Translated by Amy Miniter
This piece was originally published in Cinéma 79, no. 244, April 1979. It has been reprinted with the kind permission of the author.
“I am a man who has suffered much of mind and, as such, I have the right to speak. I know the damage this causes inside.”
– Antonin Artaud1
“Do you have any last requests before this is all over?” The inquisitor, played by the director’s father, Maurice Garrel (for fifteen years, his son had asked him to perform different father roles: psychoanalyst, cop, maniac, etc.) calls out to Jesus (Didier Léon) in Marie pour mémoire (Philippe Garrel, 1967). “That the madness comes quickly,” responds Léon’s character.
“But the day when the madness came, I wanted it to go away,” added Philippe Garrel a few years later.2
Madness is always discussed directly in Marie pour mémoire.3 The viewer is able to reflect on themselves and be confronted with their own madness, as if they were in a house of mirrors, so that they can overcome it and use it as a means of communication. This comes despite Garrel’s insistence at the time that “cinema represented a new mode of communication that violated the individual – an inversion of the most developed form of communication”.4
What is shocking in Marie pour mémoire and all of Garrel’s films is the absence of and refusal of ellipsis and the cancellation of the distance between the “shown” (madness, but also love, hate, etc.) and the real of the filmmaker. This stands in the way of an understanding between the film and the viewer, and it is unbearable for a naïve subject-viewer or for a viewer that refuses Garrel’s filmic experience. This is what Artaud, in his hysterical personal pursuit of absolute interior purity, refers to in the phrase: “Why give appearances of fiction to what is made from the ineradicable substance of the soul, which is like the groan of reality?”5
Through the abolition of distance, limits are uncertain, difficult to discern let alone to fully grasp. We “sink” slowly, surreptitiously into the madness of the filmmaker, without any apparent warning – an authorised breaking and entering. When, suddenly, in a final moment of clarity, we become conscious of the situation, the effort to tear oneself away from the madness can be painful. Dreadful. We risk leaving parts of ourselves behind.
In fairness, all films imply – require – this relationship. Indeed, to see one of Garrel’s films is an experience in which one must accept and endure this process, or else be separated from this experience of madness. This is to take on all dangers in order to benefit from the effects of this ordeal to know oneself better (cine-therapeutic) at the risk of being placed in front of your own madness.
From Marie pour mémoire to Le bleu des origines (1979), 11 years passed, during which Garrel filmed often (almost one film per year) and evolved considerably. His meeting with the singer Nico at the end of Le lit de la vierge (The Virgin’s Bed, 1969) changed his motivations and his goals: from this film on, he filmed with and for her.
Since, he has assigned himself a work of loss. Finished are the references, speeches, collages, quotations à la Godard, finished are the off-camera effects (Godard, still). Garrel has become the field-of-vision filmmaker, where everything is in the frame, suggesting nothing other than what is seen, or rather, what we could call the half-field, insofar as he almost always divides his system of representation in two. Let us take the example of Le bleu des origines, wherein Garrel films two women, Nico and Zouzou. Aside from a few fleeting shots in which they are framed together, Garrel always films each of them in isolation, one after the other, without the image of one calling to or responding to the image of the other. They are filmed in parallel.
Today, in his quest and his stripping back to a torn, tortured interior state, Garrel has done away with speech and soundtrack.6 However, in Voyage au jardin des morts (1978), his previous work, a talking film, he had tried in a Post-Bressonian attempt to give the element of sound a different meaning by orienting it in an unknown direction – a direction that cinema could have taken at the advent of Speaking if it had not fallen into the traps of naturalism inherited from the theatre. This was an impossible attempt, subverting the spirit and conventions of speech in cinema.
This return of silence is neither obsessive nor snobbish coquetry from a filmmaker weary of speech, nor is it a will to want to make new from the old at all costs. In Garrel’s films, it is the desire to get as close as possible to the very essence of the Cinematograph and to the essence of thought in all its misguided ways, to commune with cinema’s origins (Lumière), going so far as to turn the crank and, therefore, to construct an image of proven purity. (Why, in front of accelerated images, do we always fall into the trap of fascination?)
It cannot be overstated that Garrel’s films have always oscillated between two lures, two opposite aesthetic attractions, two contradictory artistic poles. Today, this continual confusion seems endless to the point that it, without a doubt, goes beyond its author’s own self to ask a fundamental question on art and creation. Does cinema need to conform to beauty and cleanliness to infer its message, or does it need to show us its message, no matter the cost, even if it means giving it to us shallow (Warhol) or unfinished (Duchamp)?
Garrel seems completely incapable of responding to such a question, as this contradiction haunts him, from film to film, through perspectives that are distinctive yet never definitive. Les hautes solitudes (1974), a black and white film with overexposed shots, went against previous films (La cicatrice intérieure [The Inner Scar, 1972], Athanor [Garrel, 1972]) in which luxurious images of an enchanting beauty ogle a rich baroque aesthetic (the root of its affinities with Renaissance art). Un ange passe (1975) was in the same vein and in the same aesthetic as Les hautes solitudes. As for Le berceau de cristal (1976) and for Voyage au jardin des morts, they revived the tradition of The Inner Scar, wherein beautiful effects, almost surrealist but of a surrealism emptied and flattened of its splendour by millennia of artistic practice, were neatly affirmed.
Thus, in Le bleu des origines, Garrel uses a reserved black and white without falling into old excesses. Yet, nothing is left to chance, nothing is superfluous, the various impacts of light are carefully calculated. The filmmaker works in the same way as a painter that battles with colours, lighting some zones by leaving others in the shadow, playing with focus, contrasting light from a projector with the dark of shadow in the same shot.
Le bleu des origines is not only a return to the roots of cinematographic expression, but, for Garrel, it is also, without a doubt, an opportunity to preserve a certain purity of it, by questioning and innovating on two important aspects. First of all, it showed and drew attention to image-creating objects (camera, projector, etc…) and they who created it (camera operator) that he had always avoided until this point. I see only two of his films that go against this idea: Marie pour mémoire, when Michel Fournier, the operator, is pushed out of view, caught in the act of voyeurism; and especially La concentration (1968), with its terrifying cinematographic machinery that imprisons its protagonists in a sort of cinematic torture chamber.
In Le bleu des origines, Garrel goes against this aesthetic bias. He films himself in a mirror while turning a crank. Striking images. Excessive images. Surprising images that seem to be torn from the depths of La Cinémathèque, a kind of undisguised homage to Henry Langlois, who believed in him and helped him with his work as early as fifteen years ago.
Another sizeable rupture concerns the editing. Philippe Garrel revives a more traditional utilitarian editing, alternating between short and long takes, proving, if it was necessary, that he is a very classical filmmaker (like Mizoguchi or Griffith, to simplify things). But how many more years of critical blindness must he endure before this idea is accepted? Moreover, the easy label of underground filmmaker, of a cursed filmmaker, that we adhere to him so lightly, carries something unhealthy, even dishonest.
- Antonin Artaud, letter to Jacques Rivière on 29 January 1924, in Antonin Artaud, Œuvres Complètes: Volume I, (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1956). ↩
- Philippe Garrel, in a public debate on 2 May 1975, held as part of the conference “Pour un autre cinema” (“For Another Cinema”). ↩
- The speech on madness that is cried out in the film by Didier Léon’s Jesus: “You stop the projection if I am wrong here. What inspires me is my intuition that precedes reason. I am coming back down to communicate to you that there have already been moments when time and space no longer oppress me! For this, my soul is boundless. Man has made God in the image of his healing. His repressive conduct aggravates his state of repression! In order to free one’s self, to find memory again – to draw completely from all metaphors that have troubled relationships with themselves! A last word: the state, in which I perceive unconscious, meaningless talk of the other that lives inside me, is called madness!” ↩
- Quatre manifestes pour un cinéma violent (Four manifests for a violent cinema), by Danielle Pommereulle, Serge Bard and Philippe Garrel, Opus international, No. 7, spécial violence/mai 68 (Special on violence/May ‘68), pp. 33–35. ↩
- Artaud, letter to Jacques Rivière, op. cit. ↩
- In 1968, with Le révélateur, Philippe Garrel had directed an entirely silent film. He continued this inclination with Athanor (1972) and Les hautes solitudes (1974). ↩