about the writer
Gabe Klinger currently teaches in the
Film & Video Critical Studies Department at Columbia College, Chicago,
and is a freelance writer and curator.
Some Thoughts Came Running...
By Gabe Klinger
Chicago, November 28, 2005
Meanwhile everyone wants to breathe and nobody can
and many say, "We will breathe later"
And most of them don't die because they are already dead.
Et cependant tout le monde veut respirer et personne
peut respirer et beaucoup disent "nous respirerons plus tard"
Et la plupart ne meurent pas car ils sont déjà morts.
The above is an anonymous graffiti observed on
the street in Paris during the tumultuous month of May 1968. In Philippe
Garrel's Les Amants réguliers, which is set in this time,
one of the lead characters literally stops breathing after reciting a
lengthy post mortem of the famous student and workers' movements that
shaped an entire generation. Joining the likes of Sartre and Godard in
the marches was Garrel himself, only twenty at the time. Garrel did not
stop breathing: he went on, and 37 years later, his memories of the period
are still deeply felt.
Yet in those 37 years Garrel has operated rather invisibly.
The late French critic Serge Daney wrote in his 1982 essay on the director's L'enfant
secret: "A filmmaker claims to be testifying for his generation.
An experience struggles to become a story. A frozen narrative still burns.
Is it a film? If so, then L'Enfant secret bears little resemblance
to what passes today as French cinema."
In 2005, Garrel is no closer to resembling what passes
for French cinema. "They don't make them like this anymore," said Daney.
Indeed. They don't. Except when Philippe Garrel makes them.
Les Amants réguliers may be the best film
I've seen this year. I had to travel to New York to be able to see it.
Here in Chicago, the Chicago International Film Festival — the
largest two-week outpost in the Midwest for world cinema — passed
on or couldn't get the film. The following is a presumption on my part,
but I doubt they were even aware of it, or that they tried very hard
to get it if they were (in an e-mail after Venice, one of the programmers
wrote me succinctly: "it's not in the lineup"). The idea, I'm sure, is
that no one will want to see a three-hour French movie if there's nothing
in it that represents the current trends of French cinema. Philippe Garrel — like
filmmakers Naomi Kawase and Nobuhiro Suwa in Japan, Alexander Sokurov
in Russia, and increasingly André Téchiné and Patricia
Mazuy in France — is an entity unto himself.
Often the bias at film festivals is such that certain directors,
whatever the merits of their films, are protected because they were former
press darlings, because they have legacies, or because they've won prizes.
But if films by a Garrel or Mazuy are never shown in Chicago, there's
little chance of an auteur following in the first place.
Complaining about the lack of adventurous programming in
Chicago is like crying because the Art Institute isn't the Louvre, or
that Millennium Park isn't Central Park. Garrel represents a tier of
cinema that I don't expect will ever be fully accessible in Chicago,
and that's something I accept about living here. A Filipino film fest
will not wield Lav Diaz, nor will an encounter with Spanish cinema bring
us something by José Luis Guerín. Fluke screenings do tend
to happen with regularity, as sometimes important films fit the constraints
of gay/lesbian or Latino events (examples would be João Pedro
Rodrigues' magnificent O Fantasma , shown at the Chicago
Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, or Lisandro Alonso's magical debut La
Libertad , shown at the Chicago Latino Film Festival, now
in its 22nd woefully mediocre year).
Chicagoans — like everyone else, I suppose — are
alarmingly comfortable with the norm. With all the outreach and diverse
funding from local organizations, the adventurous programmer has all
the incentive s/he needs, but too often audience numbers are giving the
higher-ups all the incentive they need. One ambition cancels out the
next, and on with this vicious cycle.
There are programmers whom, as a North American resident,
I look to for their perspicacity and thoroughness, for the way they fill
in the gaps of film history and take risks by showing obscure works.
James Quandt of the Cinematheque Ontario is a good example — his
complete Jean-Luc Godard retrospective, covering a career that has spanned
six decades, exemplifies exactly the kind of courage lacking in Chicago
Early on, I got my chops attending retrospectives at the
old Chicago Film Center, before its glorious yuppification as the Gene
Siskel Film Center, and the LaSalle Bank film series, which lacks the
programming force it once had (though where else can one see rare Hal
Roach Studio shorts or Sirk's Shockproof  in 35 or William
Dieterle's near-complete oeuvre?).
To be fair, the Film Center's "rebirth" has not compromised
the programming, led by Barbara Scharres and cinephile extraordinaire
Marty Rubin. In fact, the screenings have doubled, and the staff are
still equally devoted to showing film after film. But they haven't done
anything nearly as exhaustive as their Fassbinder retrospective from
eight years ago, or their impassioned tribute to Edward Yang seven years
ago. Scharres used to be at the vanguard as far as Asian-cinema programming
goes, but now she's running at the same speed as everyone else. And their
yearly Iranian cinema fest seems archaic now that there are so many emerging
national cinemas to pick from.
In the end it all goes back to the numbers, which are mysterious,
since an Ozu retrospective can do quite well whereas Murnau flops (this
was actually the case at the Film Center). Even with five major college
campuses within city limits, certain film screenings would seem to be
happening in a Midwestern ghost town. The blue-haired ladies and trenchcoat-clad
loners are reliably there, but the young people are clearly lacking.
And until I visited cities like Buenos Aires, Paris, Rio de Janeiro,
and Vienna, I thought my idealization of the Nouvelle Vague era, when
dozens of young people convened at movie houses and wrote for movie magazines,
was a reality as fleeting as a Philippe Garrel screening in Chicago.
Not in the slightest.
At the center of Les Amants réguliers are
youngsters at once impassioned and disaffected — the first of this
Sartrean kind, and a generation that still resembles the qualities of
young people today. Yet what the May '68 generation was involved in had
far greater long-term effects than anyone who was a part of it could
have predicted. If I described the plot of Les Amants réguliers,
the characters would hardly sound like revolutionaries. And that's the
point: they're not. They're regular people — or regular lovers,
as it were — who are broken and bound by the same problems as most
people. About a third of the film's running time consists of its characters
lounging, smoking opium, not doing very much at all. They are moments
of Warholian beauty (though Garrel, sometimes a parrot of the late Jean
Eustache, has said that he's deliberately invoking the Lumière
era). Other moments are owed entirely to Garrel, many of them dealing
with his particular views of government and on class issues.
Les Amants réguliers begins with the trickling
in of civil unrest and climaxes early in a sequence in which cars are
overturned, tear gas is dispersed, and protesters are apprehended and
occasionally escape from riot police and government officials in trenchcoats
(who just stand on the street austerely). The film even breaks into full-on
dream sequence as kids dressed as French Revolution-era commoners lug
a cannon over a hill. (I say "dream sequence" because it's the only explicitly
metaphorical moment in the film and, perhaps of less relevance though
crucial to the mood, it unfolds with no sound.)
François (Louis Garrel), a twenty-year-old poet
and the film's lead character, is seen dodging several policemen; in
voice-over, as if explaining to a friend, he says, "I knew that if I
turned the corner and didn't disappear into the first building, I would
be dead." He knocks on the door of a person who denies him. "Were you
the one flipping over the cars?" a voice asks. "Yes," he says, trembling, "Please,
mister, I'm very scared." The door does not open. François flees
onto a rooftop where he spends the night; in the daylight he becomes
marked, his face completely black from smoke, and is vulnerable unless
he makes it to friendly shelter.
This sequence is the raison d'être of Les
Amants réguliers, and the excitement of it is steadily
distilled in the rest of the film. For instance, a scene in which François
and three of his friends are jump-searched by cops on the street does
not lead to a conflict that seems entirely plausible (many of them
seem to be carrying either drugs or explosives). Earlier in the film
they would have certainly been carried to jail, but this scene shows
us that most of the chaos from protests has subsided. Garrel and screenwriters
Marc Cholodenko and Arlette Langmann are optimistic in their portrayal
of the relationship between state and individual. In another late scene,
a notary and a detective visit the house of François's rich
friend Antoine to collect a bill. The two officials look around at
the bohemian setting, and instead of acting suspicious or snobby, they
engage the two youths in an affectionate dialogue about the future.
Les Amants réguliers, like many of Garrel's
recent films, is an experimental film disguised as a narrative (not the
other way around). It occasionally strives for historical immediacy (narrative)
and on another wavelength rambles in timelessness (experimental). François's
hilarious courtroom appearance to contest his military responsibilities
is highlighted by a public lawyer's speech, which argues that the poems
by this "fragile" youth may one day be the cause of great pride for France.
An official quickly counters this by spitting on a certain prominent
French poet (I regret not remembering the name).
This and another sequence in which François's love
interest, Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), peering beyond the fourth wall, namedrops
Bernardo Bertolucci and Before the Revolution (1964), offered
the most amusement to the industry audience in New York. The ending,
which is an elliptical downer (though it will be familiar to Garrel fans),
was the cause of loud grunts and disapproving gestures.
When he's not using sound the way Godard does, and isn't
shooting Warhol-screentest-style close-ups of son Louis, Garrel's aesthetic,
especially in editing, seems totally organic. It's thrilling the way
he ties sequence to sequence, even deliberately including end flares
to take us beyond any notion that what we're seeing is contrived — that
is, Les Amants réguliers is also an experimental documentary,
and with its serious fashioning of the period, the actors may as well
be children of May '68 in Garrel's imagination.
But Les Amants réguliers finds
even more ways to reach out to us. In the emotional, hidden core of the
film, Garrel calls to mind Renoir in the way he empathetically includes
the points of view of all characters, from bill collectors to bourgeois
youth. He dispenses with any generational heavy-handedness in a touching
scene with his father, Maurice; and he depicts the ways the friends in
François's group start to mature, eventually leaving each other
behind. During an earlier and more carefree moment, The Kinks' song "This
Time Tomorrow" is played over a sensually choreographed dance. The scene,
similar to the masquerade ball in Garrel's Sauvage Innocence (2001),
is baroque in both image and sound quality. The lyrics of "This Time
Tomorrow," which include phrases like "I watched the clouds as they sadly
passed me by," become resonant later in the film as François has
passively observed his relationships fade away. He can no longer breathe.
My trip to Garrel-land occurred during one
of the biggest anti-Bush protests in Washington, D.C. A friend
e-mailed me that he wouldn't be attending the screening of Les
Amants réguliers for this very reason. Three days
after the marches the numbers were tallied up, and 300,000 were reported
to have attended, and more than 300 were arrested (most, if not all,
on misdemeanor charges). The Washington Post wrote on the
arrests, but the
news channels did little to report on the hugeness of this gathering.
Similar marches occurred in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta,
New York, and Chicago on
November 2, organized by the Revolutionary Communist group World
The inflammatory advertising strategy for these protests
had Western-style "Wanted
for Murder" posters with the mugs of George Bush and his administration
plastered all over centralized city areas. This provocation might be
one potential inspiration for the thousands of high schoolers who ditched
class to add to the crowds in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.
Or not. Despite the crushing reality that such gatherings make for only
small dents in the Bush team's body armor, the surprising fact in these
reports is that young people, 16-20-year olds, make up the dominant numbers
in the WCW protests.
In the way Philippe Garrel deals with social issues, militantly
casting himself adrift from mainstream moviegoers, Les Amants réguliers has
the same impact for hardcore cinephiles as the WCW protests have for
those taking to the streets: important for those who are immersed in
the work, but hardly explosive to those on the outside.