Marie-Thérèse (and whom his friends and family instantly recognize as a thinly veiled characterization based on François’ former lover, Carole, a fashion model who had died of a drug overdose). Appearing eager to collaborate with the young filmmaker whom he considers to be a genuine auteur, Hutten offers to fund him an advance in order to help defray preproduction costs before leaving the room to attend to some unspecified matter, assuring François that his personal assistant is in the process of issuing him a check and will be handing it to him shortly. François continues to wait in the emptied office into the late hours for the check that never materializes until he is chased away by the night watchman. The brusque encounter would prove to be a turning point in François’ obsession with the realization of his film. Contacting a disreputable businessman named Chas (Michel Subor) for funding, François agrees to smuggle a suitcase full of heroin into the country in exchange for the financing of his entire film budget. However, the irony of situation proves inextricably deeper than the tainted money. Casting his new lover Lucie (Julia Faure), a drama student and aspiring actress in the role of Marie-Thérèse, Hutten’s description of François as an auteur proved eerily prescient and disturbing. Like retired detective Scottie Ferguson’s manipulation and transformation of department store clerk Judy Barton into the tragic image of his dead lover in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, François becomes equally haunted in the pursuit of the illusion – the fictionalized reality – of his tormented, unrequited vision. By tracing François’ increasing obsession and emotional withdrawal with the consuming idea of capturing the essence of Carole’s troubled soul, embodied through the fictional reincarnation of Marie-Thérèse, and interpreted by his current paramour Lucie, Philippe Garrel creates an intricate, yet nuanced psychological deconstruction, not only of a pliable, self-destructive, addictive personality, but also the obsessiveness and controlling mentality (and to some degree, a kind of megalomania) innate in an auteurist personality. Rather than illustrating the innate disparity between performance and real-life that underlies the filmmaking process Savage Innocence presents an ingenious permutation on the narrative structure of a film within a film in which the myopic pursuit of the artistic ideal leads to a Pirandellian madness and self-prophecy. It is within this context that Chas’ decision to recruit François for the clandestine task because of his “virgin” qualities in being neither a drug user nor a trafficker can be seen as a manifestation of the film’s metaphoric title, the savage innocent who carves a corruptive path but remains pure in ideal, unscathed in the wake of his own emotional destruction.
Acquarello 2004-2007 [reprinted]