Emergency Kisses begins with a couple quarrelling about something most couples don’t usually quarrel about – who should play one of them in a film the other is making based on their lives. The man, Mathieu, is a film director, played by the film’s director, Philippe Garrel. The woman playing his wife, Jeanne, is Garrel’s real-life wife at the time, the actress Brigitte Sy. Later, we meet their young son, Lo, played by their actual son, Louis Garrel.

Emergency Kisses explores the intimacy of creation. Mathieu’s refusal to cast Jeanne in a role he admits is really her triggers a crisis in their marriage. Mathieu would prefer to cast another actress; for Jeanne, this rejection is tantamount to a rejection of her, an infidelity. Jeanne believes that Mathieu runs from them, runs from love, and runs from reality into fiction. She accuses, “You don’t love me, you love my role,” and insists, “Look at us in the mirror. You refuse.” But as Emergency Kisses progresses we understand that Jeanne’s comment is a false provocation from which much of the film emerges.

Here in this deeply personal film is the intimate lens that is characteristic of so much of Garrel’s work. His camera is a mirror that reflects and memorialises. Emergency Kisses is evidence of Garrel’s willingness to look at ‘them’ and also at himself, as he has done repeatedly and honestly throughout a 50-year career of subjective exploration, beginning with his first feature, Marie pour mémoire (1968). Garrel’s camera’s lens is repeatedly turned on himself as actor or ‘character’ (L’enfant secret, 1979, Regular Lovers, 2005), his family narrative (La Jalousie, 2013), and that of his lovers (I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar, 1991), wringing elegant, measured poetic imagery from the meat of his own life.

Emergency Kisses is part of Garrel’s grand “family romance” 1, a phrase Adrian Martin uses to describe a variety of first-person cinema that expands not only Garrel’s own story but the story of all those with whom his life intersects. The French word histoire, with its double meaning and usage as ‘story’ and ‘history’, the private and public narrative, is a delicate reminder of the interconnectedness of these terms in Garrel’s universe. In Emergency Kisses it is also the organizing principle.

It’s a history focused on small details. Garrel originally wanted to shoot Emergency Kisses entirely in close-ups 2, to emphasise the intimacy between his ‘characters,’ to enfold us in their world. Pulling the camera back into a medium shot allows some breathing space yet a sense of closeness remains throughout – private dialogues are glued together with quiet observations that give the film its emotional brutality. Silent, austere observations of both Jeanne and Mathieu alone create a melancholy tone strengthened by Barney Wilen’s jazz score. The spirit of the nouvelle vague lives on in Garrel’s attention to the meandering details of everyday life and the creation of self-enclosed worlds. It’s uncompromisingly real and just how a person’s story unfolds; part of what Martin calls the “intimate spectacle” of Garrel’s cinema, where we witness “people standing or sitting together, just looking, or being silent, or exchanging a few words” 3.

For Garrel, this intimate entanglement of love, art and life, is inescapable. Each of his films reveals that there is no art without love; no life without art. And perhaps in no film is this more unambiguous than Emergency Kisses, where we observe an artful, delicate fiction, as a family plays a family (Garrel’s father Maurice also features as Mathieu’s father), and we must remind ourselves that this is not a documentary. And yet we are immediately confronted with a series of questions that refract from the screen into Garrel’s life and back into the frame. Are husband and wife really in crisis? Will they be soon? Will love survive?

Mathieu and Jeanne separate (as Garrel and Sy eventually will). He leaves her so he can make the movie he wants to make and she sleeps with another man, a revenge that brings Mathieu back to her. Time passes; they reconcile and rebuild. But the damage is done – a chasm cleaved wide between them exposing differing ideologies about who they are together and alone. But they know there is no story, no history, no film, without each other.

As Jeanne later says at a café with their filmmaker friends, Paul (Jacques Kébadian) and Josette (Valérie Dréville), “Love makes the stories in our lives.” Indeed, love has created Garrel’s histoire as a filmmaker, layer upon layer in a lifetime spent exploring the union between intimacy and art. And here, Paul and Josette – collaborators in life and art – are presented as an idealised embodiment of the Garrelian truism that muses throughout Emergency Kisses; that “those who make love together write together one way or another.”

But making art is complicated and Garrel does not retreat from exploring its stresses. Jeanne distinguishes hers and Mathieu’s experience from Paul and Josette’s because “they’ve no kid to care for while writing.” And Mathieu wonders if it’s ever possible to understand love by writing about or representing it: “It’s not a thing, a machine or a function. It’s us. How can we discuss us or our lives as something interesting?”

Garrel, through Mathieu, problematises the smudges between art and life’s intimate spaces and in doing so illuminates some essential truth about the creative process. If film is an act of memory, Jeanne’s repeated accusation that “You remember what you want to” haunts Emergency Kisses, as does Mathieu’s early shock at discovering “a real guy in my real wife’s bed.” For Jeanne, a story must always seek truth, be explored without fear. But Mathieu, as director, possesses the power to remake reality. The only truth in filmmaking is the truth he creates. The act of creation is an act of interpretation and a film exists, as Garrel explains, as “an attempt to rebuild our imperfect memories” 4. He sees that real guy in his real wife’s bed and can choose how to remember that pain and how we should experience it. For Garrel, it’s the work of a lifetime – crafting an intimate history and the mythology of an entire clan.

Emergency Kisses (1989 France 90min)

Prod Co: La Sept, Les Films de l’Atalante, Planete et Compagnie Prod: Gérard Vaugeois Dir: Philippe Garrel Scr: Marc Chodolenko, Philippe Garrel Phot: Jacques Loiseleux Ed: Sophie Coussein Art Dir: Marta Fennolar Mus: Barney Wilen

Cast: Brigitte Sy, Philippe Garrel, Louis Garrel, Anémone, Maurice Garrel, Yvette Etiévant, Jacques Kébadian, Valérie Dréville, Aurélien Recoing, Pierre Romans, Charlotte Clamans, Laurent Wennig


  1. Adrian Martin, “The Cinema of Intimate Spectacle: The Poetics of Philippe Garrel,” Cineaste, (Fall 2009), p.37.
  2.  As told to Thiery Jousse, “En Toute Intimité,” Cahiers du Cinéma, (January 1989).
  3.  Martin, p.41.
  4.  Stefan Grissemann, “History is the Enemy of Art: Interview with Philippe Garrel on Les Amants Réguliers,” Cinemascope (January 2006), p.29.

About The Author

Joanna Di Mattia is a writer and film critic and the inaugural winner of the Senses of Cinema-Monash University Essay Prize. Her PhD in Women’s Studies from Monash University examined anxiety about masculinity in contemporary American cinema. She has contributed to numerous publications and her writing reflects her interest in the aesthetics of desire, screen acting, and the complex pleasures of looking.

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