Dubbed the "Rimbaud of cinema," Philippe Garrel began his career in a burst of utopian fervor from which he's never quite recovered. He was 20 in May '68, when he cruised the streets of Paris with Jean-Luc Godard in a Ferrari, brandishing a camera. The revolution's heroic embrace of poverty, willingness to stake everything on love, crushing solipsism, and hedonistic excesses haunt an oeuvre that remains resolutely contemporary. The nine (often rare) films screening in BAM's retrospective may be stubbornly experimental or loosely narrative, but each is rooted in an artist's intimate, uncompromising vision of his life and era.
Fans of the German actress and singer NicoGarrel's companion for a decadewon't want to miss The Inner Scar (1972), his heroin-and-symbolist-inspired avant-garde extravaganza, in which he films her flailing amid Egyptian deserts and Iceland's frozen tundra, to her own hypnotic soundtrack. I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar(1991), made three years after Nico's death, is his unsparing anatomy of their relationship. Benoît Régent plays Garrel's alter ego, Gérard, whose love for the luminous Marianne (Johanna ter Steege) unfolds amid the splendors of post-'68 Positano and the squalor of paint-peeling Parisian apartments where they coast into addiction. Gérard is eventually rescued by Aline (Garrel's then wife, Brigitte Sy), who nurses him back to health and bears him a child, but this is no cinema of happy endings. Which is the greater tragedy, Garrel asks: that our complacent present allows us to renege on the promises of the past or that the past itselfits meaning, its truthcontinues to elude us?
Garrel's later works also feature lengthy ruminations on the afterlife of passion. In The Birth of Love (1993), cinematographer Raoul Coutard's lush black-and-white photography; John Cale's jazzy, melancholy score; and background news footage of the Gulf War provide context for Garrel's tale of a middle-aged writer (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and actor (Lou Castel) and their romantic comings and goings. The men make grand pronouncements, but it's in small gestures and evanescent imagesa man lifting his lover out of a tub, new parents fighting over who does the dishes, the beauty of a white Italian dawn seen through a windshieldthat the film's psychological richness shines through.
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