I was seriously ill, struggling through the aftermath of a love affair that ended badly, wandering the streets, as I often did, without a destination. Drops of sweat slid through my hair along my scalp. The back of my shirt was soaked. The skies were a hazy blue. There were fires on the subway tracks, murder in the tenements, stinking garbage piled high in the streets. The City was in its most fearsome mode – high summer. I stopped in front of the Quad Cinema on E.13th and stared at a poster for a film:
I had nothing to lose. I bought a ticket, took my seat in the empty theater, opened the book I carried with me and read until the lights went down. Sometimes you encounter a work of art that gives you the courage to live, to persevere. It confirms that the path you are on is the correct one, and further, it fills your imagination with possibilities, inspires you to press on. Such was my reaction to Phillipe Garrel’s film, Un Ete Brulant. Un Ete Brulant, starring the director’s son Louis Garrel and Monica Belluci, tells the story of a struggling actor, Paul, and his friendship with a wealthy painter, Frédéric. Paul (of working class origins) and his girlfriend Élisabeth travel to Rome for an extended visit with Frédéric and his actress wife, Angèle. As the friendship between Paul and Frédéric deepens, Frédéric’s marriage begins to disintegrate. Angèle has begun to cheat on him. Paul and Élisabeth – affected by the contagion of unhappiness – begin to struggle as well. Paul asks Élisabeth: Could you love someone who has no money, someone who puts art first and material wealth second? Her answer is ‘no’. This question is asked many times in Garrel’s work and it is the sort of subject never discussed in an American film.
Angèle leaves Frédéric. Frédéric returns to Paris where, in a fit of despair, he drives his sports car into a tree. Shortly before he dies, Paul visits him in the hospital. Frédéric explains to Paul that he is unable to live without Angèle – she was the proof, the meaning of his existence.
Suicide in the face of betrayal or abandonment is a recurring theme in Garrel’s films. There are others: the intensity, the rejuvenating experience of new, illicit love as an inevitable reaction to the responsibilities of marriage, family, children. Electroshock therapy (something Garrel experienced firsthand), heroin addiction, the birth of a child all appear and reappear in his oeuvre. Garrel describes his work as a combination of Freud and Lumiere. There is a sense of Garrel the analysand ‘working through’ – in his exploration, from different angles and vantage points – the vicissitudes of his life. Of course, there is nothing therapeutic about his films and luckily for us the end result is art, not Garrel’s attainment of psychic wholeness.
The people who populate his films take their own lives seriously. They discuss the metaphysical, the political, they question their own motives and above all they explore the dialectic of love. He has always made his art from whatever available resources were at hand. He requires little more than a handful of actors, a few rooms for them to move about in and, of course, the streets of Paris.
That summer afternoon, when I walked out of the theater after Un Ete Brulant ended, I felt like I’d been granted a reprieve. It seemed to me that I was, at least momentarily, living in a state of grace. Art can accomplish that. The halo wears off, of course, but you’re left with a hunger for the sublime and a reason to live.
Garrel began directing and starring in his own films in the 1960s. First, were the wild years of experimentation. Bankrolled by an heiress, he made a pair of enigmatic, luxurious color films: The Virgin’s Bed (1969) La Cicatrice Intérieure (1971) Abstract, minimal, unfathomable they were the work of a young man setting up camp on the outskirts of society. Nourished by the ferment of ’68, he took ritual and myth for his subject and staged his cinema in the barren settings of Zanzibar and Morocco. The actors, including the iconic Pierre Clémenti (Christ in The Virgin’s Bed) Nico and Garrel himself, uttered inscrutable, gnomic dialogue and appeared to take part in tortuous ceremonies of desire and abjection. Plot was not a consideration; the logic of dreams and cult practices propelled these films. Garrel himself suggested: One mustn’t ask yourself questions while watching . . . they should be watched for pleasure, as one can take pleasure from walking in the desert.
After the money ran out, in the aftermath of failed revolutions, Garrel was back in Paris, addicted to drugs, living in poverty with Nico. He endeavored to make films as a painter painted; retreating every day to his studio – which often as not was the streets, the rooftops of Paris – and exposing film. Athanor (1972), Un Ange Passe (1974), Les Hautes Solitudes (1974), Les Bleu de Origine (1974), Voyage au Jardin des Morts (1978), are silent films, fragments, paradigmatic shards of underground filmmaking – delirium transferred to celluloid. In pursuit of presenting an abject interior state, Garrel subtracted both speech and soundtrack. As would be his habit forever after, the ideas behind many of his films came directly from the journal he kept beside his bed to record his dreams. The doomed and luminous Jean Seberg (shortly before her suicide) played herself – a ghostly method actress embodying the gestures of another era – in the black and white Les Hautes Solitudes (1974). In the hands of another director, the Les Hautes Solitudes might have been little more than an exercise in directionless, quasi home-movie-making, featuring a cast of beautiful junkies. Instead Garrel – always a formalist, always a theorist no matter how straitened his circumstances may have been – delivers a spectral meditation on loneliness, on shared solitude. As if to say: as soon as a human being is left alone he or she tips into unreason. Even when in front of a camera.
From ’64 until ‘78 he made his films without scripts. By 1979, however, Garrel had parted ways with Nico and quit heroin. He sought the assistance of the writer, Annette Wademant, to give flesh to his idea for an autobiographical film, L’Enfant secret. In 1979, L’Enfant secret was a cinematic event and forty years later it remains one: a film so otherworldly that it appears to have been transcribed from the secret codes of Garrel’s unconscious. When I had the good fortune to see a remastered print at the Garrel Festival at the Metrograph in Manhattan in 2017, it felt as if I had been caught in the web of another person’s dream. This was a cinema that seized both the instant and its eternity. It’s worth noting, that Garrel’s breakthrough was nearly derailed by poverty – he had to wait three years before he could raise enough money to retrieve the completed film from the lab.
In the U.S., we live in an era where adults unashamedly watch movie after movie about ‘superheroes’, with plots and subject matter taken from the most puerile of comic books. According to media critics, ‘Prestige TV’ – juvenile dreck like Game of Thrones – will eventually supplant cinema. Critics at the NY Times, The New Yorker, etc marshal their vaunted critical acumen to discuss with apparent seriousness and enthusiasm films like The X-Men, Spiderman. Each of these spectacles costs more to make than the GNP of untold countries of the global south. It is not controversial to say that there has never been a worse time for cinema. In the U.S. the alternative to the ‘blockbuster’ is the arthouse/‘Indie’ film – boutique products made by (and for) the wealthy, or to be more precise the children of the wealthy. No millionaire is capable of making art. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are few. A movie-theater is no longer a privileged observatory to witness the movement of the human soul… but an adjunct of the arcade, the video game parlor.
Again and again, Garrel has told the story of his doomed relationship with Nico. One film, Sauvauge Innocence, explores the aftereffects of that affair in the most mordant and blackly humorous terms. The doleful yet driven film-director Francois (played by writer/philosopher Medhi Belhaj Kacem) seeks funding for an anti-drug film inspired by the overdose death of his lover, Carole. He takes a meeting with a well-known producer. Francois ‘pitches’ his movie. The producer, in his large, opulent office, seated behind an enormous desk, appears enthusiastic and agrees to fund Francois’s film. “Come back tomorrow and I will write you a check.” As if acting out the script of a bad dream, Francois returns the following day, announces his appointment to the receptionist and takes a seat. The producer never shows and after waiting the entire day, Francois is escorted from the building by a security guard. The next day the same scenario is repeated. As a result, Francois seeks funding elsewhere. The bad dream becomes worse. He’s introduced to an investor – a sinister junkie/drug dealer, Chas – who is interested in getting into the film business, and offers Francois the funds on the condition Francois works for him as a drug courier.
Concurrent with these events, Francois meets a new lover, Lucie, a young, aspiring actress. Immediately, he casts her in his film, playing the role of his ex-lover. François is intent upon depicting the reality of Carole, and Lucie is desperate to prove herself. To make the transformation to Carole authentic, she resorts to alchemy – she decides to take heroin. Under the influence of Chas’ debauched lover, Flora, she becomes the doppelganger of Carole both on screen and off. Sauvage Innocence (and the film within the film) ends with the appearance of an ambulance that takes away Lucie’s overdosed body. This unsentimental, elegant film offers ironic commentary on the futility and danger of reenacting the past, and the difficulties making art in a capitalist society.
There is an extravagance that no artist should be without. Garrel, with his ability to leave a traumatic or joyful impression in the heart and mind of the cinemagoer, proves, again and again, that he possesses it.
(Rue Fontaine – A short film about Garrel’s affair with Jean Seberg)
Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood…More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows him his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere. – Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
A new film by Garrel – The Salt of Tears – will be released in 2019. His films are a summit of cinema. See any of them if you can.
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