An actress accosts her filmmaker husband for casting another actress in a role clearly modeled after her. A woman sits perched on a toilet in a pocket washroom while her boyfriend crouches just outside the door, kissing her, which prompts the release of her urine heard tinkling merrily on the porcelain. A couple discuss whether or not one is able to paint the portrait of the other, their very proximity being an obstruction to their ability to truly see one another. A smiling elderly woman explains to a young mother that she’ll always be welcomed here while both clutch a child’s denim jacket, the confused child standing just a few feet away, staring at a man who timidly alludes to his new role as surrogate father. A woman waits on a subway platform while she watches another woman, who we by now see as a sort of double for her, enter a train from the other side and be carried away in the opposite direction from where the woman is heading.
These images, which I’ve plucked more or less randomly from my recent crash course in the cinema of the prolific but under-seen French filmmaker Philippe Garrel, appear onscreen with a minimum of context, if not downright cryptically. Each hovers in its own space, pieces of a mosaic. You get the impression, even after watching only two Garrel movies, that maybe every scene in every Garrel movie hovers in a similar way, the mosaic to which they belong being not any single picture but the whole body of work which, peculiar, at times unabashedly courting pretentiousness, strikes me as genuinely singular.
I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (J’entends plus la guitare, 1991) and Emergency Kisses (Les Baisers de secours, 89), the movies collected in Zeitgeist’s new Philippe Garrel X 2 two-disc set, generate an atmosphere I can honestly say I’ve never seen in movies before, or at least not pursued with such rigour and for such sustained durations. Garrel has a way of placing the camera before one or two figures—usually gorgeous, forthright women and unassuming, often far weaker, sometimes homely men—and letting them build a vivid hum of intimacy that defies filmic artifice. There’s something of Ingmar Bergman in this, and Robert Bresson too, but Garrel’s lyrical naturalism has none of the carefully honed dramaturgy or overt urge toward transcendence of either. (Garrel cited Jean-Luc Godard as his cinematic idol way back in the 1960s, but it seems to me the Godard movies which feel closest to Garrel’s are the lesser-known, playfully self-referential ones, like 1980’s Sauve qui peut (la vie), which come long after the canonical 60s works.) Garrel’s stories have no beginning and no end. The relationship between these characters and the people playing or directing them often seems flamboyantly blurred. If they had dramatic arcs these stories would resemble Woody Allen movies or Chekhov plays, all these sophisticated couples negotiating their love affairs and philosophizing about the wayward nature of their lives, frequently stupefied by the presence of their offspring.
I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar begins with two couples on holiday, no longer young—or at least no longer innocent—bohemians who seem set on a course of perpetual ambivalence. The movie is dedicated to Nico, the statuesque German-born model and deep-voiced chanteuse most famous for her collaboration with the Velvet Underground on their eponymous debut. Nico lived with Garrel for several years and appeared in a number of his films. Marianne (Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege) is clearly based on Nico, heroin habit included. Marianne and Gerard (Benoît Régent), Garrel’s stand-in, drift together and apart, at times compelled toward stability, at times finding it unbearable and thwarting it however they can, usually through the accumulation of other lovers, their undulating trajectories moving in time to Faton Cahen’s eloquent score.
It was while going into production on Emergency Kisses that Garrel learned of Nico’s death and decided to make a film about their relationship. Yet Emergency Kisses is in fact a far more overwhelmingly self-reflexive work, with Garrel himself playing Mathieu, the filmmaker husband of the disgruntled actress Jeanne, played by Brigitte Sy, who was Garrel’s wife at the time. Garrel and Sy’s son, the now well-known actor Louis Garrel, plays Mathieu and Jeanne’s son. Garrel’s father Maurice plays Mathieu’s father. Garrel’s ex-girlfriend Anémone plays Minouchette, the actress Mathieu chooses to play Jeanne… You get the (meta-)picture, which of course reads like a wildly elaborate form of group therapy but does indeed cohere into something that reaches marvelous heights of emotional richness—though there’s something presumably unintentionally comical about Garrel’s onscreen presence, his enormous mushroom-mound of frizzy graying hair and his little voice. Mathieu and Jeanne, like Marianne and Gerard, do their dance of partnership and paternity, of uncertainty, self-interest, self-loathing and love, and love, as is explicitly stated by the characters, is what makes the stories of their lives. And these stories make for surprisingly absorbing and sensitive filmmaking, culminating in a bravura finale that, after so much talk, engulfs the last moments with a poetry that’s wordless, visually inspired, metaphorically pointed and quite moving.