In 1957, François Truffaut wrote: “The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession or a diary. The young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person and will relate what has happened to them: it may be the story of their first love or their most recent; of their political awakening; the story of a trip, a sickness, their military service, their marriage, their last vacation.and it will be enjoyable because it will be true.the film of tomorrow will be an act of love.” (1) Then the Nouvelle Vague came and went. For all of their achievements, with the notable exception of Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) they never quite fulfilled the conditions of this manifesto. Perhaps Eric Rohmer comes closest, with his delightfully intimate stories of day-to-day life and love. But even these lack the element of autobiography. In an interview for Cahiers du Cinéma last year, Maurice Pialat was delighted by interviewer Charles Tesson’s assertion that his films were what the Nouvelle Vague promised but did not deliver. (2) This is perhaps even truer of some other directors of his generation. Jean Eustache is an obvious example but perhaps the best is Philippe Garrel, the world’s greatest working filmmaker.
Working with minuscule budgets in relative obscurity, appreciated by a small number of dedicated fans but ignored by the mainstream to the point that only one of his films has been released in the Anglophone world (his first feature, Marie pour mémoire in 1967), Philippe Garrel is the archetypal romantic loner poet. He started filming in 1964 and made his first feature four years later. A child of 1968 and the Nouvelle Vague with a particular admiration for Godard, his films can be split into two periods. The first are underground works, hermetic visions of artistic alienation and, as the ’70s wore on, film portraits of the people around him, notably the German chanteuse Nico of “Velvet Underground” fame with whom he lived for ten years. These were Garrel’s wild years of drug addiction, permissiveness and extreme alienation, which culminated in a traumatic experience of electroshock treatment. They would haunt the films that followed. From 1979 he chose to move into a more narrative cinema, to tell the story of his life rather than immerse viewers in abstract hermetic visions that reflected it, often only obliquely. The result is an ongoing series of autobiographical films, one of the most coherent bodies of work in the cinema. Marriages come and go, children arrive and ask awkward questions, parents pass on their wisdom and die and the Garrel hero shuffles into middle age under the shadow of lost loves and the lost dreams of the 1968 rising. Garrel’s cinematic universe is a pared down, melancholy place two steps away from the home movie. It is suffused with a uniquely affecting tenderness, a sense of intimacy almost unknown elsewhere. The couple is always at the centre of this universe, the pursuit of love and its numerous difficulties being his constant theme and, for him, the only theme worth dealing with.
Garrel’s films are made up of moments, moments of day-to-day intimacy or alienation, often elliptically linked. Quiet conversations and silences between friends and lovers. And thought. Few other directors have made reflection so central to their filmmaking and almost none have captured it with such unforced grace. It is a cinema of contemplation rather than narrative. He shoots with the most basic means in an elegant, portrait like style. Sometimes he uses quite long takes, always with very little cutting around in a scene and often none at all. Scenes are filmed with a stillness and a patience that do the exact opposite of what most effective narrative cinema does, that is, to grab audiences and manipulate them into a state of false emotion.
Rather, Garrel’s style allows viewers to enter the scene for themselves, which results in a heightened sense of immediacy. The immediacy of the moment. Moments which we don’t feel are being played for us, but rather private moments we are observing.
Moments like Christine Boisson sitting up in bed after sleeping with Maurice Garrel for the first time in Liberté la nuit (1983) or later in the same film staring endlessly out of the window of a ferry; like Luis Rego quietly painting in Le Coeur fantôme (1995); like Garrel’s small son Louis floating paper boats in the bathroom in Les Baisers de secours (1988); like Catherine Deneuve anxiously preparing a bedroom for her rendezvous with Xavier Beauvois at the beginning of Le Vent de la nuit (1998). Moments whose haunting power is best summed up by Tony McKibbin in a phrase that perfectly encapsulates the source of these films’ power: “voyeurism of the soul”.
At the centre of these films are the actors and actresses. Some, like Jean-Pierre Léaud and the director’s father Maurice, with whom he likes to make a film at least every five years, are regulars. Others, like Benoît Régent (quite extraordinary in J’entends plus la guitare, 1990) and Lou Castel (La Naissance de l’amour, 1993), make their marks in passing. Among ‘his’ actresses Nico, Zouzou, Brigitte Sy, Christine Boisson, Johanna Ter Steege and Aurelia Alcais have all appeared more than once.
With the exception of Liberté la nuit, probably the finest of his ’80s work, which is set at the time of the Algerian war, his films of the past two decades have been contemporary and more or less autobiographical. L’Enfant secret (1979) began the cycle with a retelling of his affair with Nico; this was the inspiration behind J’entends plus la guitare as well, which looked back from the perspective of his later marriage and settled life; the short Rue Fontaine (1984) tells of another affair, this time with Jean Seberg, with the addition of his imagined suicide; Les Baisers de secours is an all family affair in which Garrel and his then wife Brigitte Sy play out a drama based on her devastation at being passed over for a role in another of his films. From J’entends plus la guitare on, the link from one film to the next becomes more pronounced. It ends with the hero’s marriage disintegrating, the main subject of his following film La Naissance de l’amour, which concludes with him taking up with a younger woman. This affair is the centre of Le Coeur fantôme, his most upbeat film in spite of the death of the hero’s father with which it concludes.
In contrast, Le Vent de la nuit is his most chilling film since the ’70s. It seems to mark a new direction in his work. Shot in uncharacteristic widescreen, the sense of closeness of the previous settings has given way to an unforgiving, glacially abstract world reminiscent of Antonioni in which characters move about pointlessly, hopelessly ensnared in their pasts.
In its story of a young man’s apprenticeship to a lonely, older man who carries the burden of Garrel’s past, it takes on an almost mythological dimension. Suicide is seen as the only solution in this tenderly lucid vision of perfect pessimism.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Garrel’s filmmaking is his trust in the inherent power of the cinema or at least the cinematic image. He once defined cinema as “Freud plus Lumière” (3) and Lumière is perhaps the director he resembles most. The astonishing directness of the relationship between Garrel’s camera and reality is in so many ways filmmaking at its most obvious. So obvious that no one since Lumière has had the courage or imagination to work that way. Yet his images have a poetry that is far removed from documentary drabness. In La Chinoise (1967), Godard claims Lumière was not the first documentary director, but rather one of the last great Impressionist painters. Garrel’s films are painterly in the same way. Rossellini stated, “things are there. Why manipulate them?” (4) Garrel proves the effectiveness of this approach definitively. Not only in terms of style, but also in subject matter. It is at his own life that his gaze is directed.
With the simplest of means and subjects that do not leave his back yard and are all the more deeply felt for it, Philippe Garrel has created a body of work that stands as a reproach to how stunted and self conscious most cinema still is. For anyone watching films in this era of computer manipulated visceral hyperbole, the tender toughness of Garrel’s austere approach is a much-needed reminder of the beauty of cinema in its purest state and its privileged position in capturing the face of reality.
- François Truffaut, Les Films de ma Vie (Paris: Flammarion), 1975
- Cahiers du Cinéma, October 2000
- Originally said in an interview with Gerard Courant in 1982 and then quoted in a question by Thomas Lescure in his book of interviews with Garrel, Une camera a la place du Coeur, (Paris: Admiranda/Institut de l’image), 1992
- Quoted from an interview with Rossellini by Fereydoun Hoveyda and Jacques Rivette in Cahiers du Cinéma, April 1959