Philippe Garrel’s J’entends plus la guitare (1991) is an intimate, unadorned roman à clef quietly but intensely covering an expanse of years in the relationship between Marianne (the extraordinary Johanna ter Steege) and Gérard (Benoit Régent). These figures offer analogues for Garrel and Nico, the actress and musician who was the director’s lover and collaborator throughout the 1970s. Although the film is dedicated to the latter, it is a tough, minimalist, bittersweet and clear-eyed dissection of various moments in the life of the insular couple and also departs in significant ways from real life (neither appears to be an artist and the film is far from a documentary). It sits alongside a range of other Garrel films that rake over and reconstitute the director’s romantic past and daily life.

The movie opens with a closely framed shot of a sleeping woman (frizzy haired Marianne) as we strain to hear the sound of the sea gently lapping in the background. The intimacy of this image, tightly framing the woman from the waist up as she sleeps, combined with the just-there sound of the quietly breaking waves outside the room, draws us closer to its subject while also communicating a sense of discomforting or even invasive proximity. As in the work of Jean Eustache, Jean-Luc Godard, the Lumière Brothers and Andy Warhol – all important models for Garrel – the human face, body and gesture re-emerge as the most profound and elemental of cinematic preoccupations.

One of the most remarkable but allusive things about Garrel’s cinema is its sense of place, space and time. Although J’entends plus la guitare is set over a number of years – and the parallels to Garrel’s life stretch across the 1970s and 1980s – it is very difficult to get a strong feeling for the passing of time or the clear coordinates of period. Garrel is rarely interested in emphasising the trappings or accoutrements of a particular moment, even when revisiting the Paris of 1968 and 1969 in Les amants réguliers (2005). His work is generally more interior, both in terms of its exploration of a kind of emotional autobiography and the spaces, places and moments his characters occupy and tussle within.

J’entends plus la guitare ranges across a set of locations and points in time, but most of the action takes place in nondescript and largely interchangeable rooms (bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms a specialty), and is often staged against the sculptured terrain of an off-white wall or doorway spotted with flaking or peeling paint. The sparseness and austerity of these settings provides an apt milieu for a series of exploratory, lacerating but often muted and weary conversations between a set of interlocking characters, mostly involving the vicissitudes of love and commitment and the pull of sexual, emotional, economic (though often relegated to the background) and familial ties. Almost every shot in the film contains only one or two characters, adding to the sense of intimacy. Garrel rarely bothers with clear or padded transitions between one moment and another in his attempt to get at the core of what brings together and forces apart his characters, and the ultimate failure – in the figures of Marianne and the increasingly bourgeois Gérard – of their impossible commitment to an unstintingly romantic life and unmaterialistic existence. For example, at a number of points in the film the shift between one moment and another is prefigured by a fade to black. The movement towards the next sequence or shot is often disorientating, as if the dissolution of the image registers a loss of consciousness from which the spectator then awakes. In one such moment, Gérard has suddenly gained a child (Ben) and partner (Aline played by Brigitte Sy, Garrel’s lover), and we are initially left to wonder where Marianne has gone. Life moves on. Things change.

This bifurcated temporality is fully emphasised during the intimate conversation later in the film between Marianne and Aline in a drab café that attempts to pinpoint the hold that Marianne still has over Gérard and the irretrievability of the past. This conversation also highlights the process of change and the irreversibility of lost time. Marianne wistfully but matter-of-factly states, “We were what we were, and now we’re not. And that’s that.” Aline responds grumpily to her seemingly confident words and leaves the table. In the transition between this and the previous shot, Marianne has quietly begun to cry and we sense the devastation of all she has lost. But as in many other moments in the film, the transition between these two moments is elliptical, even strange, and we can never quite gain access to the interior world and emotions of the character. As in the work of Warhol, Garrel seems to hold the shot for too long as it moves past the mere registration of emotion. Our response to this sequence is also tested by the following scene that shows the beginning of Gérard’s next affair, questioning the true hold that either woman has over his affections. Although its proximity is almost too neat and pointed, this transition does potently illustrate the brutally honest and self-critical nature of Garrel’s cinema more generally.

Garrel’s tough, elemental, portrait-like movie is far from a mistily romantic reminiscence of lost love. The past is indeed past. J’entends plus la guitar concludes with a series of extraordinary but underplayed scenes (alongside several more prosaic ones featuring Gérard and his latest lover) that emphasise the everyday realities and implications of these traumatic, formative and now irretrievable events and emotions. The first, as detailed above, surveys the distance between two of Gérard’s lovers as they discuss the impermanence of love, feelings and lived experience. The second announces Marianne’s death while riding her bicycle in Ibiza (in a direct parallel to Nico’s own death). Again the film returns to an interior room and highlights the extraordinary ordinariness of the moment when Aline bluntly tells Gérard of her demise, spiting out that “Marianne’s dead” as he enters the room. Gérard’s response moves from incomprehension and kind of release to grief – all staged in an extraordinary single take that pans between the couple and matter-of-factly highlights, in the process, the improved material conditions of their domestic lives. The final sequences play out the aftermath of this announcement – Gérard visiting the scene of Marianne’s death, discussing his retreat from life and romance with a long-term male friend, arguing with Aline about the kind of life they live – staging the emotional disappointments of Gérard’s life.

But, as Garrel has stated, J’entends plus la guitare is also a film about growing up, of moving on from the romance of youth to the necessary responsibilities and weight of middle age – of no longer hearing the guitar, I guess. As Gérard moves to slam the door before “leaving” Aline – a childish gesture she has already disarmed by telling him not to do it – he quips that she sounds like his mother. Combined with her departing line (“Remember to get Ben at the nursery”), we know that Gérard has confessed more than he consciously admits. In this series of crisp actions and exchanges, we see the life that awaits him.

 

J’entends plus la guitare (I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar, 1991 France 98 mins)

Prod Co: Les Films de l’Atalante/CNC/Procirep Prod: Bernard Palacois, Gérard Vaugeois Dir: Philippe Garrel Scr: Marc Cholodenko, Philippe Garrel, Jean François Goyet Phot: Caroline Champetier Ed: Sophie Coussein, Yann Dedet Mus: Faton Cahen

Cast: Benoit Régent, Johanna ter Steege, Brigitte Sy, Yann Collette, Mireille Perrier, Anouk Grinberg, Edith Boulogne