“Life’s a gas. I hope it’s gonna last.”
– T. Rex, “Life’s a Gas”
Wearing only pantyhose over underwear, an androgynous child (Stanislas Robiolle) finds an aerosol can of hairspray on the headboard of his parents’ bed, and belly-flops onto the mattress with a big, toothy grin before spraying the hairspray toward the camera. In the next shot, the kid is sitting on the bed wearing a nightshirt with the aerosol can still in hand. Seen within a rear-projected background of a forest, the child’s mother (Bernadette Lafont) and father (Laurent Terzieff) run towards the bed, which begins to move just as they’re nearly within arm’s reach. Reaching out, they try to keep up with the moving bed, but they’re not fast enough. Spraying the hairspray every few seconds, the child is not alarmed, for this struggle – like all others – will surely pass.
These moments are only two consecutive shots in Philippe Garrel’s Le révélateur (1968), a film comprised almost solely of inspired tracking shots and the staging of a three-member family unit in a variety of locales. Like the hairspray being released from the can, these scenes are fleeting – visible for a matter of moments before moving on to something else entirely.
Scientifically speaking, the gas dispersed from an aerosol can is a colloid, which is a substance that “[consists] of particles substantially larger than atoms or ordinary molecules but too small to be visible to the unaided eye [… and] may exist as dispersions of one substance in another – for example, smoke particles in air.”1 In Philippe Garrel’s early work, specifically his three silent features Le révélateur, Les hautes solitudes (1974) and Le bleu des origines (1979)2, people and their actions drift about like particles that eventually vanish or resurface in a new way in the next scene. It’s not that a scene didn’t happen, but that its relation to the whole is “up in the air”, as it cannot be placed in relation to time or a conventional dramatic sequence of events. Garrel’s silent cinema is that of the colloid, as is observable in the ephemeral quality that his captured images possess. The lack of causalities from scene to scene aid in this sensation, and yet these works are tonally consistent in Garrel’s presentation of life and internal conflict.
Film scholar Adrian Martin has written of “eternal stillness and internal repetition” in relation to another film by Garrel,3 but those words are applicable to Garrel’s three silent features as well. With Le révélateur, Les hautes solitudes and Le bleu des origines, Garrel is representing on the screen feelings that can be described in a simple sentence but can be felt for days, years or even the greater part of a lifetime. Melancholic introspection and the physical manifestations of that act – often, lethargy – are the pieces that make up the mosaic of each of Garrel’s silent films. While they are dramatic silent films, they’re not plot-driven, favouring instead gesture and isolated moments of being.
There has been considerable writing on the symbolism in Le révélateur – which is perhaps the most dramatically fleshed out of the three silent features Garrel made – and there has also been a wealth of biographical analysis done on all three films; but I am more interested in the impermanence that is felt from moment to moment and scene to scene in these works than I am in any meaning that can be gleaned from these images.
As previously mentioned, Le révélateur is a film of movement and action following a mother, father and their child. Otherworldly, the film is set amongst tunnels and quarries, and yet its symbols of the family are universal. There’s one scene that I’d like to hone in on, though, for how indicative it is of the colloidal nature of the work as a whole. Lasting just under nine minutes and divided into three shots, there’s an impressive scene of panic quite unlike anything else in the film. The camera tracks alongside the mother and father as they drag their child through an overgrown field. Between the camera and the family is a barbed-wire fence lining the perimeter of the field, and in the distance is a forest. The child appears to be in pain, but the parents are determined to get away from whatever it is that could be pursuing them. Like a family running through the fields of Nazi-occupied France (though the film was shot in Germany), or like Cary Grant evading a crop duster in North By Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959), the fact that one can imagine what they are running from without knowing or even needing the context is one of this film’s major strengths. The mise-en-scène is so rich, and Garrel’s use of a car as a dolly – a method he had previously deployed with Jean-Luc Godard in order to film the May ’68 riots in Actua 1 (Garrel, 1968)4 – makes for an enthralling way to present this nomadic family on the run.
Occuring between two scenes involving doors, with the first ending on the child closing himself in a cabinet, and the other involving the child opening a door to a bathroom (where he proceeds to use a Bible as toilet paper), this chase scene could be a dream or an extended metaphor for the solidarity of a family … or something else. What is clear, though, is that any cause-and-effect relationships are absent, as their pursuer is never identified, and nor does it ultimately matter who it is. It’s merely a struggle that must be overcome.
Comparatively, Les hautes solitudes doesn’t have imagery that lends itself to interpretation as freely as Le révélateur does, and yet both films operate in a similar manner but with a different pace. The particles that make up Le révélateur are far more unstable, bouncing about and making known their differences with visual tricks and truly “cinematic” compositions, and yet they do so without repercussion. Were there some form of checks and balances, a cause-and-effect dynamic, the film could not be thought of as colloidal, as it would have an observable dramatic arc or a tension pulling it to a specific conclusion (the notion of ‘satisfaction’ in popular cinema). With each cut in the film, however, that which we have come to accept can seemingly dissolve into nothingness.
Often described as a film of “portraits”, Les hautes solitudes is not a film of elaborate dolly shots, but rather of closeups of Jean Seberg, Nico, Tina Aumont, and Laurent Terzieff. The work is comprised of them in a variety of positions, such as lying in bed, staring off into the distance or resting their head against a window, beside many more arrangements of people in undefined spaces. Mouths even sometimes move, but what is being said is superfluous to Garrel’s intent, as the film is completely silent and devoid of intertitles.
Still, that is not to say that the film does not have scenes of dramatic action, as the scenes that do – few as they may be – inform our understanding of the tone of the film, even providing a dour jolt of energy with their hints of ‘character motivation’. One of the earliest scenes of action finds Seberg seated on her bed taking pills by the handful and washing them down with a glass of wine. After picking up a book to distract herself from what may very well be the end of her life, she gradually begins to panic. We can’t hear her, but we can imagine the kind of scream she makes to alert Aumont to enter her bedroom; the latter promptly grabs Seberg in shock and tries to force the pills out of her, yanking her head back and launching it forward toward the mattress. With a flash of overexposed film and what Deleuze describes as “the dancing grains which are not made to be seen, the luminous dust”5, we cut to Aumont waiting for Seberg to presumably return from the bath – insinuated by a bathrobe entering the frame that Aumont affectionately rests her head against. With that specific particle of drama that just transpired in mind, we return to Garrel’s moving portraiture.
Reflections play an important visual role in Les hautes solitudes – which is fitting, considering that a reflection is not necessarily a permanent image. Seeing one’s own reflection, rather, is to understand how one appears at a specific moment; tears well up in Seberg’s eyes, and we know she is in dialogue with herself. These moments build up, regardless of perceived banality, and blend together to give us an arsenal of memories, real or imagined, by the conclusion of the film. Perhaps we’ll have already forgotten a specific shot or moment, but the impression of that escaped moment remains.
In a 1968 interview in Cahiers du cinéma, Jacques Rivette said:
“In films, what is important is the point where the film no longer has an auteur, where it has no more actors, no more story even, no more subject, nothing but the film itself speaking and saying something that can’t be translated: the point where it becomes the discourse of someone or something else, which cannot be said, precisely because it is beyond expression.”6
The cinema of Garrel, particularly his silent films, achieves what Rivette is getting at, with the human experience and the notion of a film as a story being reduced to bodies and faces.
Le bleu des origines, the last of these three silent works, is the film in which Garrel seems to acknowledge the ephemeral quality of his filmic representation of life. Like Les hautes solitudes, Le bleu des origines is a film comprised of ‘portraits’, with Nico and Seberg, as well as frequent collaborator Zouzou, returning for their close-ups. Distinctly setting this film apart from Les hautes solitudes are artifacts such as newspaper interviews with Nico about her heroin addiction, posters for her then-ongoing tour and photographs from Seberg’s apartment that are given screen time on their own. Visually articulating the permanence of captured images (whether still or moving) with the knowledge that the human subjects on screen will someday cease to be, Le bleu des origines is akin to a time capsule. Placing several shots of his own reflection throughout the course of the film, Garrel is at once making his presence in its creation known, while also revealing his means of creating it (a hand-cranked camera). Occasional cuts to black and choppy frame rates accentuate the transitory sensations expressed by the actresses on screen, and the duration of each shot affords us the time to emotionally meet them where they’re at or wonder about ourselves in relation to them.
Seeing any one of these three films in the cinema is a film-going experience atypical of what an average audience will have come to expect on a sensory level from film. It is rare for the audience chatter prior to a film to be louder than the main attraction, although theatres like the Anthology Film Archives in New York regularly (and ahistorically) screen prints of silent films without musical accompaniment. This particular kind of silence is oppressive, as it draws attention to the most natural of sounds that would otherwise be drowned out by a theatre’s surround sound system. Chairs squeak, stomachs growl, an elderly man intermittently snores and couples quietly debate about ditching the film early. Further, the normal and healthy act of breathing becomes a possible infringement upon the agreed-upon silence of patrons at the movies – should one even breathe at all? Last year at a screening of Les hautes solitudes at the Metrograph in New York, I found myself holding my breath for long periods of time in an effort to protect the film’s silence, an object that is easily shattered.
Generally thought of as important factors for one’s ability to comfortably sleep, darkness and silence are a combination that Garrel utilises to great effect for the spectatorial experience of these films. With these films seemingly created at the volume of darkness, the bodies of the strangers next to us in the dark of the cinema become another kind of temporary and fleeting experience – God willing.
Stylistically, Le révélateur, Les hautes solitudes and Le bleu des origines are not atypical of Garrel’s other work, as the sound films he was making around this time have many shared characteristics. The well-choreographed tracking shots in Le révélateur are also present in two of Garrel’s very best films, La concentration (1968) and La cicatrice intérieure (The Inner Scar, 1972), but it’s Le berceau de cristal (1976) that is perhaps the closest among Garrel’s sound productions to what he had achieved in the three silent features at hand. Being largely dialogue-free, with close-ups of faces in smoky rooms supported by the music of Ash Ra Tempel, Le berceau de cristal is a film that uses sound as a tool as subtly as Garrel uses the complete absence of sound elsewhere. Concluding with a reverb-heavy self-inflicted gunshot to the head, Le berceau de cristal delivers an outward manifestation of the interior – a concrete conclusion – seemingly out of aural necessity. Had the film ended without Nico’s character committing suicide, would this work feel incomplete compared to the three silent films that end just as nonchalantly as they begin? There’s no definitive answer to that, as we would ultimately accept that Le berceau de cristal didn’t have a dramatic conclusion if Garrel had not given it one, in keeping with the observable colloidal properties I have outlined.
Regardless, the digestibility of the trio of silent colloidal films Garrel produced is remarkable. At the end of any of Philippe Garrel’s silent films, there’s a feeling that they could’ve kept going indefinitely, or that they could’ve ended immediately after starting. The images are in front of us in spurts and clouds, and then they’re gone. That quality, like colloids in the world around us, renders these films as singular works of a type identifiable by their shared penchant for ephemeral imagery in place of drama. Eventually, the child’s can of hairspray will be empty.
- “Colloid,” Encyclopædia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/science/colloid ↩
- Philippe Garrel’s short film Athanor (1972) is also silent. ↩
- Adrian Martin, “Garden of Stone: Philippe Garrel’s L’Enfant secret” in Philippe Garrel: L’Enfant secret, Jacob Perlin, ed. (New York, NY: The Film Desk, 2017), p. 45. ↩
- Richard Brody, Everything Is Cinema, (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2008) p.329–330. ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema II: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Robert Galeta (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 168. ↩
- Jacques Rivette, quoted in “Jacques Rivette: ‘Time Overflowing’: Rivette in Interview with Jacques Aumont, Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean Narboni, Sylvie Pierre (extracts)” in Cahiers du Cinéma – Vol II: 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), p.319. ↩