PHILIPPE GARREL WAS NOT YET A TEEN when the French New Wave first hit the shores of international cinema in 1959, and like many filmmakers over subsequent decades he would be heavily influenced by its leading lights, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Garrel made his first film in 1964 and, in the fifty years since, has written and directed more than thirty others, but has never achieved the reputation of his mentors. It was not until the late 1970s that his cinema assumed the distinct, quasi-autobiographical quality that remains his strength.
Earlier stabs at allegory and symbolism had mixed results. He was uncredited as writer and director of The Virgin’s Bed (1969), which, in the spirit of its era, is basically a hippie gloss on the New Testament, with a few nods to Greek myth. It opens with Mary sitting on a boat as Jesus emerges from the sea, suggesting, via an allusion to the genesis of Venus, an equally mysterious virgin birth. Attuned to his divine purpose, Mary places a crown of thorns on Jesus’s head. Off he goes on a donkey to a place where no one listens to him, and later runs into Mary Magdalene, who he appears to impregnate, and lugs a huge wooden box around that, like Pandora’s, contains the ills of the world. It’s not long before he is frustrated at his failure to have any effect on the “shithole of a world” his heavenly “papa” sent him to redeem. As Jesus, Pierre Clémenti, official anorectic wanderer in Garrel’s The Inner Scar (1972) and Pasolini’s Pigsty (1969), is more than appropriate, while Zouzou, familiar from Louis Malle’s work, plays both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene for reasons too obvious to belabor. While the film’s efforts to mock the Christian story do not lack wit, they are undermined by a stark landscape and a mournful recognition of its failed mission.
Hovering between fiction and the personal, Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights . . . (She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps, 1985) considers Garrel’s ambivalent feelings about working in a field dependent on the idiosyncrasies of actors and financial backing. Famous filmmakers and stars either appear (Chantal Akerman, Lou Castel) or are cited (Jean Eustache, Andy Warhol). The recently deceased Anne Wiazemsky—discovered by Bresson for Au hasard Balthazar (1966)—plays herself as well as a character in the film-within-a-film. Having already worked for Pasolini and Godard, whom she married, and in Garrel’s L’enfant secret (The Secret Child, 1979), Wiazemsky embodies the era’s offbeat lyricism. But if anything captures Garrel’s frame of mind at the time, it is what he reveals to a fellow filmmaker: “I personally dream of being in a car with my son [Louis Garrel, who later appeared in several of his movies] and my wife, and the camera in the back seat, driving aimlessly to make some shots in the woods.” From what I’ve seen of Garrel’s work, he never pursued this path, one taken by filmmakers of the American avant-garde who rejected the commercial cinema more boldly.
Instead, Garrel eventually honed a theme—the alluring mysteries, betrayals, and contradictions of romantic love—that has preoccupied him over the past two decades. It’s no coincidence that many of these later films, like their subject, are as irresistible as they are ephemeral. To watch one is to peruse a family album and pause over a photograph, struck by a familiar pose or a compelling pair of eyes. Each new film seems part of a chain, in which characters talk endlessly about love even as they fall in and out of it and suffer and survive its disillusionments. In the brooding, affecting J’entends plus la guitar (I No Longer Hear the Guitar, 1991), a man remarks that love was invented by troubadours and exists only in books, and that “we may be the last generation to talk about it.” A woman, jeering at its impermanency, asks, So “love warms us, lights us, feeds us, and gets us high?” as her mate responds, “Exactly! The most precise definition I’ve ever heard.” Whether titled Lover for a Day (Garrel’s latest) or Jealousy (2013) or Regular Lovers (2005) or The Birth of Love (1993) or Les baisers de secours (Emergency Kisses, 1989), the obsession is earnest and, thanks to the appeal and extraordinary credibility of Garrel’s actors (sometimes a family member), often deeply affecting.
Not as frequently remarked upon is the seemingly invisible cinematic style that embodies this obsession. Beyond sentimentality and narrative efficiency, it suggests a philosophy of the human condition. In Guitar, for example, Marianne (Johanna ter Steege) and Gerard (Benoît Régent) speak in the first scene about having a child: He wants one, she has one she’s unable to care for. As couples do in other Garrel films, they continue to argue as the relationship sours without reaching a climax. Whatever consequences ensue are inferred only after an innocuous cut takes us not just to the next shot but to an entirely new situation. We barely register the breakup as Gerard gets into bed with Aline (Brigitte Sy), a woman neither he nor we have seen before; they smile, make love, and, via a cut, sit at a table in the next shot, married, with a six-month-old son. Though such ellipses owe something to Bresson, the sustained strategy here reflects an unaccented temporal flow that connotes that this is the way things are, that life is made up of undramatic natural successions of experiences—notwithstanding all declarations of love and promises. Genuine narrative closure is similarly precluded. At the end of the film, the incurably philandering Gerard argues with Aline toward what appears to be a dead end: Accusing her of talking like his mother, he walks out and slams the door. But, as the film goes black, we hear Aline offscreen reminding him to pick up their son.
Children, the primary victims of all failed relationships, are an important element in Garrel’s work—whether they exist or not, are onscreen or off, talked about or ignored. They are alluded to in the title of his first film, the fifteen-minute-long Les enfants désaccordés, and in his fifteenth, L’enfant secret, which is having its American premiere following a new, two-part retrospective at the Metrograph theater in New York. A tender, meandering tale, it touches on most of what makes Garrel Garrel. Couples meet, fall in love, experience ups and downs, and eventually separate—the reasons for their falling in love as inexplicable as those for falling out of it. In this instance, they are Elie and Jean-Baptiste—played by Anne Wiazemsky and Henri de Maublanc, another Bresson discovery, who played Michel in The Devil, Probably (1977).
Though the child of the title could easily be a metaphor for other things—including the films that both characters seem to be shooting in fleeting glimpses—there is a real child, Elie’s son, a beautiful boy named Swann who lives with his grandmother and whose angelic face says all we need to know about creation before the fall. Like much of Garrel’s work, explanatory detail is minimal. We never learn the reason for Jean-Baptiste’s nervous breakdown, nor why Elie’s devotion and promise to be with him forever suddenly reverse. Garrel’s camera lingers often for minutes on somber shots of one character or the other, or of both in an embrace as needy as it is sweet. His world is one of melancholic uncertainty and the accumulation of regrets. If “The Ophidian Circle,” one of the film’s enigmatic intertitles, characterizes this world as a serpent consumed with avarice, “The Caesarian Section,” in its evocation of forced birth, may suggest that the only safe place for any human is the womb.