The Grandmother

This essay is included in the catalogue for Jeune, dure et pure ! Une histoire du cinéma d’avant-garde et expérimental en France, sous la direction de Nicole Brenez et Christian Lebrat, Paris-Milan, Cinémathèque française/Mazzotta, 2000.

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If Philippe Garrel’s Le Revelateur (1968) and David Lynch’s The Grandmother (1970) are among the cinema’s finest depictions of childhood, it will be immediately obvious to anyone who sees them that they have far more in common with each other than with such masterpieces as Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933), Rossellini’s Deutschland Im Jahre Null (Germany, Year Zero, 1947) , Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), Mackendrick’s A High Wind In Jamaica (1965) and Kiarostami’s Khaneh-Je Doost Kojast? (Where is My Friend’s House?, 1987), the similarities of tone, imagery, theme and structure being so extreme that it is difficult to believe nothing more than coincidence was involved. Both films (like Lynch’s later Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) present child abuse not as an aberration, nor as something that occurs within but somehow still separate from the nuclear family unit, but rather as the inevitable product of familial arrangements under capitalism. Of course, the word ‘capitalism’ is not used in either work – indeed, no words are used, for the Garrel is completely silent, while the Lynch reduces communication to a few animalistic grunts. But this freedom from vocal discourse – a freedom inextricably linked to the child’s vision of a world not yet structured by language – enables an even greater freedom. While remaining explicitly Freudian, the films neatly sidestep psychoanalysis’ tendency to make its more radical discoveries serve bourgeois interests, and it is astonishing to find Lynch and Garrel anticipating contemporary feminist rethinkings of Freud (notably Alice Miller’s) by more than a decade.

Although Garrel (in the book Une Camera a la Place du Coeur by Philippe Garrel and Thomas Lescure [Admiranda/Institut de l’Image, 1992]) claims that Le Revelateur “turns around what psychoanalysis calls ‘le scene primitive’: the birth of a film, the birth of a child, the first time a child sees his parents making love”, the primal scene (like the incestuous Oedipal crime committed by Ethan Hunt [Tom Cruise] in De Palma’s Mission: Impossible [1996]) has been erased from the text’s surface, represented only obliquely by having the father share a cigarette with the mother in the pre-title sequence. The film is actually remarkable for its almost complete lack of sexuality, and while one can argue that the sexual aspects have been repressed, it is also possible that they are simply not there, irrelevant to the auteur’s purpose. Trauma arises not from the observation of parental intercourse, but, on the contrary, from the child’s acute awareness that his mother and father no longer have any physical relationship whatsoever – the emphasis throughout is on their alienation, isolation, distance, estrangement and lack of intimacy. The nature of the boy’s abuse is, as so often, a matter of neglect and emotional withdrawal – a point Garrel makes, with sublime simplicity and directness, by presenting the scene in which the parents argue and gesture angrily at their son as a theatrical performance taking place on an actual stage.

The Grandmother, a work little known in France, goes even further in this direction, telling its story – about a boy who responds to his parents’ hostility by growing a loving grandmother in the attic – through a mixture of live-action, pixillation, and animated fantasy sections, one of which, showing the boy cutting off his father’s head on a stage recalling that of Le Revelateur, appears susceptible to a Freudian interpretation, something Lynch carefully resists. The sequence in which the boy rejects his mother’s affectionate gestures demonstrates that, while the mother may desire the son, the son does not desire the mother (who is also executed in the fantasy) – if the protagonist wishes his father dead, it is because the father is a sullen bully, not because he is perceived as a rival. The contradiction between Lynch’s description of his own childhood as idyllic and his apparent identification with the boy caused Philip Strick (in Monthly Film Bulletin 639, April 1987) to argue that an autobiographical reading had been “firmly discouraged”, but it should be remembered that when, two years earlier, Lynch’s wife gave birth to a daughter (Jennifer Lynch, creator of Boxing Helena [1993]), the director discovered that fatherhood’s unexpected responsibilities filled him with terror. It is, then, possible to understand The Grandmother ‘s monstrous father as a powerful act of self-criticism (Eraserhead [1976] can be seen as a partial remake told from the father’s point-of-view), but if the man’s fear and anxiety as the boy emerges from the ground are real enough, the film ultimately strikes me as inferior to Le Revelateur in that it lacks the generosity Garrel extends towards his parental figures, who are obviously even more wounded than their son. Despite the fact that the actors playing them – Bernadette Lafont and Laurent Terzieff – are already in their 30s, the parents come across as barely more than children themselves, something emphasised by the mother’s childish dresses (astonishingly, although one senses that this is a mature work with a lifetime’s experience behind it, Garrel was only 20 at the time of production).

Each film focuses on an isolated family unit: in Le Revelateur the only other signs of life are vague and distantly glimpsed – cars driving past, soldiers on an army base, faces looking out of windows – while in The Grandmother even these hints of a wider human community are absent. Although the Lynch adds a character – the eponymous grandmother – not apparently present in the Garrel, her nurturing role is taken in Le Revelateur by the camera itself. The child (played by Stanislas Robiolles, significantly the son of a filmmaker, Jacques Robiolles) is the camera’s collaborator: he constantly looks towards it for direction and reassurance, twice gestures for it to follow him across a field, and at one point runs behind it to give someone his teddy bear – the message written on a wall, “Reveille Moi A8h”, seems intended for no one but his friend the camera, which dutifully tracks left to take a good look.

If the universe occupied by these characters appears solipsistic, this is precisely the problem Garrel has with families in their traditional form, and his film contains the widest possible implications. Upon first watching Le Revelateur, I suddenly, for a reason I could not quite comprehend, recalled Michael Herr’s claim that “Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods”. It took Stephane Delorme’s splendid essay to make me understand how the entire sequence in which the family crosses a field was structured as a war film pastiche, with Garrel’s camerawork imitating that found in combat documentaries. This is only one of Le Revelateur ‘s several filmic references – the opening parodies Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942), while the end recalls Les Quatre Cents Coups (François Truffaut, 1959). But if Garrel, like Vigo (who had the most sympathetic of Zéro de Conduite’s teachers imitate Chaplin), suggests that the silent cinema (evoked here by the absence of sound and the iris-in) is literally cinema’s childhood (“the birth of a film, the birth of a child”), he also uses cinematic reference as a means of referring ever further outward to that culture in which the war film plays an ideological role. The history of Garrel’s pre-adolescence (a history which is also ours) merges with the history of his chosen medium, and the neuroses that led to My Lai are located in the insecurities of a ‘normal’ family. To paraphrase Michael Herr: unhappy childhoods were what we had instead of Vietnam.

About The Author

Brad Stevens is the author of Monte Hellman: His Life and Films and Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision. He has recently contributed multiple entries to Chris Fujiwara’s The Little Black Book: Movies and commentary tracks for the Masters of Cinema DVDs of Nosferatu and Tabu.