“Even now, when it seems that anything and everything is available in the market place, Philippe Garrel remains a figure on the fringes of cinematic consciousness.”
I had been reading about Philippe Garrel for almost two years before I actually came across one of his films. Despite multiple festival showings and near unanimous critical acclaim, his 2005 feature Regular Lovers didn’t arrive in Chicago until 2007, where it received one screening during the Film Center’s European Union Film Festival. I didn’t see it then, either, having to wait until a DVD release that wasn’t even a sure thing; as it now stands, Regular Lovers remains his only work available on home video in the US. Last summer, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of his 1969 experimental feature The Virgin’s Bed in an event courtesy of critic Gabe Klinger’s Chicago Cinema Forum organization. It was a revelation, full of ephemeral, smokey black and white cinematography and constructed largely in lengthy, serpentine tracking shots. Something of a variation on a passion play, and ending with an underground apocalypse replete with biblical and fascist undertones, it was clearly the work of an ambitious filmmaker. Certainly an experimental work by any definition, it’s not the kind of film that’s going to make anyone any money, either its maker or a distributor. As most people assume that anything and everything will ultimately make its way to DVD, Garrel’s work (along with less marginal figures like Cukor, Murnau, Hawks, Ford, de Toth, and Bresson) stands in direct contradiction to the myth that Hollywood has perpetuated. In other words, if you don’t make it out to the rare archival screening of some key works, chances are good you might not come across them again. I suppose this is fine, as long as one is okay with the fact that studio heads are essentially deciding what we can view, what works are important and which works are not “viable commodities”.
Imagine my surprise when Facets Cinemateque announced a week long run of Garrel’s 1990 feature I Can No longer Hear the Guitar (J’entends plus la guitare). I can’t imagine that the (very limited) success of Regular Lovers prompted some intrepid programmer to think that they were going to be selling out every show, so perhaps this was a rare case of genuine altruism. The screening I went to was, not surprisingly, sparsely attended. But most of the people I spoke to after the film and in the following weeks agreed that it was a major work. And make no mistake, it’s a film that lingers. Part of Garrel’s formalism is to reveal certain meanings only after they’ve been introduced, such as a character’s name or their relationship to the (admittedly obscure) narrative. It makes for a disorienting experience, eschewing the normal narrative conceits of establishing shots or clear chronology (at the end of the film, we’re still not entirely sure how many years have passed, although it’s been at least a few). David Bordwell refers to this sort of thing as an “observational cinema”, observational in that meaning comes not from plot contrivance or narrative, but by gestures, furtive glances, postures and the occasional conversation (another example: the intimacy of a relationship illustrated by a character peeing with the door open, her lover idling next to her silently).
The film begins with a lingering shot of a woman in bed, sleeping. If memory serves, it’s the only close up shot in the entire film. We cut to a man walking on a sun lit balcony, a direct contrast to the cramped, dark interior shot preceding it. He pauses and looks off screen, and we cut back to the woman in bed, now in medium shot, part of the frame blocked by a doorway. She looks offscreen, smiling, and starts to get out of bed. We then, finally, see them together This first sequence clearly lays out Garrel’s strategy of revealing connections and points of view only after several scenes – the viewer must retroactively create a causal linkage. We gradually learn that this couple, Gerard and Marianne, are vacationing with friends, Martin and Lolla. After some philosophical conversing around the seaside resort, we cut to black (the first of many sections that end with this device, a constant ellipsis or punctuation mark). The next scene involves Martin and Gerard walking down the street, again waxing poetic on the nature of love and commitment. And again, we only gradually learn that an undetermined amount of time has passes and that both have split with their respective partners. The narrative proper involves Marianne returning to Gerard (again, after an undisclosed amount of time), now sporting a drug habit that he happily joins in on. The remainder of the film chronicles their splits and reunifications, even after Gerard has married and fathered a child. The sections of black screen become increasingly frequent and increasingly disorienting. After Marianne has left for the second time, Gerard takes up with Aline. Perversely, we don’t learn her name until she’s been on screen for quite some time, and one of the elliptical cuts seemingly consumes the amount of narrative time it takes for them to marry and have a child (in what I can only assume is a moment of levity, we cut from Gerard and Aline making love to a scene of them sitting at a table with an older man and several children – briefly, we assume that they belong to Gerard and Aline and that they have spawned more than one child). But Marianne will return again, and Gerard threatens the stability of his family and new found sobriety by allowing her back into his life.
While he becomes increasingly absent from the film, Martin’s character is clearly Garrel’s device for thoughtful retrospection and philosophical inquiry. There seems to be an initially clear cut division between Gerard and Martin; that is, between Gerard’s romanticism and Martin’s stoic refusal of romanticism. Gerard is prone to pronouncements of affection while Martin rejects them, presumably why Lolla has left him (although we are never privy to any actual breakup scene). Gerard and Martin discuss their affairs – “fear of ending an affair is fear of death” and “maybe that’s what love is, fear of not being loved”. The response, “No, it is everything you can’t say.” Garrel is part of a certain tradition of talkative cinema, a trust in the spoken word even while acknowledging the limitations and barriers of communication between two people. Martin declares to Lolla, “I’m to close to you to even see you” and “what does love even mean?” She replies “it means something when you say it”. While opaque, the dialogue seems to be a good faith attempt at exploring a certain kind of doomed, romanticized fatalism. Eventually, as Martin drifts out of the narrative, we see that Gerard is capable of declaring his love while acting out irrational scenarios of betrayal. Kent Jones has remarked that “Although I suspect that he (Garrel) finds them unknowable, women are the gravitational force of Garrel’s universe”. This notion of an unfathomable “otherness” is a central part of the film’s force – a force, I might add, that never succumbs to misogyny or condescension.
Garrel’s body of work, or at least the very small portion with which I’m familiar, could be said to mirror that of Bunuel, in as much as an early experimental period gradually gives way to a (modified) narrative, character based cinema. Kent Jones and Jonathan Rosenbaum have compared Garrel to the likes of Maurice Pialat, Jean Eustache, Cassavettes, and Chantal Ackerman. I’m not familiar enough with Eustache to confirm or deny this connection, but the other reference points seem reasonable enough. Garrel’s films certainly emphasize oblique, philosophical dialogue, a tension between a kind of naturalism and arch stylization, and something we might call realism (however vague or open ended the conceit of cinematic realism might be). Rosenbaum has gone so far as to say, referring to Garrel’s “The Birth of Love”, that he is “a master at dealing with intimate moments between lovers, friends, and family members. Yet he’s willfully indifferent when it comes to connecting these moments into a story.” While viewing I Can’t Hear the Guitar anymore, I was most reminded of Pialat’s A nous amours, another film that deals with physically and psychologically damaged people trying to make heads or tails of their relationships – both films refuse to subject their characters to the simple cause and effect rationales that normal narratives so frequently foist on us (which might be, in either case, a “willfull indifference to connecting moments into a story”. Garrel and Pialat might call this “indifference” a form of truth). The constant necessity to retroactively piece together shards of information places some demands on an audience, but it is this kind of engagement that makes his films so necessary.