Philippe Garrel: The Melancholy Revolutionary

in 15th T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival, Wroclaw

by Demetrios Matheou

It’s well-known that many of the smaller film festivals excel at retrospectives; this is one area, after all, where they can disregard their lack of world premiers or star power compared to the A-list events, and assert their own identity. But what particularly impressed me about the retrospective programming at this year’s New Horizon Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, was how well attuned its subjects were to the ethos of the festival.

As its name suggests, New Horizons is aimed at new directions in cinema, in bold, unconventional and uncompromising filmmaking. One of its retrospectives this year was on the Lithuanian devotee of ‘slow cinema’ Sarunas Bartas, whose work fits that bill with ease; another, equally apt, was on the work of Frenchman Philippe Garrel.

Garrel might be regarded both as a healthy child of the nouvelle vague and a damaged one of the 1968 revolt; his films are informed by the personal vision and verve of the former, by the radicalism of the latter, but also the bitterness and melancholy that came with its failure. In her notes, the retrospective curator Nanako Tsukidate quotes Godard’s observation that for Garrel ‘making films is as natural as breathing’, because his work is so intimately connected to his life. He’s right, of course, for it’s all there before us, in raw, difficult, usually bleak depictions of people struggling to love and be loved, often failing to resolve their emotional lives with their creative ones, usually hampered by the shadow of ’68 and by drugs. The number of times heroin rears its ugly head in Garrel’s work is depressing, yet we know it featured heavily in his own life; on the occasions we see electric shock therapy in his films, we can’t avoid the knowledge that Garrel himself was victim to it, that knowledge emitting its own shockwaves from the screen.

As well as thematically, his films are more overtly autobiographical: some involve filmmaker as characters; many feature either Garrel himself, his father Maurice or son Louis; there are nearly a dozen collaborations with his German muse Nico, and films dedicated both to her and Jean Seberg, Godard’s original icon and another ill-fated woman with whom Garrel was fascinated. Whether this personal, self-referential nature makes the work more valuable, or simply self-indulgent is a central, unavoidable question when approaching Garrel; when you see his films in a concentrated manner, as this retrospective allowed, it’s impossible not to conclude the former.

As an oeuvre, the coherence is remarkable; and even if one acknowledges repetition, and the occasional irritation at a string of characters marked by fragility and folly, the stronger impression is of a powerful commitment to core concerns about the way we live, and how we feel.  Few directors have better essayed the tension between work and love, creativity and self-destruction, radicalism and despair.

Nanako Tsukidate’s thorough selection spanned Garrel’s career, from his debut as a precocious 16-year-old, the 15-minute Les Enfants Désaccordés (1964) to his very latest, In the Shadow of Women, which premiered in Cannes this year. Watching them one can follow the transition from the early experimentation – notably those abstract, dreamy, underground collaborations with Nico, The Inner Scar (La cicatrice intérieure, 1972) and Crystal Cradle (Le berceau de crystal, 1976), which have as much to do with the politically radical zeitgeist of the time as any cinephile influences – to more conventionally narrative-driven, yet no more challenging films from 1979 onwards, many of which are informed by the personal losses of that preceding period.

Among those I particularly enjoyed, from the early phase Le révélateur (1968) is a startlingly powerful silent film, abstract, combining long sequences – often of its central family in flight – with potent, frightening images that convey the passage of a small boy from being afraid and vulnerable in the company of his parents, to increasing rebelliousness. The final shot echoes Truffaut’s 400 Blows (Les quatre cent coups), yet Garrel at this point was making very different films.

I wasn’t that enamoured by his break-out narrative film The Secret Son (L’enfant secret, 1979), whose wooden lead demonstrated just how dependent on good actors Garrel’s films would become. ‘Tell me you love me’, bleats his brooding young filmmaker, who will fall apart when deserted by his lover, enduring electric shock therapy among various humiliations. ‘Are you going to cry?’ she answers. ‘That doesn’t work.’ It’s a very funny moment, whether intentionally or not, and points to the kind of characters ahead of us, who will need our patience, and usually receive it because of the awesome contributions of actors such as Benoît Régent, Johanna ter Steege, Mireille Perrier, Lou Castel, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Daniel Duval, Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Sy, Louis Garrel and Clotilde Courau.

In Emergency Kisses (Les baisers de secours, 1989), Garrel himself plays a filmmaker planning a film about his life, but refusing to let his actress wife play herself. It’s a dazzling post-modern conceit, mixing autobiography and fiction (with Maurice Garrel playing the fictional director’s father, Louis Garrel his son), considering how personal and professional identities can become torturously intertwined, compelling for its honesty and purring with resonance.

Wild Innocence (Sauvage innocence, 2001) makes an interesting companion piece, both to Emergency Kisses and to Truffaut’s Day for Night (La nuit américaine). Traumatised by the death of an old flame and drug addict, a young director is determined to make an anti-drugs movie but struggles to find a producer. Ironically, he eventually finances it with the help of a drug trafficker and, in making the film, inadvertently turns his new girlfriend-star into an addict. It’s preposterous – on paper, so many of Garrel’s films are – yet with more rumblings of art imitating life and with such a precise feel for the filmmaking process, it has to be seen. 

Personal in a different way, and emotionally quite devastating are I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (J’entends plus la guitar, 1991) and The Wind of the Night (Le vent de la nuit, 1999). The first, an homage to Nico, depicts both the ineptness of men who idealise women, fear not being loved but have no idea what to do when they are, and of the grim price of addiction; even when Garrel’s characters sincerely move towards each other, heroin gets in the way. The Wind of the Night is a road movie of sorts, and thus one of Garrel’s few nods to genre; the endless car journeys work to illustrate how one of its three characters can never escape the twin causes of his despair – his memories of ’68 and the suicide of his wife – one or both of which drive him towards his own suicide.

Most of Garrel’s films deal to some degree with the untidy pursuit of love, by characters tormented by conventional happiness. In The Birth of Love (La naissance de l’amour, 1993) Lou Castel’s middle-aged artist floats between his loathed family life and lovers both serious and frivolous, apparently in search of a satisfaction that is almost certainly beyond him. His best friend (played with his usual eccentric élan by Jean-Pierre Leaud) declares that ‘work is all that counts’ and is promptly deserted by his long-suffering wife. When free of addiction, Garrel’s women are invariably stronger and more appealing than his men, who tend to be passive narcissists, which I’m fairly sure is how the director intends it.

And so it is with In the Shadow of Women (L’ombre des femmes, 2015), which charts the disintegration of a marriage between a documentary maker and his researcher, largely because he is a hypocrite and a fool. This has been compared to Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap). It’s a leaner film, not as detailed or profound, but it really packs a punch, not least due to the unbelievable performance of Clotilde Courau.

Two things strike me about the film. The first is that with its black and white photography, the emphasis on close-ups, the use of spare dialogue, the determined austerity both of the lives being lived and the way those lives are depicted, this could easily be mistaken for a Garrel film of 20 year ago; his style has become as consistent as his concerns.  The second is the surprisingly optimistic ending, almost joyous because it’s so unexpected. Perhaps there’s hope, or peace yet for our melancholy revolutionary. 

Demetrios Matheou