This paper was originally presented at the Society for Cinema Studies Conference, 2000.
Click here for a complete filmography of Philippe Garrel.
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The work of Phillipe Garrel, an active filmmaker in France during the past thirty years, demonstrates how a specific mode of production put in place by the French New Wave has created an identifiable aesthetic that has subsisted as a significant tradition within French film culture. Working within this tradition, that of Godard, Marker, Renais, among others, Garrel’s narrative and representational strategies produce a film that tells a story at the limits of comprehensibility. He thus constructs an aesthetic that questions the terms of cinematic embodiment. Given the privileged relationship between woman and body, his films, I argue, offer a rich terrain on which to explore the definition of a femininity that refuses the very terms of its definition.
The work of Garrel constitutes a significant corpus within French cinema after 1968. Relatively unknown outside France, he exemplifies both the richness and the insularity of French film culture. His work has been discussed by the major film critics of such journals as Les Cahiers du Cinéma, as well as by the major film scholars of the French academia (1). Beginning in 1964, he has directed over twenty films (2). His importance to the US film scholar could be said to lie in the way in which his work defines a national style that might be identified as French. In this sense, an examination of his work sheds light on the production of national culture within post-1968 France in relation to a specific aesthetic. We might call this an aesthetic of “self-analysis” in which the terms of the “self” are the terms of cinema itself. The conditions of this aesthetic are familiar to us: low production values, non-standard actors, the director as director/screenwriter. These conditions are those defined by the French New Wave filmmakers in the late 1950s and early 1960s and supported by a cultural policy that favored the “auteur” director.
The economy of the New Wave, which might be described as an economy of subsistence, depends upon an aesthetic that is of necessity grounded in a certain minimalism. This aesthetic, which is deliberately even excessively philosophical and hermetic in nature (as if compensating for this minimalism), has encouraged the development of a cinematic culture, or more accurately sub-culture, of which Godard is the most visible example. This sub-culture questions the nature of cinema and narrative as an act of representation. Within this sub-culture, then, film is affiliated with high modernism in art and literature. The importance of state funding and the intellectual status accorded film by such institutions as the Ministry of Culture and the Centre National du Cinéma has permitted the development of this cinema, which lies in between the avant-garde and what is known as independent film in the United States. This cinema is intellectual, or speculative, in nature, thinking most intensely perhaps about its own “subject”–the French male intellectual.
In this context, Garrel’s work is of special interest to feminist scholars because of the way it constitutes a form of auto-analysis that appears to rehearse many of the major tenants attributed to feminist film theory during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Garrel says himself: “Le cinéma, c’est Freud plus Lumière” [Film is Freud plus the Lumière brothers] (3). Much of his own commentary about his work seems to echo the words of perhaps the most famous essay in feminist film theory, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by filmmaker and scholar Laura Mulvey (4). Mulvey remarks: “The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative” (5). As if in support of Mulvey’s position, Garrel claims in 1992: “Mes plans d’acte sont toujours sur l’homme. Quand je filme une femme, j’ai tendance à lâcher la narration” [My action shots are always of the man. When I film a woman, I tend to let go of the story]. Indeed, Thomas Lescure, who interviews Garrel in 1992 pushes this analogy: “.je voudrais risquer une hypothèse ‘affective’: il semble que l’immobilité et le silence se manifestent surtout dans tes films quand une femme est présente sur l’écran” [I would like to risk an “affective” hypothesis: it seems that immobility and silence manifest themselves above all when a woman is present on the screen]. “Comme si cette femme était contemplé par un enfant, émerveillé, fasciné” [As though a child contemplated this woman, fascinated, filled with wonder] (6).
We might claim that, as a filmmaker, Garrel emphasizes the relations among the look, the story, and the woman as relations with which we are all too familiar, those same relations that Mulvey draws upon to make her argument about Woman in Hollywood films. Hollywood has often been accused of violence against women. The relations between feminine and masculine characters in Garrel’s films are not explicitly violent in the terms often used to characterize Hollywood film; however, his narratives are marked by a certain kind of violence, a violence that can only be expressed through silence–as an aporia in the narrative. A mother informs her son in Le Cour Fantôme (The Phantom Heart, 1995) that when a man and a woman can no longer speak of love, they can no longer speak. To speak of love is precisely what these characters cannot do. Within Garrel’s “cinema”, the only way that a man can “speak” his love to a woman is by “making” a child for her. The child is the only visible, hence certain, sign of love. This certainty is always fraught since the woman alone appears to “make” the child. In La Naissance de l’amour (The Birth of Love, 1993), the principle character Paul comes to the hospital to witness the birth of his daughter. This “witnessing” takes place in a manner that underlines Paul’s secondary role, his role as mere observer. During the moment of birth, he is in fact “outside”, shot from behind a frame of glass, in a courtyard. He encounters his child only after she is born.
The woman then plays an ambivalent role in the system whereby the subject understands his identity. The camera lingers on the faces of Garrel’s actresses just a moment too long, emptying the image of its capacity to represent by emphasizing its quality as image. These images are opaque; often in fact the woman remains silent. When Paul speaks to Fanon (the mother of his child) after the birth of their daughter, she does not respond. She does not look in his direction, breaking the rules of screen continuity. Notions of space, the placement of the body, the diegetic world of the film, are called into question. This disruption of fictional continuity enables something else to take place that moves us beyond the Hollywood system described by Mulvey. If at times, the heroines of Garrel appear silent–they also improvise their own dialogue, their own actions. If the narrative stops it is perhaps to leave an opening for another story, that of the woman herself. Garrel asserts: “(J)e préfère toujours les (les femmes) filmer en improvisant, donner, alors que je compose sur l’homme, une sorte d’actualité du sujet féminin, telle femme à telle époque de sa vie” [I prefer to film women while improvising; whereas I compose shots of the man, I prefer to give a certain immediacy to the feminine subject, this woman at this moment in her life] (7).
What are the consequences of the strategy described above for the representation of woman? Does the work of Garrel perpetuate a cultural definition of the feminine in which man looks and woman appears or does he deconstruct this system? It is easy enough to argue that these narratives create a film that tells a story at the limits of comprehensibility. Garrel offers a story that is only minimally “story-like”. It is the role of story to embody or give body to the abstract quality of character that can only be realized or embodied through action. The space of the story is the space of the body. Given the privileged relationship between woman and body, his films must constantly confront a femininity that refuses the very terms of its definition. Fanon is disembodied by her own “look”. Her look (defined by the syntax of editing) moves us outside the space of the hospital to the space of television and global violence, depicted in the shot that follows. One might say that rather than stopping the narrative, the figure of woman undoes the narrative, unravels that possibility of a story that would define the body as such. Fanon’s look moves us beyond the concerns of Paul, the concerns of the Oedipally-defined family towards the concerns of politics, of a body politic. This other body challenges the role of woman as a purely aesthetic object. She is also social subject, a historical subject. She may be the object of action but she is also the subject of her own actions.
In Garrel’s work, the tensions between femininity as an aesthetic moment and woman as a cultural agent produce a narrative that rehearses again and again the desire for a new definition of sexual identity. One might say that his films punctuate its necessity–while at the same time marking the impossibility of imagining what these new structures of desire might be. We might further say that the films at least of this period in Garrel’s career (8) (that characterized by La Naissance de l’amour) testify as much to the breakdown of cinematic machinery as to that of the masculine subject. The indeterminacy of Garrel’s narratives is almost inevitably tied to the problem of perception. His films testify again and again to the inadequacy of vision as an instrument of knowledge and of language. His work signals the impossibility of a cinematic language and the inadequacy of the image as a representation of the world as it really is. Though the camera lingers on the faces of women as though seeking some sign of love it inevitably fails to find these signs. In La Naissance de l’amour, the camera meticulously documents the faces of Fanon (who loves Paul) and Ulrika (who does not love him) but fails to “read” the truth of love in either. His films challenge the idea that through “sight” we are capable of discerning love. In consequence the entire tradition of love at first sight, the legacy of Petrarch, Dante, Shakespeare, that is to say modernity and all that this entails is rendered suspect. To tell its stories, cinema must like dreams rely on a different system of signification, the system of the “figure” as a visible embodiment of language and thought, in which “seeing” is not the equivalent of “knowing” but of “thinking”. And here film inevitably fails–or succeeds only to the extent that it conveys its truth through what it does not show.
If indeed cinema is at least in part as Mulvey would have us believe the institutionalization of “boys looking at girls”, what then do we see in an era in which everything has already been revealed? Garrel shows us what is missing, what no longer exists. Finally we might say that Garrel’s films are about the impossibility of reformulating an Oedipal triangle. His films are about loss, a narrative of mourning and melancholy for the masculine, for patronymic structures and their certainty. Spectator and filmmaker alike participate in a long funeral for a family that never was, in which burial is always deferred. The body is missing. In the last instance, Garrel’s work represents the impasse of the French intellectual who cannot conceive of a world in which his own thoughts would no longer revolve around the centralized concerns of his own subjectivity.
- Scholars who have written about Garrel’s work include: Jacques Aumont, Raymond Bellour, Nicole Brenez, Serge Daney, Gilles Deleuze, Youssef Ishagpour, Thierry Jousse. He has been interviewed by Leo Carax, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Thierry Jousse. His producers include Dominique Païni, current director of the Cinémathèque française. As such, he must be considered an important influence in contemporary French culture and cinema.
- L’enfant Secret (1979) received the Prix Vigo in 1982.
- Philippe Garrel, Thomas Lescure, Une Caméra à la Place du Coeur, Paris: Admiranda/Institut de l’Image, 1992, p. 54
- Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Braudy Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp.833-844
- Mulvey, p.837
- Garrel, Lescure, p.55
- Garrel, Lescure, p.34
- This period is known as the fourth period (Garrel, Lescure, p.26) and the four films Les Baisers De Secours (1988), La Naissance de l’amour (1993), J’entends Plus La Guitare (1990), and Le Coour Fantôme (1995) are often termed his “tetralogy”.