Love Runs Its Bittersweet Course in the Films of Philippe Garrel


Loneliness casts a long shadow over the films of Philippe Garrel, many of which depict bruising breakups and dwell on lovers unable to let go. Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights (which translates, literally, to She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps, 1985) opens with a young filmmaker, Paul (Jacques Bonnaffé), pleading with his girlfriend, Christa (Anne Wiazemsky), not to leave him. It’s a scene of staggering potency: Paul’s voice breaks and halts, his relentlessness driving them both to exhaustion. Paul persuades Christa to stay, and the calm of that night is nearly beatific, but the reprise is an illusion and the next morning she is gone, for good. Later, Paul hopes that the baby he expects with his new girlfriend, Marie (Mireille Perrier), will help him get over Christa. But as Marie becomes distant, Peter spirals into despair — only to learn how desperately Christa (a recovering drug addict) still needs him. Their love is weary yet unshakable, purged of earlier sexual attraction but not of loyalty.

In so many Garrel films old loves are like scabs — no longer festering yet painful to the touch. Another example arrives in L’Enfant Secret (1979), in which Jean-Baptiste (Henri de Maublanc), whose fragile nerves land him in a psychiatric institution where he is subjected to electric shocks, finds resilience in his unflinching love for a fragile single mom, Elie (Wiazemsky again). But Elie can neither give him up nor be faithful to him. Elie’s amorous entanglements are thrown into sharp relief as she wavers between her selfless love for her small son and her yearning to be free. As with her Christa in Elle a passé, Wiazemsky (the iconic actress of Robert Bresson’s 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar) plays Elie as a complex femme fatale whose betrayals drive her lover to a painful acceptance of their fraught bond.

A slightly different wound is inflicted on Mouche (the spectacular Emmanuelle Riva) in Garrel’s Liberté, la nuit (1983), an uneven yet convincingly passionate political film, in which a middle-aged couple separates in the midst of the Palestinian conflict and brutal reprisals from the French police. Maurice Garrel, the filmmaker’s father, plays Jean, a leader of a clandestine resistance cell. Jean fears that his activities put Mouche in danger, although, this being a Garrel film, it’s also possible that their love has simply run its course. Their separation — a word so common in Garrel’s parlance — is slow and painful, fueled by dimming hopes and finally capitulation. Although Liberté, la nuit is cloaked as a political noir, at its essence it is a film about passion’s quirks and its impermanence.

All three of these films were shot in black-and-white and on 35mm, a format that Garrel has likened to sketches, freeing him up to work with relative speed and looseness. This differs from his view of color films, which he sees as more akin to elaborate oil paintings and therefore approaches with trepidation. (Garrel makes one color picture for every few black-and-white films.) His forgoing of color and frequent use of film scraps (actual leftovers from other directors’ film rolls) allow him to keep production costs low and retain a great degree of independence.

An admirer of Murnau and von Stroheim, Garrel infuses his fiercely intimate, artisanal work with the expressivity of early silent cinema. At times, he turns off sound entirely. Not knowing what is being said heightens the spectators’ anxiety and contributes to the general sense of ambivalence that pervades Garrel films, forcing us to hang on to the actors’ fleeting facial expressions and gestures. In this way, Garrel’s oeuvre is about the body language of love, the choreography of the myriad physical manifestations of the joy but mainly the pain it inflicts.

In his black-and-white work, Garrel always dresses loneliness in genuinely grungy mise-en-scène: bare interiors; stripped walls with minimal furniture, possessions, or daily comforts; threadbare, worn clothes; and hair not just tousled bohemian-style but visibly dirty. All this becomes a soulful commentary on how economics drags its dirty boots through our romantic lives. In one scene in Elle a passé, a large tome of Marx’s The Capital crushes white crumpled bedsheets — an image that says it all.

This desolation is all the more poignant since Garrel frequently inserts himself into the picture. While his presence in L’Enfant Secret is merely suggestive — Jean-Baptiste is a brainy yet plodding filmmaker, a kind of ingénue stand-in for Garrel — Elle a passé is a veritable manifesto of Garrel’s working methods. He favors long rehearsals to create intimacy among his actors, which in turn allows him to film in long takes, finding infinite richness in subtle permutations of moods. At times, as in Elle a passé, Garrel deliberately conflates the actors’ personas with their real lives. This is the strength of his spare, essentialist approach. Whereas films by the likes of Andrzej Żuławski or Rainer Werner Fassbinder feel like high-voltage emotional rollercoasters, Garrel’s are a gentler ride, but no less disturbing — we are made to feel how close the pain cuts to the bone.

At other times, Garrel has a slightly ironic, Woody Allen–esque presence. In Elle a passéGarrel plays himself, channeling his own anxieties about directing: We see him introducing actors to each other in one scene or, in another, patiently weathering his actress’s objections to the role he has her play (a kind of meta-moment). Omnipresent and intrusive, Garrel discusses his insecurities on-camera, slyly confesses his love for the actress playing Marie, and fumes at his wife (actress Brigitte Sy, who appears in Liberté, la nuit and a number of other Garrel films) for not allowing him to cast his son, Louis, in his films (which of course he will, for the first time in 1989’s Les baisers de secours). Life and work collide, in ways that are discomforting and often bleak, but that possess that rare unspoken grace — solitude elevated to the level of art.

“Philippe Garrel: Part 1”
October 12–26