Philippe Garrel’s 1991 masterpiece J’entends plus la guitare (I Don’t Hear the Guitar Anymore) opens with a set of proofs, puns, definitions, and propositions. Two Parisian couples are on holiday in a village by the sea. Marianne (Johanna ter Steege), an opalescent nymph crowned with fizzing amber curls, rouses herself from a sun-dazed torpor and casts her gaze on the balcony, where stands her placid, introspective lover Gerard (Benoît Régent). They make a little small talk, start playing with words—”la mer” (the sea); “la mère” (the mother)—then cuddle up for pillow talk: love first, a child can come later.
Elsewhere on these vibrant slopes, raven-haired Lola (Mireille Perrier) appeals to her beau, Martin (Yann Collette), a sweet-natured artist with one sunken Quasimodo eye: “Why don’t you paint pictures of me?” The reply, “You’re too real,” initiates an extended disquisition on speech, love, and the infinite degrees of reality. “What does that mean, ‘to love?’ ” needles Martin. Lola: “It means something when someone says it! It means that one wants to say it, for instance.” Martin: “But to want to say something, when you don’t know what it means? That’s really to say nothing.” Lola: “Maybe.”
Very French, all this pseudo-logical, improbably erudite discourse—philistines beware, there’s a Heidegger reference and Italian poetry recitals just around the corner. Despite his flights of verbal fancy, however, Garrel’s feet are firmly grounded; he’s advancing, in these heady preliminary scenes, toward a firm destination. Gerard and Martin meet up for a stroll to the shore, descending a steep stone walkway to the strains of mournful cello music and elaborating on the abstractions they’ve just tossed about with their lovers. At the edge of the sea, they arrive at this: “You think you’ll see it in quotes or in grand statements. It’s in living beings.”
The meaning of love, the mystery of women, life, and all that: Garrel finds it, everything, in the faces, bodies, and words of his actors. If not the greatest movie we’ll see this year—though it’s a strong early candidate—J’entends will surely prove the most tenderly played. For the rest of its trim, entrancing run time, the movie contemplates its concepts as embodied in the daily existence of its bohemian Parisians. A child is born, heroin is consumed, bills go unpaid, affections splinter and recombine, tested by circumstance and challenged by ego. The guitar no longer being heard belongs to the Velvet Underground. Raw, rueful, and piercingly alert, a film of tremendous formal instinct and cogent human truth, J’entends is an oblique memoir of the filmmaker’s relationship to Nico (Steege)—and a testament to the elusive genius of a postwar French master.
The object of an impassioned cult in France and almost totally unknown in America until the acclaimed, if marginal, release of Regular Lovers (2007), his sublime memoir of May ’68 and its aftermath, the weird, wounded cinema of Garrel is inevitably honored with the vague epithet “poetic.” That’s one way of acknowledging that his narratives eschew prose-like continuity, twisting and leaping with evocative ellipsis and rhythmic irregularity. And “poetry” is one way to specify a nutty trance like The Inner Scar (1972), featuring a smacked-out Nico wailing through the desert in the company of a naked hippie on horseback, or the inscrutable prophet-chic of The Virgin’s Bed (1969), a mix of Biblical allegory and Warholian lassitude swamped in narcotic haze.
Why Garrel clicks is hard to pin down in part because he clunks; the eloquence of J’entends is inseparable from its awkwardness. There’s a softly discordant thrust to Garrel’s montage, a pervasive tone of docile atonality. He retains the junkie’s habit of tremendous concentration on nothing; you feel the intensity of his gaze without quite understanding it. He can seem, like Cassavetes (or Henri Rousseau), at once the most sophisticated and naïve of artists. My guess is the tremendous force of Garrel’s vision, as exemplified in J’entends—the most disciplined of the half-dozen pictures I know, and widely considered his apotheosis by devotees—is rooted in a brilliant eye for casting. It’s in living beings for sure; few filmmakers match Garrel’s ability to register palpable human presence in every shot.
Memoir nonpareil, J’entends blazes past into present. There’s additional poetry, then, to have it as the inaugural release of the Film Desk, a boutique distribution outfit run by BAMcinématek programmer and fervid New York cinephile Jake Perlin. Full disclosure: I’ve known Jake—and his nutty enthusiasms (John Landis, stupid monkey movies, “late” Eddie Murphy comedies)—for years, and would probably have been inclined to rave up a Film Desk revival of Beverly Hills Cop III. Don’t laugh, that shit could happen. Fortunately, he’s stepping into the brutal arena of art-house releasing armed with a knockout.