A Sorrow Beyond Self
It has become a truism that we recover from a break-up as we might recover from drugs, and science proves it: that the level of oxytocin flooding the brain resembles the pleasure principle of a good fix. The removal of the loved one, or the drug, leaves us bodily distraught. Is there any filmmaker who has coincided with this idle scientific fact and turned it into an aesthetic ongoing first principle more than Philippe Garrel? Love is a drug indeed, but for Garrel it is the comedown that interests him more than anything else as we see in films from L'Enfant secret/The Secret Child (1979) to Les baisers de secours/Emergency Kisses (1989), from J'entends plus la guitare/I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991) to Le vent de la nuit/ Night Wind (1999), from Jealousy/La jalousie (2013) to A Burning Hot Summer/Un t Brlant (2011).
In the latter, Frdric (Louis Garrel) is a dissolute painter from a wealthy family who we see lying supinely on a couch, a Nero with others in attendance, a Romantic awaiting his tragedy. We know even by this very early stage of the film that a tragic end is nigh: the film has shown us in the opening sequence Frdric driving into a tree, and his friend's voice-over starts speaking of him in the past tense. What happens in the course of the film and that leads to the crash which will end his life is that his spouse Angle (Monica Belucci) leaves him for another man, and Frdric just doesn't know how to recover. As he sits with his friend hunched up against the wall discussing how badly he feels, he resembles an addict in dire need of a fix, his sudden tears like the cramp waves of somebody coming off the drug. Yet the high has been all Angle's as we have seen her earlier in the film dance with the man who will become her lover to the 'Dirty Pretty Things' song 'Truth Begins', all done in a single take. The scene captures a burning hot jealousy as moments afterwards Frdric will chastise her for what he sees as her sluttish ways, even if we will see him a scene or two later propositioning a prostitute on the street. L'enfant secret, made thirty-five years earlier, is jealousy at a far cooler temperature, evident in Garrel's general preference for black and white, the low-budget reality that means the film is made up of other filmmakers' stock, and the sense that the actors (Anne Wiazemsky and Henri de Maublanc) are subjects of the camera's gaze as much as they are actors playing roles for the camera. It was the moment in Garrel's career where narrative was becoming more central, where continuity of character was hesitant but evident, giving the films an elliptical aspect they would never quite lose. This rests on the proper soulfulness of the director's work and leads to two central themes in his oeuvre: revelation and oblivion. Love is revelation; loss is oblivion, and the soul finds in the two the motivation for existence. Thus motivation cannot reside in the social world, which is partly why there are almost no social scenes in the director's films: streets are rarely populated even if the scene takes place in capital cities like Paris, Berlin or Rome. Instead, Garrel's is a chamber cinema insisting on a soul that is possessed by a body, one which can move towards falling in love or losing that love to another. If love has been such a revelation for the protagonist it must go on being a revelation for others too. But the central characters are often no longer in the revelatory because the lover no longer loves them but someone else, and they must thus move towards oblivion.
This doesn't mean they are innocents wronged, though Maublanc's Jean-Baptiste in L'enfant secret seems as innocent a figure as we are likely to find in the director's work, and as good an encapsulation in bodily form of Serge Daney's remark on the film. "Garrel's angelism, no secret to anyone." Often, they cheat, or at least try to do so. There are those burgeoning infidelities in Emergency Kisses when we see Garrel's character Mathieu move in to kiss Minouchette (Anemone) before finding his wife in bed with another man. In Jealousy, Louis (Louis Garrel) does not know that Claudia (Anna Mouglalis) has cheated on him when he starts kissing an actress he is working alongside. But we return to L'enfant secret and the line: "being faithful is a movement of the soul."
Garrel escapes moralism because for all his interest in bodies, for all our interest in the comedown of love, and the nervous system's immediate inability to cope with the withdrawal of the object of desire, Garrel seeks in his best work a metaphysics aligned to the physical. We offer the term metaphysical in its most obvious sense without holding too firmly to the presumption behind it: Plato's doctrine of Forms, the idea for example that Socrates's soul is identified with Socrates and the survival of his soul is the survival of Socrates - but contained in a purified state. If his life has been spent trying to liberate the soul from dependence on the body, it is because the body is always interfering with the activity of the soul. We may regard the many characters who attempt suicide or succeed in the task because they cannot live without a loved one as immature, the sorrows of youthfulness updated to muse over the Werthers of the late 20th and early 21st century. Yet Garrel's Romanticism contains within it an idealism that we might call Platonic but which is no less Kierkegaardian. If in his doctrine of Forms, Plato famously believed that Love is a capital ideal manifest in numerous examples in lowly life, then Kierkegaard also comes to mind and especially a passage concerning the central philosophical figure in Repetition. "I never expected that he would have such difficulty getting over a love affair." "The girl has enormous significance for him. He will never be able to forget her. But that through which she has significance is not herself, but her relation to him. She is like the limit of his being." Kierkegaard reckons this need for the other nevertheless goes beyond the erotic, yet that doesn't mean it wouldn't contain a dimension of it even if Kierkegaard sees it religiously. "It's as if God had used this girl to capture him." She allows him to think metaphysically. Elsewhere, in Works of Love, Kierkegaard notes, "what, then, is the beautiful according to our conceptions of love? It is the beloved, and the friend. For the beloved and the friend are the spontaneous and direct objects of spontaneous love, the choice of passion and of inclination. And what is the ugly? It is the neighbour, whom one shall love." We decontextualize these quotes for proposing our own contextualization. (The former idea can be seen as an anticipation of Nietzsche's eternal return; the latter suggests a complication and spiritualization of Kant's categorical imperative yet these needn't be our concern.) Garrel's work insists on the metaphysical as a consequence of failure or loss. It is not so much that Garrel's leading characters cannot aspire to the neighbourly, more that they are often transformed into the ugly. They are no longer loved (unlike Kierkegaard's figure in Repetition) by the beautiful immediately, and feel as a consequence they will receive no more than a neighbourly love, one that cannot allow for dignity. To be loved as a neighbour by a neighbour is desirable; to be loved as a neighbour by a loved one is emotionally catastrophic. The lowly love, the life of loving, which of course Plato breaks down into numerous categories including eros, philia, pragma and agape, cannot find the love that it needs and seeks, in Garrel, a higher escape into oblivion.
We might believe that dignity is the highest virtue lost love can attain. There is the line from Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing (1980): "You must love her tremendously...more even than one's own dignity." In Emergency Kisses, Jeanne (Brigitte Sy) refuses to do so, after throwing the father of the child out. "I can do without love. I already have. I cannot do without dignity." Sleeping with another man has been her way of insisting upon it, but there is no sense that this lover was anything more than a means by which to assert herself, not lose herself. But, usually, Garrel characters do not act with dignity, without necessarily descending into abjectness. They often seek oblivion, determining that their love exists on a transcendental plane. At the beginning of Burning Hot Summer, before Frdric drives into a tree, the film cuts to a naked Monica Bellucci lying on a bed, coaxing him to join her. This is the ideal image he has in his mind; in reality, Angle is elsewhere, and not with Frederic. In Frontier of the Dawn/La Frontire de l'aube (2008), the mentally fragile Carole (Laur Smet) takes her life after Franois finishes with her, and a while after that, unable to get over the guilt, loss or desire, despite having a pregnant partner, Franois (Louis Garrel) throws himself from his attic window. In Le vent de la nuit, we notice this too, Serge (Daniel Duval) cannot recover from his wife's death in the indeterminate past and will take his own life as well. At the film's conclusion, we see him lying face down on the table, dead from an overdose and the photo of his wife upside down on the floor. In a scene around a third of the way through the film, Serge is driving through Italy with a young man fascinated by Serge's work. They stop off at an old building and Serge wanders off on his own, coming across an ancient crypt. He stands before it as if looking into the void, while Garrel captures the scene in silence and darkness.
In another filmmaker's work such a moment may invoke no more than a character's need to be alone, to have a few seconds to himself. In Garrel's, it indicates instead a force to be reckoned with, in common parlance, but a force uncommon in cinema. What is this force? If we call it metaphysical we mean by this little more than that it contains a possibility within it which indicates that being is potentially beyond any coordinates the story itself will possess. One sees it sometimes in Dreyer's work and Bresson's, of course, (those Kierkergaardian directors), but also in a very different way in, Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr. Garrel is much closer to the former pairing than the latter three, but what they all share is an interest in pushing their stories to the outside of their narratives. In other words, they don't wish for the narrative to contain the full possibility of their meaning, but use the story to find the spaces which will take it beyond such coordinates. Le vent de la nuit, perhaps more than most Garrel films, does exactly this
There are at least two ways in which this can work and in Le vent de la nuit Garrel utilises them both. One is in the cut, the other rests in the camera movement. In an often quoted round table discussion between Jean Narboni, Jacques Rivette and Sylvie Pierre, the three of them note that the central character in Gertrud (1964) gets lost in the splice, as there are gaps in time which cannot easily be explained or accounted for. It allows for a properly elliptical cinema that also makes Gertrud a ghostly character within Dreyer's work, evident when Rivette comments on "the three or four cut-ellipses at the junctures of two long takes, tranquilly intervening within the supposed continuity of the scene. Here he sees ...tantalising cuts, deliberately disturbing, which means that the spectator is made to wonder where Gertrud 'went'; well she went in the splice." In Le vent de la nuit, Garrel frequently allows characters to get lost between cuts, creating moments of time which generate enigma because we can't claim to know what happens when a character is offscreen. There is nothing especially odd in this in itself. Frequently characters disappear from our purview without any problems: waiters, taxi drivers, hotel clerks, all appearing in the story as a function within it rather than characters awaiting development. In Le vent de la nuit, Garrel cuts in a manner that means even important characters can appear and disappear like Hlne's's husband who only has one scene during her suicide attempt. Equally, Garrel will cut into the moment so that the before and after of a scene are absent, or vice versa. There are no preliminaries in the suicidal sequence, when Hlne (Catherine Deneuve) introduces her lover to her husband the film shows the two men deeply engaged in conversation and Hlne at a loss. How did the two men get to this stage; how did Hlne introduce her lover, has the husband worked out who Paul happens to be and so on?
In reference, to the camera movement, we can think of the same scene and the few seconds before Hlne attempts to take her life. As the husband talks, the camera slowly rises above his head in what would seem like an unmotivated shot. Hlne enters the frame and goes over by the window. If in various scenes in the film we can notice how people appear and disappear in the splice, here we see the way Hlne appears in the frame. As so often in the work of Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr, the camera isn't motivated simply by the characters' actions but even more by its own capacity to enquire into these actions. It is as if the camera is troubled by Hlne's absence in the shot and thus leaves behind the husband as it rises above his head awaiting Hlne's entry. It is consistent with so many camera movements to be found in Antonioni's work where Monica Vitti or Jeanne Moreau don't so much act in front of the camera; more that the camera discovers the behavioural mode it seeks as it finds them.
One sees in such a movement cinema registering a very evolved stage of its existence, taking into account comments by Gilles Deleuze and Stanley Cavell, both of whom in very different ways address the ontology of film as a means by which to see what cannot usually be seen. As Deleuze says, "pure movement extracted from bodies of moving things. This is not an abstraction, but an emancipation. It is always a great moment in the cinema when, for example in Renoir, the camera leaves a character, and even turns his back on him, following its own movement at the end of which it will rediscover him." (Cinema 1: The Time Image) In Pursuits of Happiness, Cavell discusses Locke, Hume, Kant and others concerning what we can know, suggesting that not-knowing is a product less of a metaphysical mystery than of a tangible human fact. "For 'the whole of things' cannot be known by human creatures, not because we are limited in the extent of our experience, but, as we might say, because we are limited to our experience, however extensive."
Film can invoke the knowledge that we don't possess, even if most of the time film mimics the knowledge that is within our realm of perception. It is partly why when a film deviates from that perceptual field, when it drifts away from a character's vision, as Antonioni famously does in Red Desert/Il Deserto Rosso (1964) in the talk on Patagonia, or when he shows the characters failing to turn up for the rendezvous at the end of The Eclipse/L'Eclisse (1962), it seems anomalous. When the camera moves above the husband's head in Le vent de la nuit, it is a disembodying experience quite different from a shot that would have shown Paul looking up and seeing Hlne behind her husband. When the camera leaves the husband as he speaks, this is pertinent to the freedom Deleuze talks about and the problem of knowledge Cavell addresses. How many great films, by Tarkovsky and Dreyer, Malick and even Scorsese (especially in Taxi Driver), Antonioni and Tarr, Bertolucci and Angelopoulos possess this sense of drift? It creates in the image a freedom of perception which needn't at all be godly, though Deleuze does talk about "the duration or the whole, a spiritual reality which constantly changes according to its own relations", (Cinema 1: The Movement-Image) just as Cavell can speak of a knowledge beyond our perceptual possibilities: "put it this way, to know the world as a whole, or the world as it is in itself would require us to have God's knowledge..." (Pursuits of Happiness) But to go beyond ready perceptual frameworks we need not go 'beyond' only to find in images a way of breaking with our readily visible sphere.
However, we have also suggested that in Garrel's work there are all these character who don't want to live in this world and seek, if not another, then a determined escape from this one. What word would cover this litter of bodies in Garrel's work? This need to show characters more than almost any director (more even than Bresson) seeking to take their own lives. Oblivion would seem the most accurate, but within Garrel's oeuvre it possesses the need to forget at its most fundamental. Dignity may indicate the capacity to forget the other, to get on with one's life, as Jeanne ferociously does in Emergency Kisses when we see her on her hands and knees cleaning a floor with her back to Mathieu, while he stands around helplessly holding his suitcase. "There is one thing more than love", she says. "And that is dignity. If I love you I lose it." As she offers this line she turns towards Mathieu and there is hesitation within her claim. She blinks at Mathieu and looks like she wants him back, but will not allow him to return until that dignity is recognised.
Most of the time, though, dignity, which is the will to live, is weak next to the will to love, which in Garrel's work is closely affiliated with the will to die. This is a romantic notion expressed well in Keats's claim: "Love is my religion...I could die for that." In Les Amants Rguliers/Regular Lovers (2005), Franois (Louis Garrel) falls in love with Lilie (Clothilde Hesme) and into an opiate haze that leaves him without the ambitions of his sculptor girlfriend, who will leave for the States. Franois descends into a terrible melancholy and eventually ends his life. The pragmatist watching a Garrel film may insist that Franois like many another Garrel character is immature, incapable of growing up and thus growing old. But how better to stay faithful to one's youth than dying in it? As Andr Gide said, writing in his early fifties, "there are very few of my contemporaries who have remained faithful to their youth. They have almost all compromised. That is what they call 'learning from life'. They have denied the truth that was in them." (Journals) It is the case that Garrel's own father Maurice often plays the figure most inclined to learn from life and offers lessons to the younger generation, but what this lesson often consists of is creating more youth, producing a child. In Emergency Kisses, the father says, that the way one stays together, to keep love going, is to "have a child. Not for the child but for Love. If we stay in love, we think he's the incarnation of our love." Again pragmatic maturity is rejected for a means of idealisation: in seeing the child as love in embodied form.
It is this need for idealisation that is vital to Garrel's work. There is an epic solipsism that suggests his preoccupation should be the world's and this might be why many Garrel films meet with disdain and dismay. That here is a filmmaker who lacks all perspective, evident in Godfrey Cheshire's sour, predictable claim that Jealousy "is the kind of slight, academic, self-satisfied exercise that preaches only to the converted." (RogerEbert.com) But it is this lack of perspective, albeit allied to a simultaneously simple and complex metaphysic that makes Garrel's films singular. It is as though he films from the side of death without at all indicating a religiously possible dimension that we can find in Dreyer or Bresson. Death haunts his work but there is little sense it can redeem it. Love is what makes life worth living but also worth dying for too. This isn't the higher love that happens to be God but a living one that happens to be one's lover. Yet love in this world is a transient thing: the best way to give it permanence is to die within its absence.
In the Symposium, Plato differentiates between a vulgar and divine eros. The vulgar form allows for physical attraction, pleasure and reproduction, while Divine love is directed towards supreme beauty. Garrel is interested in the former within the pessimism of the latter, which makes him a Romantic figure as Bresson and Dreyer are not. Though we've suggested there is a Kierkergaardian dimension to Garrel in our use of passages from Repetition and Works of Love, this wouldn't quite be the tradition Deleuze sees in Cinema 2 - The Time Image when he claims in Pascal and Kierkegaard belief and choice has been usefully explored in cinema through Bresson, Dreyer and Rohmer. "We have seen how a cinema of Christian inspiration was not content to apply these conceptions but revealed them as the highest theme of the film...the identity of thought with choice as determination of the indeterminable." (Cinema 2: The Time Image) In various Garrel films including Le vent de la nuit, Les amants rguliers, A Burning Hot Summer, and Jealousy choice gives way to inevitability. When Serge sleep with Hlne in Le vent de la nuit, near the end of the film, there is no sense that he is faced with a choice; that here is a woman who can make up for the love that he has lost. She is not a Kierkergaardian stage on the path to life that Deleuze astutely notes is evident in Rohmer's work, but a brief pause before death will take him. Equally, in Les amants rguliers, when Lilie leaves for America, Franois will not have adventures that will create a path towards recovery; he will continue on the descent that her leaving generates. Garrel's romantic sensibility isn't interested in the choices available because love as coup de foudre is also a coup au coeur: a love at first sight which contains within it a blow to the heart. The logic of Garrel's work is that one can't easily have the former without the latter. When in Les amants reguliers we see how quickly Franois falls for Lilie we might wonder how far he will fall if and when they break up. Before going to sit on the couch next to her he sits restlessly in the kitchen, yet this seems less the shy man plucking up the courage to talk to a woman he finds beautiful; more the figure who seems somehow aware that he is about to put his life in another's hands. As he sits next to her and suggests they've met before, she says they have back in May, during the events of '68. The film cuts from a medium close-up of the pair of them and others on the couch, to a tightly framed side elevation shot of Lilie, with a momentary fade to black, before again showing us her face. Blink and we will miss this fade, but it captures well the feeling of time standing still and love entering that stillness. Garrel shows us Lilie's hesitant, unsure face as Franois enters the tight frame to whisper into Lilie's ear that she is "very beautiful." She smiles, rubs her face and looks like she knows this isn't a casual compliment but an announcement of intent. It is a death do us part without the nuptial formalities and replaced by a Romantic declaration that will indeed see Franois eventually take his life.
We can see Le vent de la nuit and Les amants rguliers as two sides of the Romantic coin. The first is a colour account of a man who cannot countenance the death of his wife and gives credence to the idea of living in the past. In the monochrome Les amants rguliers Franois lives in a yearning present after Lilie leaves and assuages that desire with an opiate existence, rather like a terminal ill patient who will slowly succumb to the death that awaits them as painlessly as possible. Serge in Le vent de la nuit, has no need to have his nerves relaxed; there is no yearning in this life possible and so he must yearn only for his demise. The drugs he intends to take earlier in the film aren't there so he can lose himself, but to end his life. He knows there is no future available to him at all except in not so much an afterlife but non-life. In the brilliant, appalling closing shots we see him at his desk with a substance on the table that several shots later will leave him dead. The film cuts from Serge sitting there in contemplation to three shots of a photograph that we only see from the reverse side as on the final shot the camera travels up to Serge's now dead body, his head slumped against the desk. John Cale's music thunders on, the piano keys hammered heavily but any melodrama contained by the unsentimentality of Garrel's conclusion. There is no suggestion of any spiritual future, only a beyond that must remain inexplicable. Serge has done his duty to his spouse and while the sentimental might be inclined to say he has joined her, better to say no more than that he too has left the world that she also once occupied. The closing camera shot resembles the earlier one we have invoked when Hlne enters the frame as the camera goes over her husband's head, with the camera recognising itself as a metaphysical force that goes beyond character and isn't contained by it, just as our lives are more than the sum total of our actions if we have no idea what that sum total might be. A camera that drifts away from character or finds character in that drift needn't make claims about any world beyond our own, but in the very camera movement it often indicates that there is more to the world than the one in which we are immediately living.
This seems to us the point behind both Deleuze and Cavell's comments on the camera, and Garrel finds his own exploration of the question through seeing love as the space that opens up within us and which hints at a quality greater than the individuals who partake in that love. It is as if the very filming of love is already a distance from it and Garrel understands better than most that a love story told is always in the past tense, and the cinematic exploration of that love makes it unequivocal. Cavell notes that "film's ease over the world will be accounted for, one way or another, consciously or not. By my account, film's presenting of the world by absenting us from it appears as confirmation of something already true of our stage of existence." (The World Viewed) He believes "its displacement of the world confirms, even explains, our prior estrangement from it." Garrel doesn't make love stories, he makes film about love, and the rearranging of the phrasing tells us a great deal about that difference. Garrel's exploration of love might not be the Platonic ideal, nor certainly a religious one, but it is the quality of Heideggarian Mitsein that hovers over the material when Deleuze says, utilising Pasolini's theoretical work, "a character acts on the screen, and is assumed to see the world in a certain way. But simultaneously the camera sees him, and see his world, from another point of view, which thinks, reflects, and transforms the viewpoint of the character." (Cinema 1: The Movement Image)
Le vent de la nuit and Les amants rguliers seem to us the great films of his late period even if we might see the former as still part of a mid-career shift towards narrative, exemplified in the early nineties films J'entends plus la guitare and La naisance de l'amour/The Birth of Love (1993). But what interests us in all four is less the shift towards narration than the furtherance of an aesthetic that gives to film its metaphysical purpose (and in Garrel's case the exploration of the metaphysics of love), as if cinema is at its most metaphysically possible, most capable of attending to itself and drawing attention to itself, when narration is evident but not paramount. If the narration is absolutely central we aren't inclined to see the properties that generate it, and if narration is so absent we have nothing from which it happens to take flight. In seventies Garrel films like Les hautes solitude (1974) and Le berceau de cristal (1976), the camera is central and the narration peripheral, but when this is reversed, while still attending to the presence of the camera, the film can take on the property of a metaphysic. We might not be saying very much that is different from Pasolini's claims in 'The Cinema of Poetry', but perhaps for us it is for quite different ends. Pasolini notes that in Red Desert "Antonioni no longer superimposes his own formalistic vision of the world on a generally committed content (the problem of neuroses caused by alienation), as he had done in his earlier films in a somewhat clumsy blending." Pasolini sees instead a free indirect discourse that blends the perceptions of the character with the perceptions of the film. Yet what interests us more is how the camera can give to events a property of its proposition which doesn't leave us too fixated on the story. Hence the examples we give from Le vent de la nuit.
In La Naissance de l'amour, there is a scene when Paul (Lou Castel) starts speaking to a stranger on the coast. His family is in Paris; hers happens to be in London and they are both staying in this out-of-season resort town where, he suggests, it seems to be a place people come to be alone. But what is interesting isn't especially the conversation, more the camera movement that precedes it. As the film cuts from Paul crossing the street to the woman walking towards the sea, it might seem like what we are watching is the point of view of Paul upon the woman, but instead at the end of this shot which utilises authoritatively Cale's music, we see Paul entering the frame screen left rather than cutting to a counter-shot that would indicate it was his gaze upon her. Such a shot captures well a narrative moment meeting the camera's freedom: a Mitsein sense of being with others but not a being itself within the diegesis. From one perspective such a shot, like the ones in Le vent de la nuit, give to Garrel's work its sensitivity, its capacity to feel for the characters he shows us and to empathise radically with the characters on screen. This is precisely what free indirect discourse does in literature. The author puts what the character would usually say in dialogue into the narration itself as the gap between the narrator and the character is closed. It is an important development in film but we might be more inclined to see its use more colloquially in something like Rosetta, where the Dardennes capture brilliantly the nervous energy and tension in the central character's restless and frustrated body in the camera movements as well. We don't especially want to disagree with Pasolini's point, which is rich, complex and often nuanced; only to say that there is also within it a metaphysical aspect sitting alongside the discursive need to find a language that can reflect a character's way of being in the world. Yet we are suggesting that Garrel is a filmmaker no less interested, in films like Le vent de la nuit, Les amants rguliers, La Naissance de l'amour and J'entends plus la guitare, in suggesting a broader world rather than just an 'empathic' one in which the characters exist. Often a camera moving away from a character doesn't generate a discursive co-feeling but a disconcerting dislocation.
Near the end of La naissance de l'amour, in a scene that narratively reverses the earlier one, Paul sits in a cafe and a stranger comes over and tells him she really likes his work. They chat for a bit and leave the cafe together. But rather than following the pair as they leave, or cutting to them on their exit, the camera remains inside the cafe as they cross the road and walk along the pavement. It suggests the film isn't following the action any more but observing, creating a distance between the story told and the film itself. The scene is indeed the birth of love as they will soon become lovers, just as the scene in Les amants rguliers indicates the birth of love too when Lilie and Franois sit on the couch and that momentary fade we have talked about allows Garrel to indicate the feelings Lilie has in cinematic form, while also creating a distance that suggests Garrel wants to comment on love as well as depict it. While we absolutely wouldn't want to underestimate the degree to which Garrel films so beautifully and tenderly many a romantic encounter, we want to acknowledge that at the same time there is a property of enquiry which makes his films disquisitions on love as well as their reenactment. As he says "I know very well that parts of the films are very naturalistic, but I try to avoid that." Garrel adds, "if you tell a strictly true story, because the way you are telling it is false, it creates naturalism. We improvise as well, and we end up capturing more of real life...but the same time I also became a naturalist. And to become a naturalist is something I avoid, in fact." (Interview Magazine) Garrel is slippery here, acknowledging and decrying naturalism (which he seems to see as synonymous with realism), aware of its presence in some of his work and determined to limit its presence elsewhere. What 'escapes' naturalism in his films is partly the presence of the camera, a felt cinematic observer rather than an invisible demand and partly why we distinguish what Garrel and others are doing from what we find in Rosetta.
In J'entends plus la guitare, Garrel shows us a wordless exchange between the central character's partner and his best friend. Marianne (Johanna ter Steege) gets up to leave and the camera holds for a few seconds on the empty chair she has left. It is a moment that gives to the object a world, without turning that object into a symbolic function. Central to our claim for a metaphysics of cinema, that Garrel sometimes emphasises, rests on film's capacity not to symbolise objects that can convey human presence in their absence with the chair for example signifying human loss but that the loss of the human is always threatened by the properties of cinema which most films ignore. When Cavell makes clear that we are limited to experience, many films hide that fact by giving the impression we can access cinematically far more experience than we individually can. It is part of the prowess of film which gives us this impression, but it is a metaphysical property of it that then shows us what that means. When Garrel focuses on the empty chair in J'entends plus la guitare, when he shows us the empty frame that Hlne enters, or the camera moving from the floor to the now dead Serge in Le vent de la nuit, he manages to get very far from naturalism indeed by indicating not that the world is a limitless purview, but one that indicates the camera can present to us absence as readily as presence. Equally, when Grard (Benot Rgent) hears about Marianne's death in J'entends plus la guitare, long after they have broken up and with Grard distraught, Garrel offers it in a cinematic equivalent of the passive form: Grard is told that Marianne is dead rather than his wife telling him that Marianne has died. In other words, the camera holds to Grard entering the house as he hears his present partner offscreen telling him that his ex has died. The camera focuses on Grard in medium-shot before eventually panning deliberately towards his partner telling him how it happened. The shot conveys well an aspect greater than the information given, as if there isn't only a death revealed but a loss strongly felt in the camera's limited framing, before panning to Grard's present partner. Grard is indeed isolated in this moment far away from the woman he loved who is now dead, and no nearer the woman who is now his wife. But that would be to indicate the psychological nuance the shot allows. We also see in it the space for a metaphysics, indicating that the camera is a presence itself, carrying a power of presentation beyond the story and the characters. It doesn't just tell the story it suggests its absences too. What is the expression on his partner's face as he stands alone in the frame? What expression is on hers as she tells him about it? At no moment do they hug, at no moment does she console him in his loss, but then why would she wish to? Yet that would be to miss the point: it isn't so much that Garrel wants to show us that here is a man who is still in love with another woman who is now dead, and living with a woman who is the mother of his child; more that he wants to indicate the spaces between the characters because there is always space between people.
This is a literal reality as well as a figurative term and Garrel applies it cinematically. Just as Cavell says the whole of things cannot be known by human creatures because we are limited to human experience, so there is always space between people because we occupy our space and not somebody else's. Yet most of the time, film sees this as no problem at all, and films space as though everybody is occupying the space designated to them and indicating no gaps in those spaces. But just as various modernist filmmakers (Godard, Antonioni, Resnais, Tarkovsky) indicate an aesthetic that will acknowledge the partiality of what they show us to instigate an investigation into absences of knowledge, making clear the limits of what we can know and that the camera can hint at by leaving characters behind, generating empty frames that character walks into and out of and so on, so Garrel here suggests that the spaces between characters are always evident but usually ignored. As the camera films Grard against a blank wall, as his partner remains always on the couch and often out of frame, so that space is yawning, while the gap between Grard and the dead Marianne is yawning too but in a very different direction. It is a yearning yawning, one that might only be resolved by taking one's own life, or, perhaps by the heroin addiction so common amongst Garrel's characters. It is this chasmic yearning Garrel so often explores, a metaphysic no greater than the death that awaits us all but that the director insists is somehow cinematically present in the films that he makes. These are films about people who wish to close that gap between one human and another and try to do so through love that often fails, addictions that temporarily assuage, and deaths that may or may not bring one closer to the object of love. Grard might not die at the end of J'entends plus la guitare, because as he says, "I have a son". The ideal needn't quite give way as the metaphysical returns to the physical and the demands of the biological.
© Tony McKibbin