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Frontier Dawn

Rest in Peace


Pretentious tosh seems to be the general term of abuse thrown at the work of Philippe Garrel by British film critics: it’s been levelled at both Le vent de la nuit and also Garrel’s latest film Frontier Dawn. Each to their own, and yet there is a lack of co-feeling here on at least two levels. As critics including Geoff Andrew, Tom Charity and Nick James dismiss Garrel’s work, they do so without providing any context for this most personal of directors, nor empathy for the delicacy of feeling the works contain. Truffaut once compared Garrel’s early films to bringing a baby into the world: and saw his initial works as wonderful examples of cinema’s sensitive nature. If as Olivier Assayas so astutely proposed in a Film West interview with Fergus Daly that Garrel’s films are like messages in a bottle, then British critics have smashed the bottle firmly against the nearest wall, caring little to read the note inside.

But how to decipher Garrel’s script, if you like, and does it require a clear knowledge of this director’s work and life to do so? One thinks not, even if the work gets richer through the way each film links up to others; and when we realize few directors have got more out of faulty mourning than Garrel. So many of his films are variations on his long-term love affair with the singer Nico, and to know that Garrel and Nico shared a heroin lifestyle in the seventies certainly gives the work an air of radical chic, of artists on the edge.

However, a message in a bottle is a singular thing, and if Garrel’s films are to work as Assayas believes they do, one should be more than enough. Could a sensitive, enlightened film viewer not respond to the other-worldly nature of Frontier Dawn, see that this is a filmmaker not so much in dialogue with recent cinema, but looking for as direct an emotional relationship with the viewer as possible? When Geoff Andrew believes the film is ludicrously outdated because the characters send letters to each other rather than using the internet, one more inclined to giving the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt would notice that there are almost no historical markers in the film to locate the period. Clearly it is contemporary if we accept the odd new car, or the newish Paris bins, and even, at a stretch, the clothing, but Garrel’s would seem to be a relatively atemporal world (no matter if a key character’s death is marked by a gravestone as 2007), evident in the bareness of the apartments that give little indication of the fashions of the time. It is as though the monochrome photography removes temporality and creates what we’ll call the intimythic; a mythology of intimacy that Gilles Deleuze alluded to in a very different way in his passages on Garrel in Cinema 2: The Time Image, saying that, from a certain point of view, Garrel’s work “acquires the power of a constitution of bodies (primordial bodies from this point, Man, Woman and Child).” This is the “problem of the three bodies…the holy story as gesture.”

But we are interested not in a holy story, nor the problem of the child, but more that of the couple. The child is undeniably important in Garrel’s work, but usually because it is one of the links in the impossible dissolution of a couple: whether a couple has a child or not the difficulty of moving on remains. This problem of recovering from another is present in J’entends plus la guitareLa Naissance de l’amour, Le vent de la nuit, Sauvage Innocence and Les amants reguliers to name but five, and sometimes because the partner is dead, sometimes because one or the other has moved on to new relationships.

But how does this thematic fit into Frontier Dawn, and how does Garrel once again give the film the quality of being a message in a bottle? Let’s think first of the opening image, a shot common in Garrel’s work but not especially a signature one:  the long shot of a street, as a man comes towards us. This is a man alone (Louis Garrel), dressed in the romantic, loosely dandyish garb of a white shirt, black trousers and a black jacket. He is alone but not lonely we might surmize as he walks along with his tripod, preparing, we may assume, to do a photographic shoot. Yet though Garrel here does not film a man who is lonely, few directors offer long shots that more completely proposes loneliness within the frame. Whether it is a man alone (here) or a couple (Le vent de la nuit), or two friends (La Naissaince de l’amour) Garrel films streets like he films apartments: empty of all but the essential elements that contribute to the problem of being alone or not alone. Though he is in many ways a political filmmaker, and one for whom the failures of ‘68 rest very heavily upon his work (especially evident in Le vent de la nuit and Les amants reguliers), he is barely a social filmmaker at all, and this is partly why his most characteristic shot is that of the close up, the antithesis of the long shot and yet in Garrel’s films not at all inconsistent with it. For the purpose of both is to reveal the self not society.

We may notice this in a scene that utilises neither especially the close up nor the long shot but chiefly medium close ups at a dinner party, a shot that in Garrel’s hands nevertheless shows almost no interest in the context for the party, but instead the context for Francois’s (Garrel) feelings. Initially, in a series of brief pans from Francois to his lover Carole and the man she is complicitly whispering with, Garrel creates a tick-tock of emotional anxiety in a young man who has absolutely no right to be jealous, but every right to feel eviscerated.  Even if he believed in possession, Carole is not Francois’s partner but actually someone else’s wife: the husband is away in the US. A more socially inclined filmmaker might insist on an ironic detachment that shows he who lives by the sword must die by the sword; but maybe one reason why Garrel is so often referred to as a naive filmmaker is that the private dimension of feeling is much more important than the public dimension of feeling.

This perhaps needs a little explaining, and it can be usefully opened up by Assayas while talking of his own work and broader concerns in a Cineaste interview: “everybody has a life story which is singular, but everybody is expected to fit into society.” A less ‘naïve’ filmmaker than Garrel would offer up the self within the context of the broader society, and a character’s self-concern would be framed within the wider concerns of the social. Yet Garrel does not do this, even when he includes scenes that would suggest he is framing the social concern within a broader perspective. Shortly after the moments we’ve just described, a couple of Carole’s friends talk about her behaviour and one says to the other that he “hates it when she does that”. The second friend assumes he’s talking about her flirtations, and adds “I don’t care what she does in her love life”, before the friend says that he meant her drinking. The second friend then asks if he’s heard of the law of windscreen-wipers, and says in love as one lover moves towards the other; the other one moves away. The first friend asks about the windscreen wipers which move towards each other at sharp diagonals. That’s friendship, the second friend insists.

This could almost of course be a scene from a romantic comedy, where friends look on at a relationship developing or collapsing before their eyes, and can be utilised to give a sense of perspective that otherwise might seem to be missing from the central couple. But these are characters who have almost no place in the film beyond this scene, and their purpose isn’t to contextualize the action and give it social credence, but to offer a sort of narrative forewarning. What happens if the windscreen wiper theory of love involves a man who finally protects himself, and a woman who’s constantly collapsing? (Indeed, when the first friend bumps into Francois on the street later in the film it is to tell Francois Carole’s been institutionalised). Garrel could be perceived as naïve on several accounts here. Doesn’t he realize that the narrative of the disintegrating woman is exhausted, that characters living for a relationship are socio-politically immature, that the romantic ideal of living at an emotionally high pitch is a form of solipsism?

Garrel might answer in the affirmative to all three questions if he were a filmmaker interested in the two sides of Assayas’s coin; the two sides romantic comedy works so well as it balances the personal desires of the characters with the social context of friends, family and work. But not only does Garrel have almost no interest in the broader milieu as mise-en-scene, as we’ve proposed, neither, and by extension, does he have much interest in presenting society’s values. What would these values be but an accumulation of common sense, and how can that compete with if you like a private sense: not the watered down individualities of the many, but the concentrated subjectivity of the self? If love is so important to Garrel’s work it is that it’s the meeting point not of the diluted semi-social selves of the romantic comedy, but the concentrated energies of the Romantic, but a Romantic who is not necessarily a Dionysian solipsist, but, closer to a Romantic democrat. In Garrel’s work so often love must conquer all or the self is conquered.

If we think of a passage from Peter Sloterdijk’s book on Nietzsche, Thinker on Stage, we can get a useful context on Garrel’s interests. Here Sloterdijk muses over those who have problems with Nietzsche’s stance: “Isn’t an emphasis on the singular”, he muses “at the same time a pillaging of the general…”, before adding that “it could therefore be individuals who are alert to Dionysus are most decidedly not trying to dodge reality, but are rather the only ones who are able to survive in the vicinity of pain and pleasure.” By attending to their metabolic relationship with the world, wouldn’t such people be much better at addressing change than those who have been “completely politicized, completely socialized, and thoroughly moralized”? On the one hand Garrel’s films may seem quite apolitical in their lack of interest in social context, but on the other what is usually missing is not especially social context but a petrified mise-en-scene. As we’ve indicated, May ’68 runs through much of Garrel’s work, and so it isn’t the notion of politics that is missing, but instead a recognized social milieu: in Garrel’s films walls are usually blank, apartments three quarters empty of furniture, and the temporal often hard to locate fashionably: Garrel gives us almost no sense of time and space in the way Godard does so brilliantly in his sixties work, or Altman in his seventies set films. Taking into account Sloterdijk’s comments, Garrel’s characters have more room for political change than many a socially oriented activist, who may have a mise-en-scene they are in danger of losing. When we offer the term romantic democrat we do so with the idea that here the romantic is an active, yearning mode looking for meaning in life that doesn’t even possess a mise-en-scene. If Garrel’s characters are romantic democrats, what we mean by this is that their belief in being transformed by another is perhaps consistent with transformation generally – they are capable of being trans-formed, to take on new possibilities, so unformed are they in the first place if we take into account their capacity for new feelings in love, and the absence of a bourgeois mise-en-scene in their life.

Obviously, though, Garrel is not first and foremost a political filmmaker, and it would be an over-determined reading of the film, or his work in general, to push this aspect too forcefully. Just as present as the suggestively political is the metaphysical, and death so often hangs over the director’s work that it is no surprise that Garrel here moves into the supernatural. Even back in the late seventies Serge Daney, in an article on L’enfant secret republished in Rouge talked of “Garrel’s angelism, no secret to anyone”. Daney also invoked Cocteau’s Le Testament d’Orphée; and it is as though Frontier Dawn wants to make explicit what is implicit in much of his work from J’entends plus la guitars to Le vent de la nuit: the nature of absent presences. We accept that his heroes cannot recover emotionally from another, but we usually expect the haunting to be metaphysical but not miraculous, the sense of presence indicative in the body language of the figure or in the nature of a camera movement: whether that’s Serge in Le vent de la nuit heavy it would seem with accumulating grief, or the way the camera focuses on the teller and not the told in J’entends plus la guitars as Garrel chooses not immediately to show us how the central character is adjusting to the news that his ex has died.  In Frontier Dawn evocation becomes invocation as Francois looks in the mirror and sees his past confront him: Carole appears to him, and though he tries to shake it off as an absurd apparition she keeps coming back, insisting he join her in the world of the dead.

This is what we’ll call, after Chesterton, “the democracy of the dead”, the other end of the ontological spectrum from the romantic democrat yet not at all inconsistent with it. Here Chesterton is talking of tradition, but we can think of it as emotional expansion – a concern not only for our fellow man and woman, but as much for the dead as for the living. In the British reviews from James, Charity and Andrew there is the sense of Garrel as a self-regarding solipsist. Charity in his Le vent de la nuit review in Time Out talks of “three upper middle-class intellectuals, all either talking about or actually working on suicide bids”, as though they should have better things to do with their time. There is the suggestion here of the narrowness of being, but Garrel’s work is indeed the opposite: the expansion of being. If we invoke Sloterdijk to show how a metabolically driven rather than a politically driven self can be closer to the demands of change; then we can say that someone for whom the dead are as alive as the living contains that change not only in the here and now, but also the before and hereafter. When Charity mentions their upper middle-class status this seems to be to point up a certain self-regard in relation to suicide, but Garrel is frequently interested less in self-regard than ‘other-regard’ – the way others haunt the self. At the end of Le vent de la nuit, Serge commits suicide and the film ends on the reverse side of the photo of what can only be his late wife. At the end of Les amants reguliers Francois’ partner has long since left for a career in the States and a year or so later he lies dead of an overdose. For some this would be no more than self-absorption but it is more obviously other–absorption as the self cannot quite get on with its life without the other. When Francois here takes up with his new lover the good life potentially awaits him as he moves in with the lover’s parents in their large rural house: self-absorption could easily give way to self-improvement, as the good life beckons. Indeed, his best friend proposes that one reason why he’s seeing Carole in the mirror is that he feels guilty about this woman who loved him madly, and thus can’t quite allow himself conventional happiness. But the conventions of happiness interest the director little, as though any notion of the good life lacks even a mise-en-scene, taking into account Sloterdijk’s comments.

This is certainly the case if we think of the house that could offer this good life. Garrel shows us enough of the abode to know it is a large one, but not enough for us to be seduced by it. We first get a sense of its size as we see Francois’ new lover coming towards him with the camera travelling behind her as a taxi pulls up on the driveway, and we can surmize that this isn’t a garden; almost grounds. As Francois and the lover go towards the house Garrel cuts from the long shot to a close up of the pair of them walking to the building. Instead of a reverse angle that would have shown us the house’s façade from Francois’ point of view as he gets out of the taxi, the first we see of the house is the edge of it as Francois and the lover go towards it. Garrel makes no effort to generate a materialist conflict in the character between his own humble apartment and the house that is big enough to allow Francois and the lover a portion of it as a flat. What matters isn’t matter but spirit, and if Garrel is a political filmmaker of the Left it lies in how important the notion of spirit happens to be to both his work as aesthetic method; and work as ethical problematic.

The latter is evident in an interview with Stefan Grissemann in Cinemascope where Garrel insists “every cent in Les amants reguliers has come from the political left…there was no way you could tell this story that offers a radically left perspective with right-wing money.” The ethos of finance and production is also clear when Kent Jones says in another Film Comment article, ‘Sad and Proud of it’, “his aesthetics of poverty is not just a canny trick or a calling card but a true moral stance” – and we can see the questioning of this stance in Sauvage Innocence, where the character wants to make an anti-drugs film with drug money: a moral conundrum similar to the idea of making a left-wing film with right-wing money. But obviously it is one thing to hear anecdotally how Garrel makes films on low-budgets, but more important still, we may ask, is how does that play out in his films – specially when he hasn’t been averse to working with relative and unequivocal stars – Christine Boisson and Emmanuelle Riva in Liberté la nuit, Benoit Regent in J’entends plus la guitars, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Lou Castel in La Naissance de L’amour, Catherine Deneuve in Le vent de la nuit? It is an aesthetics of poverty as mise-en-scene, with the often well-known faces nevertheless caught almost the way Jonas Mekas would frequently film the well-known, as a sort of radical defamiliarization that turns the actor into a private space rather than a public persona. When Manny Farber in Negative Space says of certain films that “both Audran (Infidele) and Jane Fonda appear to own every inch of a small principality that extends about six inches to any side of their bodies, and anything else on the horizon is uncontrollable, unattainable, and therefore hardly concerns them”, he could even more have been talking of Garrel’s actors.

This has nothing to do with the actor downplaying physical attractiveness (a la Born in the Fourth of July or Monster); this is the director downplaying the space in which to act, so that the priority is to create a mise-en-scene of intimacy that requires not a budget, but almost a favour. Garrel will film the actor who offers themselves to his camera, and he must in turn respect the privacy of the performer by virtue of the close up that reveals merely a private space. Thus in one of his most extravagant films, Le vent de la nuit, with its Italian and German locations, and its red Porsche, Garrel keeps things so intimate that even glamour seems somehow absurd. When Deneuve’s character sits on the steps waiting for her young lover, dressed up in haute couture, Garrel presents a woman who is dressed well not so much to emphasize her status, but instead her vulnerability. The upmarket clothing and the downmarket steps are in conflict; but it is not the steps that are dirty but the woman who is overdressed.

This is to say that the aesthetics of poverty holds no matter the star appearance. Yet this doesn’t make Garrel first and foremost a political filmmaker, but a filmmaker of the intimate. If we proposed earlier that Garrel was interested in a revolutionary consciousness that combined Sloterdijk’s observations with Chesterton’s democracy of the dead to achieve the deeply intimate, then this is nevertheless quite simply achieved cinematically. In a scene where Francois agrees to meet Carole after the relationship is over, and after she has been released from a mental institution, we start with a medium close up of Carole as Francois enters the shot. As he sits down and talks, the camera moves back and forth to a mirror that provides the scene with a shot/counter-shot approach without moving from one shot to the next. This isn’t a formal device especially; more an attempt to stay as close as possible to the intimate centre of the scene, and this is why we don’t want to generalise about Garrel’s formal style, saying that he has a particular shot that he utilises. Instead it seems to be a certain emotional register that a variety of shots can capture.

For example, in La Naissance de l’amour we have a café scene with Lou Castel awaiting a young woman who has introduced herself to him as a fan, and who goes off and makes a phone call before joining him, and once again she enters Castel’s shot, only for the shot to change and we have a medium long shot of Castel and the woman sitting at the café table. After that Garrel’s camera watches them as they leave the café, and the camera remains in the café as the characters go out onto the street. Garrel’s greatness as a filmmaker resides not so much in finding a shot that captures intimacy, but in following a through-line of intimacy that retains the emotionally vulnerable. In Frontier Dawn he could have, as we proposed earlier, offered a counter shot of Francois getting out of the taxi that would have shown the house in all its magnificence, but he instead cuts to a travelling close up of the couple going towards the building. In the scene from La Naissance de l’amour again we could have seen the characters leaving the café followed by a counter shot of the couple coming out onto the street. But instead the camera stays in the café, as if Garrel knew that this was how best to hold to the intimate centre of the sequence. This is certainly financially economical – he saves himself the trouble of setting up an exterior scene on a busy street – but the paramount purpose would seem to be to hold onto the intimate through line. The revolutionary consciousness and the democracy of the dead are contained by the intimacy that Garrel searches out.

This is partly why we say the political aspect of his aesthetic is not the foremost one. What matters is the emotional tenor that can absorb many aspects that could ‘destroy’ another director’s work – stars, period-setting and luxury can all be contained by the director’s not so much aesthetics of poverty, as Garrel’s aesthetics of intimacy. It is this aesthetics of intimacy one supposes the British critics missed, perhaps out of ignorance of Garrel’s work, perhaps out of a broader ignorance towards certain feelings that aren’t quite legitimized in cinema. This maybe connects to ideas of self-indulgence, and one way to understand how Garrel indulges the self is to note how music is used here, and in his work in general.

There is a scene in Frontier Dawn where Francois visits Carole after she has been given electro-shock treatment, and as she sits on the bed, Garrel holds to a medium shot as Francois initially goes in and out of the frame, sometimes blocking Carole in the frame, sometimes not, before he crouches down in front of her and then, as the camera eases forward slightly, Garrel offers a ‘pieta’ with Carole cuddling up to Francois as they half lie on the bed. Throughout the scene we hear Jean-Claude Vannier’s music and we might note that it is neither cue music nor tonally coherent; it is neither pursuing an emotion that plugs us into a scene in the way a thriller will utilise sharp strings to generate tension, or a weepie soft strings to make us cry, nor tonally consistent in the manner of a Nyman score for Greenaway, or a Karaindrou score for Angelopoulos. It is true that Garrel utilises strings here, but they tug at the heart by working actually somewhere in between cue music and the tonal score. In the scene immediately preceding the pieta moment where Francois and Carole meet up at the hospital, Garrel offers a single take as the camera in long shot observes them meeting. Garrel could have chosen to utilise a tonal score for this moment, as if to give emotional immediacy to a scene shot at one remove – the sort of musical immediacy Angelopoulos often gives to scenes where the camera is aloof to the events – or he could have allowed the music to come in during the scene with Francois’ hugging of Carole cuing the music and thus the viewer’s emotions. In this instance he eschews both of the more conventional approaches.

What is interesting is that Garrel is a filmmaker for whom tenderness is not an occasional feeling, but a constant, and yet this would seem paradoxical in relation to the way he uses music. When Jean-Michel Frodon in a Film Comment article on A Nos Amours (a film co-written by Garrel’s now regular screenwriter Arlette Langmann, and based loosely on her own life) believed that “cinema exists to record the moment when souls become visible”, this seems especially true of a filmmaker like Garrel – but with a certain proviso. Garrel’s work doesn’t reveal the soul; it doesn’t accumulate scenes that lead to its revelation, it is taken as a given; the material world is not the means by which the filmmaker sets out to reveal the soul through the material world’s limitations – as we so often find in Bresson and the Dardennes – Garrel assumes that the soul is the world; the material aspect secondary. By this reckoning Garrel’s music should be tonally consistent with the souls that are constantly present in the film, rather than punctuating the piece as it usually does.

But though the soul is the constant and the material world secondary this does not mean that the soul’s needs are being constantly met. In the early stages of the film we should remember that Carole is a married woman for whom Francois is a lover, and her flirtations with other men leaves him even more peripheral to her emotional centre. One evening Francois and Carole are walking back to her apartment together and a man waits outside who seems obviously to have been a lover. Later, Carole and Francois lie in bed and her husband comes back from his lengthy trip in the US, and we see Francois tip-toe in and around the apartment getting his things together while he hears Carole and her husband going to the bed that will still be warm with his presence. There is also, obviously, the aforementioned scene of flirtation at the party.

While it is so that Garrel works from the soul over material reality, nevertheless what interests him are ‘troubled’ souls, or more especially the trouble of the soul. Garrel’s use of music generally shows the troubled nature or the assuagement of these souls. We may notice this in more or less three scenes in a row that do not start with music but end with it. The first is the scene where the man turns up at Carole’s door, the second where she flirts at the dinner party, and the third where the husband returns. In the first and the second the music pleads the case for a character that in another film would clearly be dismissed, and in a film that was interested in the revelation of the soul would indicate a certain redemptive quality over their behaviour. But where this is still there in varying ways and to varying degrees in Bresson, the Dardennes and even Bruno Dumont’s work, this is not so in Garrel’s.

Perhaps one way of understanding this difference is to utilise a brief passage from Baudrillard in Fragments that allows much room for understanding emotion over feeling in film, and to see how Garrel returns to feeling over emotion but not at all in a conventional manner. “The characters in the film [The Best Years of Our Lives] have retained a candour towards – and naïve faith in – their feelings which we no longer possess.” However what Baudrillard is talking about here is the public responsibility in relation to the private emotion. It is this that would seem to generate feeling in so many classic Hollywood films: if we think of the self-sacrifices made in Casablanca, and It’s a Wonderful Life, personal sacrifices are made for the public good. As we’ve suggested, Garrel has almost no public dimension to his work, so the amplitude of the soul takes place not in the interface between the social good and the private emotion, but the personal and the soulful – there is a place in Garrel’s films still more private than the personal. Thus if Baudrillard talks of how most of the time we now have “conversion emotions betraying the melodrama going on in the body rather than the nuances of the soul”, this is an emotional existence that pays little attention to the moral expectations so relevant in Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life, where the conversion takes place between the personal needs of the characters and the broader needs of society: the way James Stewart’s character George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life stays in the town to take over his father’s bank for example. This isn’t the soul of Bailey, especially; more his social duty taking stock of the variables in the situation. He realizes he is not readily replaceable, and this is played out near the end of the film where an angel shows George round the town and illustrates to him what it would have become without him. The angels paradoxically reflect the social nature of George’s existence; not the intricacies of his soul.

But what about Carole’s ghostly apparition in Frontier Dawn? Shortly after they split up, Francois and Carole exchange letters and in one of them he says. “We’re the people who sleep. The people who make history are far more common.” We don’t want to say that George, and Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca are history makers, but they certainly act for the broader good. Garrel is interested in the narrower good. If Baudrillard talks of emotions replacing feelings and perhaps not least because of the social good now giving way to the personal desire, then Garrel is not interested in the social good stronger than personal desire, nor the selfishness of the emotion, but instead a sort of melodrama of the soul. This is where the interface takes place between the self and the absent other and draws the self not into a useful social space that undermines selfishness, but a ‘useless’ space that amplifies merely the soul. This isn’t above emotion, the way we talk about older films often elevating their characters beyond selfish concerns, but below emotion, a subterranean world of sleep, heroin and suicide.

This may allow us to explain one of the film’s much mocked lines. “When the last Holocaust survivor dies WWIII will begin” Francois says whilst lying in bed with Carole, and we may laugh at a line that has little apparent diegetic purpose, or think of it in the broader context of a soul recognition that is quite different from the social. Such a line makes sense if we imagine the conscience existing not in the problem of the self but in the world, and that once the world forgets an atrocity it can return in another form. This is an historical context, but as Francois proposes later in the film people like he and Carole are not interested in history – but in the intimacy of ‘sleep’: the intimythic. It is as if Francois is searching out an ethos that is outside of space and time, and finds it in Carole’s apparition. If she chose to die for love, and if Francois dies to join her, then the melodrama of the soul is resolved and reality left untouched. The world has its concerns where forgetfulness allows tragedies to return as social event; but Carole and Francois exist in an unusual beyond where they cannot make history.

Yet this is potentially a quietist argument that would leave no space for the revolution, and yet Garrel has constantly been drawn to the problem of revolution whether in the form of past reflections (Le vent de la nuit), historical re-enactment (in les Amants reguliers), or immediate reaction: an early, short, lost work Actualite revolutionnaire captured the events of May ’68 as they were taking place.  How can we square the idea of revolution with sleep? Without difficulty if we see Garrel’s work within the context of the anti-psychiatry developments of the sixties and seventies. This isn’t much of a stretch when we know Garrel was given its antithesis – shock therapy – and that the question of electro-shock shows up in one form or another in much of his work from Marie pour Memoire to Le vent de la nuit to Frontier Dawn.  We must reject the society that destroys minds, and find it in the intimate encounter. This is basically sleep as intimacy, and consistent with what we have been saying about Garrel’s ‘intimythic’ dimension, and also a comment by David Cooper in his book, The Grammar of Living. Here he says that “the main illusion we have to dispel is the illusion of our own impotency. If any one of us talks significantly enough even to one other person, that significance will resonate through the consciousness of dozens, hundreds, thousands of others, by direct contact, and by contact many removes.”

Here impotency is replaced by intimacy, and yet one of the most pressing questions Frontier Dawn forces upon us, and one relevant to many of Garrel films which end on suicide or a drugs overdose, is whether such a death is intimate or impotent. Gilles Deleuze, in an interview around the time of co-writing his own book of Anti-psychiatry, Anti-Oedipus,talks of, “what David Cooper so aptly calls the private third world of each and every one of us”,  linking this to notions of emotional underdevelopment the way an economist will talk of economic underdevelopment. Are sleep, drugs and suicide not subsequently acts of decolonization from a certain point of view, the sort of viewpoint Cooper explores when saying what we need to acquire is the power to “deterrorize death, madness, and any experience of ultimate disaster.” For Cooper the ultimate disaster would lie in consenting at “any moment in any way to the gross or subtle injunctions of the bourgeois system, by specific actions or by the very style of our lives, [it] is to draw the hand of the murderer with its sharp knife across the line of our jugular veins”. We might think of similar comments in writer Eduardo Galeano’s political book Open Veins of Latin America: on one voyage to the States many slaves, “committed suicide by refusing to eat, hanging themselves by the chains, or throwing themselves into a sea bristling with sharks’ fins.”

Just before the end of Frontier Dawn, Francois prepares for the wedding, a wedding that will allow him a studio in the in-laws’ grand house, to be married to a pretty young woman, and a future that will be assured. Yet in a scene not long before Francois and a friend talk, and the friend insists that what Francois seems scared of is happiness, bourgeois happiness. But the question Garrel finally leaves us with is whether such happiness might be to draw a sharp knife across our jugular, that his decision to jump out of the window of his top floor flat would be a little like slaves throwing themselves into the sea, and the lesser of two evils. It is understandable critics would dismiss the film, for Garrel does not offer the social context that would say that the good life is of course what most people would accept but that Francois is unwilling to take because he can’t get out of his own head and over his love and guilt for Carole. There is the rational and conventional life; or the irrational death, and Garrel goes for the latter, almost as if bourgeois life is as suffocatingly limited as a slave’s existence, not simply that Francois is self-absorbed, and that his is the tragedy of a ridiculous young man. Surely one’s purpose as a critic though isn’t to mock the absurdity of the choice taken, but muse over why that choice might be made. Is there more revolutionary potential in Francois dead on the pavement, or Francois comfortably ensconced elsewhere? This is suicide as an absurd decision from a social point of view but, as we’ve indicated, Garrel is not a director of common sense, but private sense: the mythical intimacy of souls, and wonders what sort of society might possibly come out of such a position.


©Tony McKibbin