J'entends plus la guitare
Watching Philippe Garrel's J'entends plus la guitare, few would be inclined to guess that the film takes place over a period of eighteen years. But if one knows about the story behind the film (the history rather than the story we shall say), then we can see that this is loosely an account of Garrel's affair with Nico, from the time they met in 1970, to the time that she died in 1988. But watching the film it looks as if no more than five years have passed, perhaps less. Yet to impose upon the film a biographical tale would be to undermine the contents of the diegesis. Our purpose isn't to insist a direct link between Garrel's life and the fiction film he has made, but to think instead about how what matters is capturing the passage of time. We sense time passing even if we cannot claim to have witnessed the passing of eighteen years. What matters is the capacity for transition; not the specifics of temporal assertion. If Garrel's purpose is to convey to the viewer that eighteen years have passed in the lives of his characters, then he has of course failed; if he wants to indicate that time has passed, then he has succeeded as many a film that conveys clearly vast periods of time passing has not. To clarify the point we wish to make let us distinguish between story and history, between the narrative and historic event. Aesthetically, the artist's duty is to the former; which is why we believe so many bad films are made when filmmakers feel obliged to recognise the historical markers, markers that mean we follow time objectively, and thus the director ruins the chance to observe time subjectively.
One of the biggest problems with historical dramas and biopics is that they must tell the time rather than show it; must convey to the viewer either that key events take place or instead fall into dramatic convention. Determined to avoid the sprawling nature of myriad history, the film winnows itself down to a perceived key moment. If Milk and Malcolm X are examples of the sprawl; The King's Speech and The Imitation Game are predictable accounts of George VI's stutter and Turing's codebreaking as they fit into Aristotelian notions of dramatic neatness to the detriment of time's workings. The former films insist on the presence of history and fail to achieve the dramatic, while the latter pair are all too rigorous with the dramatic and fail to achieve the temporal: determined to escape the difficulty of conveying time passing, the films instead rely on dramatic principles. It gives to such films a proper structure, a word anathema to conveying time, which must find instead its own intuitive principles. Fellow French filmmaker and peer Claire Denis could have been speaking for Garrel when she was asked how she structured her film Let the Sunshine In, and replied: "I'm not American [or British]...so the word "structure"...me. I'm always intuitive with my structure....I hate the structure as a form of narration. I like ellipses. I like blocks. I like moments. I try to make films with that." (Mubi)
We have moved far away from J'entends plus la guitare but that needn't mean we have lost sight of our focus. What we want to explore is just how good a work of time Garrel's film happens to be; just how well it manages to explore time in the manner Denis suggests. Numerous screenwriting manuals still insist on putting into practise the principles Aristotle found useful to Ancient drama. As Robert McKee says in Story: "There's been no conspiracy to keep secret the truths of our art. In the twenty three centuries since Aristotle wrote The Poetics, the "secrets" of story have been as public as the library down the street." And so to Aristotle: "the plot, since it is a representation of action, is of a single [thing] so too the plot, since it is a representation of action, ought to represent a single action, and a whole one at that; and its parts (the incidents) ought to be so constructed that, when some part is transposed or removed, the whole is disrupted and disturbed." (Poetics) What McKee insists upon through Aristotle is the importance of 'structure'; the very aspect Denis sets out to deny. It is as though structure gives us drama but it doesn't reveal time. Few doubt that Chinatown is one of the most brilliantly and tightly written films of the seventies, and also more generally a great one, but it doesn't reveal time partly because it is so focused on revealing narrative. It makes sense that Garrel has spent years teaching acting as a way to supplement his film career rather than screenwriting: he is someone who wants to find in the specifics of performance the capacity to unlock time rather than utilise narrative to unlock plot. In plot, a face serves a dramatic function. Indeed it would have to do so taking into account Aristotle's ideas applied to cinema. If "some part is transposed or removed the whole is disrupted or disturbed". But what if no element is necessary but all is contingent, that various scenes could have been removed or replaced? Of course, we could end up with irrelevance and that is the risk. But one might also achieve temporal pertinence over dramatic necessity - it is the former that Garrel seems constantly to seek, and never more so, or more successfully than in J'entends plus la guitare. To suggest many years passing without dramatically relying on the devices that would usually be required to indicate such a passage, is to achieve not so much the timelessness of the abstract evident in great Greek tragedy but the temporal. If plot-oriented cinema relies strongly on causality, on narrative logic; Garrel's approach to cinema demands temporality, and thus relies on the transition. If the question in plot logic is how can you make a situation necessarily determined based on the givens thus far, a temporally-oriented cinema relies instead on time passing evocatively. If in Greek tragedy we feel things could not be otherwise, in Garrelian drama things could always be otherwise. Instead of the dramatic sense that things play out inevitably, Garrel indicates that events play out contingently, as time works upon our lives and gives it the sadness of a life lived that could, every step of the way, have been lived differently.
Turning again to the film specifically we can start by thinking about the scene where the central character Gerard (Benoit Regent) meets again with his deep love, Marianne, after some years apart. Gerard is now a father in a secure relationship; Marianne (Johanna ter Steege) is still drifting. Yet Marianne is the one to judge Gerard rather than the reverse: while Gerard has changed, Marianne has not, and cannot countenance the Gerard she sees in front of her, someone who treats her as a stranger when earlier in the film he has promised to love her for life - and into death if necessary. We have however elliptically seen the years pass for Gerard as he escapes from heroin addiction and into the arms of an earth mother Aline (Brigitte Sy) who will also give birth to his kids. Marianne has remained completely offscreen, yet Garrel conveys clearly the life she has led in his absence. There is little sense that she has been thinking about him, and probably a lot less than he has been thinking about her, a point made when Marianne and Aline meet up and Aline admits that Marianne is the great love in his mind but she is the love in reality. Yet Marianne will have been faithful to herself, to the bohemian life she insists upon, while Gerard has become the kind of man his earlier self might have detested and that Marianne undeniably does. We have not followed closely Gerard's life, and not at all Marianne's, but the scene when they meet up again works so well because the director convinces us transitionally not dramatically. He has made us believe that years have passed.
There are obviously techniques for the passing of time and none more common than the montage sequence, But a filmmaker can also use match cuts to move from one time period to another: from a character looking in the mirror as a boy and looking in a mirror again ten years later. Another might, as we have noted, to show that fashions have changed as a series of years have gone by. These are technical and pragmatic solutions to temporal problems, but what would an ontological solution look like? In technical terms, the film finds the means by which to show time passing in our examples, but there is no guarantee as a consequence that it will have done so from the perspective of being. What we have seen isn't really time change but material reality transformed, even if that materiality happens to be our own body. In the scene from the film where Gerard and Marianne meet again there is nothing in the materiality that indicates time has passed. Garrel puts it in the space between them, rather than in the material accoutrements of a life. We feel time has passed emotionally; we don't see it materially.
Cinema is a property of time so can we assume that if a filmmaker doesn't over deterministically predicate it on the material will it manifest itself as the temporal? In other words, if the filmmaker eschews the insistence of time through plot and mise-en-scene, through the mechanics of cause and effect and the overt presence of the materialistic, will time be all the more present? In this, Garrel would have learnt from Warhol, whom he met through Nico. Warhol mastered the art of the non-event as screen event. Whether it was filming a man sleeping or a building over eight hours, Warhol wondered what might happen if you left time in a pure state. The answer was nothing: whatever our admiration for Warhol's cinematic experiments, he made time pass but he didn't make it move. Now generally filmmakers have mastered the art of time moving through the plot carrying us forward from one incident to the next, usually with strong cause and consequence. But one of the problems with cause and consequence is that it contracts time; doesn't allow for expanding it into the elliptical. When for example in Hitchcock's North by Northwest Thornhill is mistaken for someone else, the film works through the story as we discover what happened. There are slow moments in Hitchcock's film, and none more so than the spray-cropping scene, but any dead time is suspenseful time. Between the dead time of Warhol where nothing happens and the mechanical time of Hitchcock where we at the very least wait for something to happen, resides a Garrelian waiting that activates the dead time without at all generating suspense.
So what is it that gets generated in Garrel's time? Perhaps a variation and extension of the privileged moments so often talked about in the context of Truffaut's films, and explored by Anette Insdorff in her Truffaut book. But while Truffaut was always close to Hitchcock, Garrel finds the privileged moments that are still closer to Warhol, without insisting on the ironic deadpan nature of the non-event. Warhol's point was that there were no privileged moments - there was reality recorded as objectively as possible. When an interviewer asks Warhol about one film he made, Warhol replied: "Well, I've never watched all of that one. I just fed film into the camera and made sure it was taking the pan shots and other shots that I wanted. In the end, though, we only used 100 feet of the film we shot, running it over and over again for eight hours. We don't edit any of the films. What I sometimes do is use two reels of the three reels we may have shot." (ASX). The interviewer adds there was a little more to it than that, but few would deny that Warhol had reduced cinema to an almost deadpan dereliction of cinematic duty: he really did seem to be leaving time to take care of itself. However, even though films like Les Hautes solitude and to a lesser degree Le berceau de cristal are indebted to the Warholian aesthetic, it was as if Garrel wanted to free time from its inertia without insisting it move into action. Most of his great films from L'enfant secret to Le vent de la nuit address this tension between nothing happening and something happening by changing the tense. Obviously, cinema is strictly agrammatical; it has no equivalent of past, present and future in the shot and must invoke it by other means. It is why film can easily confuse us in a scene wondering whether it is happening in the past or in the present, evident radically in Last Year at Marienbad; more conventionally in The Burning Plain. Yet nevertheless some films have a past tense within their relative action as other films, within their assertive action or inaction, do not. Plenty of action films may have within their action a past that helps motivate the present (whether it is Die Hard and McLean's estrangement from his family), or Keanu Reeves' anger over his dead buddy in Speed. But this is not really creating a tense within the scene, it is part of generating a motivation for a tension within it. By the same reckoning, but from the other end, we have a Warhol film with a character sleeping or eating. There is no more thought than in the action film, but while Die Hard wants the mind completely engaged in the task to hand, Sleep creates non-thought, the deliberate incapacity to think about what might be on somebody's mind. The Warholian approach is to make such speculation seem the height of naivety. Yet during the early years of Garrel's narrative cinema, in anything from L'enfant secret to Liberte la nuit, J'entends plus la guitare to Le vent de la nuit, Garrel generates very little action but doesn't expect non-thought within the non-action. This is really what we mean by giving the film a tense and which also allows us to understand an aspect of its relationship with time.
Returning to J'entends plus la guitare, we can think of the scene early in the film where the characters are having dinner outside on the terrace while staying abroad. Lola (Mireille Perrier), Gerard and Martin (Yann Collette) are eating, Marianne appears absent. With his back to us Martin quotes some lines of poetry and then can't recall the next one, gets up and goes into the apartment to find the book and the camera follows him as he gets up. As he leaves the frame, the camera focuses on Gerard looking across at Lola as he eats, before the film cuts to Lola, also chewing. She looks across at Martin who remains out of frame but the noise of him scraping his bowl is present. She eats silently and looks across; he eats noisily but we have no idea about the expression on his face. All the while we hear the sound of the sea in the distance. In the previous scene the men have been discussing love. Gerard is the idealist and Martin the pragmatist even if it is Gerard who believes in life and Martin who talks about love coming out of books and who will perhaps die with the death of the written word. In the dinner scene that follows we don't know what has been discussed, but we do sense a tension that indicates an argument could have taken place. This is speculation of course, but that doesn't mean the film isn't inviting it. Just afterwards, in what we may assume is the following morning, Gerard and Marianne argue. Marianne is jealous over Lola, and it seems Gerard has spent time with her alone. We don't want to get lost here in the psychological motivations of the characters, the games they may or not be playing with each other. What is of greater importance is that Garrel creates the space for such speculations just as Hitchcock will allow us to scheme over who might be responsible for a crime. These are not at all the same types of thought that we practise, but both are thoughts nevertheless. While in Warhol the non-action generates non-thought, Garrel's non-action creates a high degree of thinking and vital to this approach to thought (and partly why it is so antithetical to Hitchcock), is that it works with a complex and indeterminate relationship with time. Time is clearly passing, and the time that has passed is important but also elliptical. When Marianne gets annoyed with Gerard, we don't know for sure whether she has a point or is letting off steam, winning an argument or losing the plot. But this elliptical approach doesn't just generate speculation on our part, which shouldn't be underestimated as it allows us to engage complexly in characters' emotional problems; it also generates time too. There is a tense in the scene that goes beyond the scene. There is information within the characters' experience that we have not been privy to and yet which nevertheless makes clear the importance of time passing. We sense very strongly that something has happened. In Warhol's deliberately inert cinema the only time that has passed is the time in front of our eyes as Warhol muses over what happens when you really do just film a man sleeping or eating. Garrel even in Les hautes solitude and Le berceau de cristal never looked for that degree of inertia in the image, but by the eighties and into the nineties he seemed to be seeking ways in which to put time into the film without relying on clear action or categorical material items passing for chronological markers.
In an essay on Agnes Varda, Gilberto Perez quotes Walter Benjamin, with the latter believing that a working clock was inadmissible on the stage: that "astronomical time would clash with theatrical time." (Sight and Sound) Perez is discussing Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7 and notes the way everything happens within the 90 odd minutes of the film's length. It is as good an example of time as contraction, just as Garrel's is one of expanded time. Cinema, unlike theatre, frequently has clocks in it, so many that Christian Marclay devoted a 'real-time' exhibition to detailing many of them- twenty four hours of clocks in cinema, with more or less each minute in the art work matched by the particular minute in a film. If it is 12.03 in the gallery there will be a film showing the same time. Astronomical time clearly does not clash with cinematic time. The question then becomes what can the filmmaker do with this time if we accept that if theatre somehow exists outside of it - that time is a minor property of theatre and why Aristotle's unities work much better on the stage than in film - cinema exists strongly within it. What many of the greatest plays offer us is the rigour of structure as a single action leads to a series of tightly consequential outcomes, whether it is Creon refusing to allow two opposing sons equal burial rights, in Antigone, or Macbeth deciding he will kill the king. Both plays have prophets of doom: whether it is Tireseas later in Antigone telling the king what will come to pass, or the witches predicting the future at the MacBeth's beginning, the inevitability of prophecy is met with the narratively categorical. There is no need for clock time in the play; instead we have the ruthlessness of dramatic time.
Though the scriptwriting manuals insist on the importance of dramatic principles going back thousands of years and which should thus be put into practise on film, Benjamin's astute remark makes us think of how different cinema must be from theatre if clocks are as frequently present in film as they are absent on the stage. This might rest on cinema being a much more temporal medium than theatre; that the ease with which film breaks with unity of time and space creates a different set of problems that if too easily resolved by the drama don't allow much room for the cinematic. Indeed Varda says as much when she notes, speaking of many American directors, "is it a good story or a bad story, it's a wonderful story. Always that. And then what?" (Film Quarterly) No doubt Garrel would feel similarly - that the story matters less than how time and space happen to be constructed cinematically. Vital to Garrel's work is how one does this un-materialistically as possible. When we think of the scene about twenty minutes into the film where Marianne goes to pick up her son, we have a sense that some time has passed between Gerard and Marianne having returned from their trip (a few days, a year, we cannot say) and are visiting her son at her mother's. We can assume they have stayed for only a few hours (they are wearing the same clothes), and we have no idea how long it has been since Marianne has previously seen her son. There is little to suggest the passage of time even if it is possible that the early scenes take place in the last sixties, when Nico and Garrel first met, and the one with the mother well into the seventies. But there is nothing to indicate the precise amount of time, but time's passing is felt very much nevertheless.
In an article by Kent Jones, 'Sad and Proud of It', Jones quotes Garrel saying that the Garrel film just seen "was made for the cost of the Volkswagen over there." (Film Comment) If we think of how many cars usually need to be found to create a film set fifteen to twenty years prior to the production, then we can see how hard it is to make a film set in the past on the sort of budget Garrel's films possess. But this rests on the material fetishisation of the past, while Garrel seeks instead the material absence of that past. Most films set in the present are inundated with contemporaneousness - it is the world we walk around in and the world a director will film. One set in more or less present day London will have characters with long beards and cropped hair on the sides, with tattoos and rolled up jeans, possibly skinny jeans. Sexuality will be mixed, bikes for hire present and suits generally only worn for work. A film set fifty years earlier will have none of these things. Any filmmaker practising period production design will work with subtraction as readily as addition, but what will be emphasised will be what has been added not what has been taken away. One reason why Garrel can make a film for so little money is that he emphasises what has been removed, or just merely eschewed, rather than what has been bought for the production. Interested in time, rather than the contemporaneous, Garrel knows that time doesn't only work on the spaces that we occupy but on the fibre of our existence. It rests more on the long silences between a friend we haven't seen for years than in the fact that we have changed the style of our clothing. When films emphasise the latter over the former they have achieved the superficialities of transition but haven't necessarily activated the intricacies of time.
Of course, most great films that emphasise transition achieve the latter within the former: when in Scenes from a Marriage Bergman shows the passage of time as a married couple split up and semi-reunite years later Bergman will make clear time has passed in the subtly changed clothing and hairstyles of the characters. But he will more especially illustrate it in the hesitant intimacies of people very familiar with each other who nevertheless have allowed time to work on them as emotional wariness. Muscle memory will tell them that they are close; social convention will insist they are now strangers. It is the disparity between the two that creates the tension. Garrel, however, goes straight to the tension, as if wondering what happens if you work very hard to remove the material accoutrements and allow time and emotion their purest form. We can think here of the scene when Marianne phones Gerard out of the blue, a complete surprise that suggests a lengthy period of time has passed. She asks him how he is, if anyone is with him, if that is all he has to say when he doesn't seem very communicative. The scene is one shot, with Gerard's fraught face reflected in side elevation by a mirror. As they talk the silence seems to be as lengthy as the moments of chat, as if in those silences sits the time they have been apart. At the end of the phone call Marianne says she loves him very, very much and asks if she can call again. He says why not, and after they have talked the film cuts to a door opening and Gerard smiling while he opens it as Marianne's out of frame voice says 'he is in prison'. Who is in prison we might wonder, and how much time has passed, and how many phone calls have taken place before this meeting? Time has again gone by, but while we can assume in the former instance it may have been years, in the second instance it would seem to have been at most months, possibly weeks, even a few days. The film then cuts to a slow zoom on Marianne as we hear Faton Cahen's music swelling. There is no production design or costume design to the temporal dimension, no sense in which someone beyond Garrel, the actors and his co-writers (Marc Cholodenko and Jean-Francois Goyet) has dictated time's workings.
This temporal purity coincides with a cinema of austerity, evident in Garrel's comment about the price of a Volkswagon. But out of this austerity comes an entire politics as well as an aesthetics. It is all very well a filmmaker saying they can make films cheaply on digital cameras, but let us call this technical pragmatism versus Garrel's formal dogmatism. Garrel has always refused to film digitally: "A master of post-Nouvelle Vague French cinema, director Philippe Garrel is well known for stubbornly sticking to 35mm in a digital world." says Time Out. He usually films only one take after much rehearsal, which keeps the films cheap - a policy he practised long before most filmmakers moved away from analogue but one which has been very useful in allowing him to keep using film. "If I didn't have the one-take method, I could have lost that argument." (Filmmaker Magazine) But more importantly it is Garrel's aesthetic dogmatism that is vital to keeping films cheap. He offers an approach that insists a filmmaker can cover vast periods of time without relying on the money which registers these transitions. A production designer is usually a man or woman with a budget and if you read interviews with them money is often brought up. "The design budget was $1,250,000 and the sets were about $7 million when fitted with all the special mechanical effects of the Cryoprison" says David L. Snyder, speaking of Demolition Man in We Are Cult. Talking of the forties set film Gangster Squad, Maher Ahmad says, "the budget always influences what you can do in terms of renting locations. We had a very large location department because we had to kind of scour the entire city of Los Angeles to find the best places to shoot a period movie. It's much more complicated than when you're doing a movie that is set in present day." (Pushing Pixels) Garrel's idiosyncratic relationship with time means he can suggest possibilities in the historical relationship with mise-en-scene; he can make films for budgets not much higher than the price of a car instead of having to rent dozens of them to capture the period. The past Garrel usually deals with is not historical in the way we usually couch it - but more la mode retro as the French would say. But retro cinema is no less fetishistically materialistic than a film set in the 18th century, evident in anything from Far from Heaven to Boogie Nights, The Ice Storm to The Master. The costume designer on the latter (as well as Boogie Nights), Mark Bridges, noted "We copied real pants from the period. It's what really makes it look period because there's nothing like that today. And I look at some of these movies that were made in the late 30s and 40s and it is unbelievable how high [these pants are], the space between the armpit and the top of the waist is like 6 inches. [laughs] And I actually think at the time it was for modesty's sake, because the higher the pants, the more they drape away from your body at the genital area and with pleats and everything it just makes it really full there. So you would never see any outline of anyone's genitals." (Cigarettes and Red Vines) This is detail indeed and we needn't decry it - The Master director Paul Thomas Anderson is a very fine filmmaker of fetishistic detail, a point he more directly addresses of course in The Phantom Thread. Yet Anderson's films cost money, 35 million dollars each for The Phantom Thread and The Master. Garrel's work suggests a film can indicate the temporally past without spending a fortune on recreating it if one can put the time very directly into the drama and not especially in the mise-en-scene. This is budgetry constraint as formal innovation.
But Garrel also has a lot to teach other filmmakers about transitions themselves. A director can go to great lengths to show that a few years have passed by changing the costumes, the cars and the hairstyles, but the feelings remain inert - it is as though the characters have seen each other only a few hours before. The assumptions rests on the idea that if the director gets the external factors right, the feelings will take care of themselves. Garrel reverses this completely by indicating that if the emotional intensity is registered people will care little for the material detail next to the emotional one. A great example of this passage of time with no hint of material temporality comes in a scene half way through the film when Martin sees Gerard on the metro. Gerard steps out of the carriage and we hear offscreen a voice call him and asking how he is. Gerard replies that Marianne has come back but what we see in his face is a man lost to the world and in his own. As they chat for a moment it is clear they haven't seen each other for months, though it seems less likely it has been years, yet certainly it is more than a few weeks. The time past is both categorical and ambiguous: time has passed enough for these close friends to have a mildly awkward moment, but not so much that a big display needs to be made of it. We can infer that since Marianne has come back, Gerard has chiefly spent his time with her and that now he is on heroin. We know this because the previous scene has shown Marianne introducing Gerard to the drug, and we can assume a reasonable passage of time (a few weeks, perhaps several months) have passed from the earlier scene to the one on the metro, perhaps around twice that or more since he last saw Martin. We say this with no interest in working out as precisely as we can how long has past; more to indicate just how good Garrel is on playing up emotional temporality without feeling under any obligation to register its material equivalent. Though we can date the last third of the film based on the baby's birth and the age he attains shortly before the conclusion (six and a half months), the whole film exists on a plane of time that isn't so much objective or subjective, isn't so much mechanistic or vitalist, registered on the clock versus on our consciousness, but based on emotional time.
This allows the film to conclude with an emotional force that is distinct from its material one, especially very near the end of the film when Gerard goes to Germany and visits Marianne's grave. Garrel has said "in the beginning I wanted the film to be a trip to Nico's tomb in Berlin, with the whole story constructed in flashback. I later gave up the idea... so I said to myself that I wanted to talk only about the phase when a person enters their forties. This is a moment he swings between the state of being a young man and a man. J'entends plus la guitare tells the story of the sentimental education of a particular generation. (Image-Mouvement) Instead of an elliptically analeptic account of grief, Garrel instead gives us a film that suggests chasms in continuous time, holes in a life that we the viewer fill less with the cause and consequence of reason than with the nuance of the emotional. If for example, a film insists on showing us a man pointing a gun and a moment later another man falling down, we infer that the former has shot the latter even if we later found at that someone else has done the deed. This is the logic of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and many a film will ask us to make the 'wrong' inference by reading film correctly. More complexly, a director whom Garrel shares a few similarities, Robert Bresson, will ask us to make sense of a situation that we do not see in its entirety, even if we are in no doubt as to what has happened - evident with the central character's suicide at the beginning of A Gentle Creature. Garrel asks to infer constantly, but it is as though intuit might be a better word than infer, giving to our reasoning faculties an emotional aspect. When Aline informs him that Marianne is dead, Gerard is beside himself, as if he can't get to the body quickly enough. But though the next scene shows his wife seeing him off on the train, when we see him in Germany as the film cuts from the train leaving and the wife walking out of the frame in the other direction, he is going to the graveside. Has he made it for the funeral, was he invited, did he dawdle over the news, placating a wife who doesn't look too happy that he is going? (As Aline walks away we see in the background numerous people on the train and the platform waving at each other; Aline isn't even looking in the train's direction.) We cannot know, but we might suspect that a week or two has passed even if the cuts suggest that he hears she has died and goes straight to Germany. But the elliptical nature of Garrel's cinema means that we can make intuitions rather than inferences, as if the more we think about it the more we understand the nuances involved. Garrel doesn't ask us to read the image carefully (as in Bresson) or to read the image again (as in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), but to have an ongoing intuitive relationship with the film so that we find ourselves feeling that great swathes of time have passed without at all seeing it.
When Gerard goes to Marianne's grave there is potentially a double ellipses: the time that has passed between him hearing the news and also the recognition of time that has passed over the years. So often in the film we can't easily know the details of the characters lives based on the clock, but if J'entends plus la guitare moves us immensely it is because the film, more than most, has taught us that we don't need to do so. In Matter and Memory that key vitalist, Henri Bergson, notes that "learned memories are more useful, they are more remarked. And as the acquisition of these memories by a repetition of the same effort resembles the well-known process of habit, we prefer to set this kind of memory, and to see in spontaneous recollection only the same phenomenon in a nascent state, the beginning of a lesson learned by heart." Cinema can often seem like habit, a series of codes and conventions that we respond to and perhaps one reason why genre has been so central to the development of film. But within the habitual memories that allow us to follow film and its developments, its character types and its indebtedness to other art forms (from shot/counter shots, establishing shots, reaction shots and so on; the fallen woman, the femme fatale, the world-weary detective, the long-suffering husband) we have also the myriad memories from actual exustence which cinema, as a medium that draws upon life as pro-filmic event, more than any other art form allows. If film has often been viewed as a lowly art form it rests on those conventions and types close to the learned memory Bergson invokes. But film is also a machine that doesn't only provoke our thoughts through the narratives it tells, but invokes them too through the images it creates. Garrel by having less interest than many in our learned responses, and more interest than most in the memories that film can invoke in the absences it creates, allows time in film a properly complex place. Garrel's is thus often a cinema of astonishingly elliptical invocation.
© Tony McKibbin