Philippe Garrel is now in his seventies and has behind him a body of work that looked initially like it might have become no more (and no less) than an avant-garde skeleton. Those early films which included Cicatrice interiéure (1972), Les Hautes Solitudes (1974) and Le Berceau de cristal (1975), and often starring his lover Nico, were made with little money and a minimum of what would be perceived as professional craft. As Leonard notes, “Garrel’s concession to using out-of-date film stock accounts for the variation in the image quality evident in his [earlier] films. This is added by variations in light exposure […] with numerous shots either overexposed or underexposed, something that can be accounted for by Garrel’s refusal to use a light meter.” (p. 84) He did, however, during the early seventies, have access to modest financial help through the heiress Sylvina Boissonass, described by Sally Shafto as a woman who in “1963, at the age of twenty-one […] inherited a substantial fortune, and she and her extended family became Medici-like figures in the world of modern art.”1 But by the mid-1970s Garrel was on his uppers – although he was more inclined to take downers, as Leonard speaks about the director’s drug-taking and financial hardship during this period. He quotes Nico’s son Ari Boulogne saying that most of the time the apartment was without electricity and the book also mentions the importance of Andy Warhol on Garrel’s finances. “As soon as he set foot in Paris, I would go to see him together with Nico and, because we were often penniless, he would sign dollar bills that we would attempt to sell on for the highest bid.” (p. 83)
But we should acknowledge that the apartment was on Rue Richelieu, close to the Louvre, and that not everybody could expect Warhol to sign dollars to alleviate their poverty. When Leonard observes that while making Les Hautes Solitudes with Jean Seberg, Seberg wanted Garrel to make the acting more real and Method-oriented, Leonard says Seberg “would perform a scene on condition that he would carry out a provocative act, such as sneaking into her apartment and stealing her purse.” (p. 73) It calls to mind the scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) where Belmondo steals from his girlfriend while she is pulling a dress over her head, a film of course that Seberg starred in even if she was not the girlfriend whose cash was stolen. What Leonard does not say is what Garrel did with the money, though in the early 1970s Seberg appeared in a number of films whose remuneration was probably more important than the artistic recognition they afforded, such as Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! (1972) and Macho Callahan (1970). There was evidently more money in Seberg’s purse than in Garrel’s pocket even if the complex, fascinating actress may have been spending it on causes that were as honourable as they were risky.2
What nevertheless comes through in these years of financial hardship is the fraternal capital Garrel enjoyed: not only was he going out with a pop star he often cast in his work, and casting Seberg in his films, he could also call upon other friends in high places to make an appearance, including Dominique Sanda, Maria Schneider and Tina Aumont, Pierre Clementi, Jean-Pierre Kalfon and Bulle Ogier. Garrel’s films during this time might have been made for nothing, but they were made with people who had something — cash and charisma — to offer. Like Warhol and Jonas Mekas, Garrel was making films with and about his friends, but when these friends include Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper, John Lennon and Salvador Dali (in Warhol and Mekas’s cases) the home movie has a public dimension. With many of these films largely eschewing diegetic content, one instead watches them aware of the figures who are acknowledged for their youth, fame or charm. They are films that suggest almost no money behind the camera but considerable wealth in front of it.
In this sense, what is often referred to as Garrel’s second period, where narration becomes more present, suggests a reversal: a little bit more money behind the camera and less of it evident in front of the lens. Though the first of these films was made in such impoverished circumstances that “Garrel completed L’Enfant secret in 1979 but didn’t exhibit it until 1982, because, according to legend, he couldn’t afford to pay the lab that had processed the film”3 it was a move in the direction of narrative cinema and professional collaboration. He unofficially worked on the script with Annette Wademant and no longer took responsibility for the camera and the sound. Yet the material discomfort is there on the screen, as though the presence of narrative and the relative concreteness of the situation allows for the realisation of the predicament. Though the lead actors are played by Henri de Maublanc, whose name indicates aristocratic origins, and Anne Wiazemsky, best known for her work with Bresson and Godard but also the daughter of a Russian prince, what Garrel captures is the constraints of life lived on a low-budget trying to make art and caught in a world of drugs. One moment de Maublanc reads a letter from Wiazemsky where she talks about “the financial part of all this is a very serious business” after she says “we have to be focused. We have to be disciplined. Live regularly.” L’Enfant secret is the start of this attempt but at the same time is the acknowledgement of the struggling years. The film’s form reflects this ambiguity in scenes that may be visually audacious but also reflective of financial constraint. Adrian Martin has noted this, quoting Garrel about one scene in the film: “One can naturally interpret this way of doubling Elli into two images, real and virtual, but objectively the reason for this was the poverty of resources: I had to film through a window to avoid yet more camera noise…”
Leonard details that the small-budget of around £75,000 was raised through “friends who had been affected by issues explored in the film, namely the impact of drug addiction on a couple and the medical practice of electroshock therapy.” (p. 102) But within these budgetary limitations, Garrel frequently innovates. Whether it is the de la Tour lighting or the elliptical editing, the overexposure that generates a harsh daylight or the underexposure that indicates a nocturnal intimacy, close-ups that reveal a face or long-shots that allow the details of a bodily disposition, the film constantly wrong-foots us aesthetically. It never allows us to settle into its form.
One could see L’Enfant secret as the start of Garrel’s great period that ended with Les Amants reguliers (Regular Lovers, 2005), almost twenty-five years of filmmaking with many highpoints and perhaps one or two hiccoughs. The highpoints include Les Baisers de secours (1988), J’entends plus la guitare (I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar, 1991), La naissance de l’amour (The Birth of Love, 1993) and Le Vent de la nuit (Night Wind, 1999), films Garrel made with stories if not quite plots, narratives that did not quite suggest clear continuity – but neither were they a series of scenes defying it. The earlier work did defy continuity. Leonard quotes Garrel saying “I produced a non-narrative cinema to protest against the cinema of identification that almost all of the people of my father’s generation went to see.” (p. 72) But while during this middle period Garrel was not countering narration, he was not conforming to it either and the work’s genius resides often in the tension between identification and an elliptical approach to narrative that leaves characters remaining mildly unknown to us. Often one is not identifying with their predicament but musing over the mystery of their being, the enigmas in a life that seems hidden in the past or spliced in the present. In Le Vent de la nuit, Serge has a wife he has lost in an indefinite past and a history in the context of 1968 he never quite talks about. In the film, Hélène tries to take her life but her husband’s reaction suggests this is not the first time, nor is it likely that the young man she is seeing is her first lover: when he turns up with Helene at her and her husband’s home the husband seems more interested in charming the young man than he is fretful that this might be someone competing for his wife’s affections. In J’entends plus la guitare many years pass in the life of its characters but Gerard and Marianne keep appearing and disappearing, lost in the story and in history as years are lost from one scene to the next. Around two-thirds of the way through the film, Gerard gets into an argument with his artist friend Martin and the film shows Martin sitting there as the door slams. The film cuts to a shot of a heroin needle and then to a hand picking it up before cutting to Martin and a wrecked looking Gerard both in the same frame. We then see Gerard alone in his apartment before a woman, Aline, turns up. They kiss while he takes a bath, she brings him food, and a few shots later not only are they are in bed together but at least a year of their life has gone by. The film shows us Aline holding a baby and pans to show us Gerard in shirt and tie, no longer apparently the heroin addict but a man with a “proper” job.
There are several ways one can look at such scenes, and as a rule Leonard emphasises the autobiographical, seeing much of Garrel’s work as more or less personal filmmaking. “Garrel’s compositional approach, bringing together aspects of his autobiographical work into a fictional framework, can be termed autofictional.” (p. 105) But while this is a very useful way of understanding a fascinating existence and a moment in time when so many artists (few more than Garrel) saw their life and their work as experimental, it can leave the mysterious resolved by the factual. By diligently working through the life in conjunction with the work, Leonard gives us a very useful account of Garrel as a filmmaker and as an individual. But the work is sometimes so great it rests on enigmas that can not be resolved by the facts. “In addition to visual exposition”, Leonard writes, “voice-over is equally deployed in L’Enfant secret to reflect on Garrel’s personal experience and to calmly denounce the practice of electro-shock.” (p. 105) Speaking of Les Baisers de secours, Leonard says, “Garrel’s discussion of the theme of betrayal in the film establishes the correspondence between the lives shown on screen and his lived experience.” (p. 141) It would be unfair to ignore the autobiographical when Garrel has made so much of his life into cinema, and has in interviews talked so often about that link. But, if we were to resolve the aesthetic tension between the cuts in J’entends plus la guitare with the knowledge of Garrel’s time with Nico followed by his steady relationship with Brigitte Sy and the birth of first Louis and then Esther, we would not be finding the Garrelian in the work but finding only Garrel the man. It should be the Garrelian that interests us.
If most fictional films find invention in narration, in telling stories that are often very far away from the filmmaker’s life, with James Cameron never going down in The Titanic and Christopher Nolan never having to face down Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, then Garrel, eschewing the generation of fictional narrative, seeks instead of invention, innovation. It is not the fact that J’entends plus la guitare covers up to eighteen years of Garrel’s life that is interesting; it is how he manages to contract time so tightly as he manages to take further what Truffaut offered as privileged moments, but offering them as fugitive moments instead. In Truffaut’s work scenes where the three main characters go cycling to the beach in Jules et Jim (1962) or where the boys stay out at night in Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) are elaborate moments of airy mise en scène – they give to screen space a dimension of the postcard that captures a moment in time which can be seen as evocative. Many of Garrel’s fugitive moments “lack” that contextualising evocation, replacing it with an enigmatic question so evident because of the decontextualisation. When Aline brings Gerard food as he bathes and they then kiss, the moment remains hidden and thus fugitive not just due to the privacy of the moment but also because it is enveloped within a time frame that makes categorical meaning difficult to ascertain. To un-envelop that enigma by relying on the explanation of the biographical is in danger of robbing it of its originality.
It would not be fair to attack Leonard for adopting quite standard approaches to the filmmaker’s work, as he relies on a detailed account of his life based chiefly on published interviews with the director, on the production aspects of the films, and sometimes too the formal choices Garrel adopts. The book is in the Manchester University Press series that takes various French filmmakers and makes them accessible to English-speaking readers and those studying French cinema and culture. But when in Le vent de la nuit, Serge is travelling through Europe and stops in Berlin to visit his wife’s grave, it may well be interesting to know that this is the city where Nico is buried, but there is also Serge’s character and what this trip means to him, whether this is a last visit he will make before he joins her in the afterlife. The advantage of autofiction from one point of view is that it allows a filmmaker or writer to mine their own existence for material which can give it a truth that we do not expect from Titanic or a Batman film. But that truth is still fictional just as it often also happens to be metafictional. Garrel has frequently suggested that he is not only making a film about his life, but also a film about a film about his life. Les baisers de secours, Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights… most obviously but also Sauvage Innocence (Wild Innocence, 2001) and Un Été brulant (A Burning Hot Summer, 2011) are films about the making of films. Like Godard, he has often been a filmmaker who conjugates in “the perfect conditional,” as Garrel once put it.4 Yet Les baisers de secours and Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) may both concern filmmaking and infidelity but they are very different films. Even Un Éte brulant, made like Godard’s in colour and clearly homaging Le Mépris in its Rome setting, possesses an insistent naïveté that was never part of Godard’s aesthetic. If Godard’s films were brilliantly knocked-out, year after year, Garrel’s are marvellous works that feel knocked off. One senses in each director the need to always be at work, always producing something, out of a necessity that can’t be reduced to exigency: money-making or a work ethic would be weak explanations. What that explanation may be in Garrel’s case is worthy of a study in itself (the sort of work practised by the French critics much quoted in Leonard’s book, like Serge Daney and Alain Philippon) but Leonard’s introduction should not be underestimated. It serves as a very useful way in to a filmmaker who remains rather better known in the English speaking world for the son he and Sy produced rather than the numerous and often astounding films he made. It might seem ironic that a director, who for years took full advantage of the fraternal capital available to him, found his most bankable star was his son. Yet for all of Louis’ fame, Philippe remains a figure finally on the margins. He probably wouldn’t wish it any other way, even if cinephiles around the world would beg to differ. Hopefully Leonard’s book will help a little, in introducing a few more to the director’s work.
Michael Leonard, Philippe Garrel (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020)
- Sally Shafto, “Heiress at the Revolution”, Criterion Collection, November 20, 2018. ↩
- Seberg gave $10 500 to the Black Panthers, and she was the victim of an FBI smear campaign that led to a premature stillbirth. See Duncan Campbell, “How the FBI used a gossip columnist to smear a movie star”, The Guardian, April 22, 2002. ↩
- Ben Sachs, “L’Enfant secret is so intimate it feels like a confession”, Chicago Reader, May 25, 2018. ↩
- Cited in Jill Forbes, The Cinema in France: After the New Wave (London: BFI, 1992), p. 136. ↩