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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 ne
peut respirer et beaucoup disent "nous respirerons plus tard"
Et la plupart ne meurent pas car ils sont déjà morts.

May 68.

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 [2000], shown at the Chicago Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, or Lisandro Alonso's magical debut La Libertad [2001], 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 institutions.

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 [1949] 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.)

Les Amants

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 Can't Wait.

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.

Gabe Klinger
© FIPRESCI 2006

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issue # 1 4.2006

bullet. Contents
bullet. Marías on Guerín
bullet. Martin on Crowe
bullet. Fujiwara on Tsai
bullet. Klinger on Garrel
bullet. How Critics Work
bullet. Man's Favorite Short
bullet. Amengual Tribute
bullet. Leslie Shatz