Le vent de la nuit
Suicide and Silence
Is Le vent de la nuit a film from the Beyond? Has the nauseous state we see in so many films in a sort of cinema of nausea (Le Mepris, Kings of the Road, The Passenger, The Red Desert, Gertrud, Voyage to Italy, Five Easy Pieces) reached such a stage of development, such a deadened position on the state of things in the characters here, that the film plays like an inversion of Pliny's curious claim that you should "model your own peace of mind on your experience before birth?" For in Philippe Garrel's film it is more as if the two aging main characters, especially Serge (Daniel Duval), and to some degree Helene (Catherine Deneuve), base their lack of peace of mind on a position contemplating their own death. For Serge this is partly because, as he says, he lives "in the world as it was and not how it is"; for Helene it's as though she's never found a purposeful place for herself in the world. At one stage she talks about her baby's death in childbirth, and that now she can't have kids. At another, she writes in her notebook that taking a young lover is a last chance at something, though she doesn't quite know what. If Serge half-lives in a world that's no longer meaningful, no longer capable of generating the purposefulness he felt in May 68 and the world of possible revolution, then at least he has a past with which to compare his despairing present - that has even created his despairing present. But Helene we feel lives in a world that's never quite become the world she wanted to live in. There is, we could say, at least a subjunctive life she hasn't yet lived, thus perhaps allowing for a degree of hope within her disillusionment, but Serge has already lived the finest days of his life, and, with his wife having committed suicide years before, he now yearns for death.
Thus the characters' beyondness functions differently. Serge is merely waiting to die, yet Helene is desperately waiting to live. If she half-heartedly attempts suicide in the film it seems because she feels the futility of her efforts to live meaningfully. She's just made the radical decision to take her young lover to meet her husband, and the husband charms the young man, Paul (Xavier Beauvois) with stories of the writer Antoine Blondin, whilst Helene remains silent. Eventually she breaks a glass and slits open her wrist, and yet even here we could say she doesn't want to die, she simply wants to up the ante, live at a higher pitch even if it's a pitch that moves her towards death. Her beyondness isn't really beyondness at all. Though Paul says to Serge that he thinks she's lost in some way, that she's out of reach and on the side of death, this is offered with a degree of filmic irony. Paul doesn't know, but we do, that Serge (who has not yet met Helene as this point in the film) is rather further along the line of self-annihilation, and that Helene believes in life and that Paul was one of her opportunities to live it.
So what's central to the film is two nauseous ways in which the notion of death hangs over us. Suicide, as we so often see in the loosely existential tradition the 1999 Le vent de la nuit follows in, is present but also often peripheral. There's Steiner's suicide in La Dolce Vita, the friend's suicide in Before the Revolution, Robert's half-hearted suicide attempt in Kings of the Road and maybe Charles Lewington's desperate attempt to show how much Katherine means to him in Katherine's recollection in Voyage to Italy. But Garrel, who reckons 'suicide is the radical decision exemplified', wants to put the suicidal desire at the very heart of his film. He also, though, wants to look at it from two angles: from the side of a beyondness that has lived, and from a beyondness that hasn't ever quite managed to feel alive. If generally the nauseous film (with the possible exception of Louis Malle's 1963 meditation Le Feu Follet) views suicide as a hovering option rather than an immediate goal, this is because to too readily decide allows for a decision to be made, and central to nausea is the incapacity to act in the face of choice. As Sartre says in Nausea, "I get up, my cold shirt is sticking to my flesh, I go out. Why? Well, because I have no reason for not going out either."
But Garrel does something very interesting here concerning the paralysis in Serge's case. Serge certainly wants to die, but the nauseousness isn't so much in the face of the choices available, so much as in the hermeneutic significance of his death, and the feelings he possesses towards the tenderness required for self-annihilation. Serge we sense is a man not without success and probably even with a degree of fame. He's an architect, and we might surmise one given to creative architecture over functional work. At the beginning of the film he's present at a good friend's exhibition of a new piece of sculpture, and art student Paul, who's also present, goes on to ask if he could work as Serge's assistant. There are clear hints then that Serge isn't a journeyman technician but something more. How much more of course we never find out - Garrel's is a suggestive work, the sort of film demanding what Paul Coates once described as "speculative probing", so we have to work our way into the texture of the film and build meaning out of Garrel's gaps. But if we assume Serge has achieved a degree of social recognition, whether that happens to be in his architectural work, his position as an ex-sixties radical or the combination, it hints at a death that wouldn't quite be private but would also possess a public aspect. It would be an interpretable action. Obviously any suicide carries this hermeneutic element as family and friends ask why, but if there's a public aspect to the figure, that hermeneutic carries much wider connotations. Here these connotations are alluded to before the event, as young Paul, in two journeys with Serge - one from Naples to Paris; another from Paris to Berlin and back - asks him questions about his past. Paul so obviously places him into an epoch, that Serge and sixty eight are interconnected. But then the question one might ask of oneself is, what will my death mean - will it be taken as suicide as failure, will it be singularly perceived as a suicide following one's own wife's death? When Lacan says that we seek a state of non-signification, we can see that even in taking one's own life this is impossible, and even more so if there's a public side to that life.
And so it's as though to commit the deed, Serge must get in touch with a tenderness inside him, must try and find not the reasons why he would want to die, with the permeating public element, but a tenderness that will allow him to die. Early in the film he phones his brother to say he's about to take his own life, but Paul disturbs him in the evening and spills his deadly potion. Late in the film Serge sleeps with Helene, and though they have a fine, tender evening, it seems to allow Serge, after leaving her, to go off and take his own life. In the nauseous film, lovemaking often functions as an attempt at non-signification, as opposed to the Hollywood notion of increased, purposeful signification. When Raymond Bellour once suggested the Hollywood film is a machine for marriage, he was pinpointing the way Hollywood creates purposeful relationships moving the characters towards meaningful lives out of the union. This is rarely the case in nauseous cinema, where union carries a much more ambiguous status. For the men it is often only a moment of tenderness, a moment of tenderness towards further despair, as if they realise their lives are full with empty signification and making love, or having an affectionate moment with a woman, offers a half-hearted attempt at escaping that network of meaning, but nothing more. We see it for example in Five Easy Pieces, Last Tango in Paris, The Passenger andKings of the Road. When in Five Easy Pieces Bobby makes love to his brother's wife, he doesn't want to cuckold his brother, especially, it's just the most meaningful thing he can do with the woman who is capable of generating a very small amount of meaning in his existence. Obviously it can't go anywhere - how can he love anybody else when he doesn't love himself, his new lover says. In Last Tango in Paris, Paul likes the idea of no names and an empty flat as he pursues this attempt at non-signification. Love and sex here pursue a social meaninglessness for a personal meaningfulness as the characters move towards non-signification.
It could be said though that a state of not so much non-signification, but, if you like, insignificance, has been Helene's lot for much of her life. When at one stage during the conversation between Paul and her husband, her husband says Blondin couldn't promise his wife luxuries but she would at least get to meet his friends, is there a hint that he's talking about his own and his wife's life? Again Garrel keeps things elliptical, but there's this idea as her husband immediately draws Paul into his conversation, that the husband is a charismatic, popular bon vivant who's charmed many people in the past, whilst Helene's had to be content with a more passive role. If Serge needs a state of tenderness in which to die, does Helene not need this tenderness, yet a significant tenderness, to live?
When Helene and Serge first meet in a restaurant late in the film, there's a moment of recognition on each's face to suggest they know each other. Garrel has said in a Cahiers du Cinema interview this clearly isn't the case, yet we could say just as Hollywood has what is called the meeting cute scene, where potential lovers meet in a moment of carefully scripted contingency, so nauseous cinema has its equivalent. When Pauline Kael chastised Antonioni for script ineptitude in Zabriskie Point, she was refusing to accept, as she so often would, a type of cinema based not on dramatic reasoning, but existential possibility. In Antonioni's film one of the leading characters is in a plane, the other in the car. Neither party can possibly know who is in the plane and who is in the car, so Kael says it's essentially a car which falls in love with a plane, not two young people falling for each other. Kael has a point, but she also misses a bigger one: which concerns defying plot reasoning for a kind of spiritual deductiveness, for a curious act of faith. It is a deductiveness that might say: I don't know who's in the car, but anybody who is taking off into Death Valley must be of potential and huge interest. There is a similar type of absurdity in much of Angelopoulos's work, and for example in The Suspended Step of the Stork. Here the investigatory journalist at the film's centre and a refugee about to be married, immediately fall in love. The scene is wordless and the couple end up in bed together half an hour later in a scene that stretches plausibility but fits neatly into existential cinema, one that believes each can give the other person exactly what they need from the spiritual depths. Why bother with reasoning and social skills when what's needed can't be found in either area? It is this type of interaction that seems to be taking place as Helene and Serge eat in the restaurant and then immediately afterwards take a hotel room and make-love.
Garrel gives us a scene of, if you like, non-signification meeting insignificance. Serge and Helene meet on a parity that superficially bears no resemblance but that on another level is absolutely equivalent. The dissimilarity rests partly on social credence, and especially the two characters' relationship to Paul. Helene's been waiting more or less on Paul's doorstep for hours as he and Serge return from their Berlin trip. Paul seems at this stage of the film much keener to spend time with Serge than with Helene, partly because he credits to Serge what he sees is absent from Helene - unaware of Serge's own desire to end his life. So whilst Serge's position here is one of strength - he's in complete control of the friendship with Paul - Helene's is one of immense weakness. Yet Serge clearly has far more interest in getting in touch with somebody's weaknesses than a superficial ego strength Paul offers as the latter clearly admires him but does not understand him; and so it is to Helene's vulnerability that Serge is drawn.
Now Garrel has always been a filmmaker attracted to a certain type of vulnerability, a vulnerability where the ego recedes and the being hovers, as though commenting on the flimsiness of social expectation and its demands. Frequently the question Garrel's work asks is where does being reside, and so nausea manifests itself in this place between the ego and the self. Sometimes this is barely addressed, on occasion swamps the film's theme, or is sometimes tenuously present. In the former instance we may think of La naissance de l'amour, where writer Jean-Pierre Leaud and director Lou Castel are middle-aged men shambolically living a life we could call procrastinatingly ineffective or see them as people just constantly trying to make sense of their emotional needs. If some would say Garrel's a navel gazing director, it would be better to say he's a director interested in characters for whom the self isn't given but constantly negotiates, or refuses to negotiate, or fails to negotiate, with societal necessity. In La Naissance there seems to be a tenderness in the two men's friendship that's greater and more meaningful than the work they do and the relationships and families they have. If we view the film from our own sense of social necessity then sure the film will look like an exercise in navel-gazing. But that would be to misconstrue Garrel's position, which is inside the character's being. When he films from a position outside of the character - as he does with Paul in Le vent de la nuit, as he does with the young director central character in Sauvage innocence - it is because the characters themselves are more given to egotism than selfness. Their relationship with themselves is less about making sense of their feelings, than negotiating their status in the world.
Both Paul and the director possess a kind of existential gaucheness which means they can't really see beyond their social self, and thus miss something fundamental in others: be that Serge's suicidal need, or the director's girlfriend's move towards heroin addiction. It is inSauvage innocence that Garrel allows the ego/self issue to swamp the film's theme, with the young director believing he can separate one from the other by making a film about heroin addiction whilst involving himself in a drugs run to fund the very film. Initially we could see this as pat irony, but better to see it as a problem of self and ego. If we make a decision that advances the ego but denies the self, then the bad faith won't lie in the action - in the bad faith say of shipping drugs to pay for your anti-drugs film - it lies much more in the relationship one has with oneself. If you sell drugs, then you must be aware that in this small sacrifice there is a bigger gain for the self: that the amplified comprehension of your art work will propose an ethos bigger and more complete than your one small sacrifice. But this isn't what happens in Sauvage Innocence. The director becomes increasingly involved in the specifics of the work and loses sight of the ethos behind it. Originally his intention was to make a work that was in memorium to an ex who herself died of drugs, but such is his preoccupation with his own artistic egotism, he fails to see his new girlfriend, whom he's cast in the role of the ex, going the way of the ex. The work lacks the requisite tenderness, the self retreats and the egotism of the work takes over to the detriment of those tender feelings that Garrel finds essential to the self.
Helene and Serge possess these feelings, so Garrel risks sacrificing social and narrative convention by allowing them to go off and sleep together with no scenes of dramatic justification as to why they would so. They are characters attending to the needs of the soul. They aren't so much 'meeting cute', in romantic comedy terms, 'but meeting deep' - this is an elective affinity that no social coding can readily explain or understand.
But there is also the tenuous issue of self and ego we mentioned above, with the ego so disembodied that there are just shards of self as if located in the memories we have of others. It is this that is central to Garrel's mid-seventies neo-decadent work, Le Berceau de cristal, with Nico sitting, reading and singing, whilst occasionally we're given scenes of others - of Anita Pallenberg shooting up, Dominique Sanda coyly looking into the camera - in moments whose meaning we can't quite place. They're not objective flashbacks, nor necessarily moments of recollection, and Garrel films these scenes with a disembodiment that suggests if one's suicidal it might be that these moments no longer belong to us, that they're lost in time because of the lack of a connective tissue that makes events our own. If we can claim at all that the film has a psychological purpose (and many would maybe prefer to claim it didn't - that it's an experimental work) it lies in looking at a character for whom a certain social connectedness has given way to a personal ill-being. From a social ill-being to a personal ill-being often seems the best of all possible worlds in the Garrelian landscape. Serge and Helene possess this ill-being, a bleak mid-winter affinity.
It is of course an ill-being that peppers Garrel's work, but with it there can be good and bad faith: a nauseousness within that ill-being. To not confront one's ill-being, as in the case of Paul and the director, is to be oblivious. Better Garrel suggests to confront it even if it results in one's own possible demise - as in Le Berceau de Cristal and Le vent de la nuit. When for example Helene takes Paul back to meet her husband, she does so it seems out of some egotistical desire - out of ill-being as bad faith - that Garrel observes though not from her ego, but from the self that's confronted as the situation backfires. Weakness in Garrel is often a move towards a strange strength and strength often a greater weakness, the obliviousness we mentioned above. Helene's weak to take her boyfriend up to meet her husband, but she could achieve a certain strength from her night with Serge, based as it is on a mutual ill-being. Only selves have a justifiable place in Garrel's work, and his interest is in showing how they develop even if it is frequently towards a death drive. Unless the life force can be positively presented through the self, then why bother living at all? When Paul keeps impressing upon Serge how impressed he is by the sixties generation, this isn't likely to give Serge reasons for staying alive, but still more to take his own life. Paul we could say helps suicide Serge, to borrow Artaud's term for society's destruction of Van Gogh, and the same might be said of Paul in relation to Helene. When the self is fighting for reasons to stay alive, and can find these reasons only in intense communication, whilst being constantly confronted by the general assumptions of an ego culture, death really does seem like 'the radical decision exemplified.'
Now of course vital to cinematic nausea is how does one make nausea felt not just diegetically but non-diegetically also. And, as we can see in other loosely nauseous film like Le Mepris and Kings of the Road, filmmakers could work with a nauseous problematic while escaping it non-diegetically, by accepting the failure of their characters but containing this failure within the aesthetic success of the art work. They might show characters unable to choose, but by finding new forms for feeling, the filmmakers don't only escape the nausea of social indecision, but arrive at a deeper and original decisiveness. Yet Garrel's position is not quite the aesthetic object of optimism that we believe Godard and Wenders weaved out of the pessimistic diegesis in Le Mepris and Kings of the Road respectively. There the filmmakers showed pessimism in the story but asked us also to see a certain type of optimism within the film if not quite within the characters. Whether it happened to be the beautiful closing shot of Le Mepris, or the relationship with fading technologies in Kings of the Road: in the existence of nature or the nurturing of technology. No, it's almost as though Le vent de la nuit is best viewed as a work advocating suicide, and advocating it as a place of immense tenderness against a world constantly hardening around us. Thus when we mentioned the film's beyondness at the beginning of the piece, it's a beyondness that accepts a 'suicidal tenderness' as a justifiable place in which to place one's being.
"To philosophise is to learn how to die", Simone Weil once said, but Weil, who seemed to comprehend the feelings of empathic tenderness better than most, could have added that wishing to die is the desire for tenderness. If we look at the many scenes of lovemaking in nauseous cinema - in Five Easy Pieces, The Passenger, in Last Tango in Paris, in Red Desert, in The Bee Keeper, Hiroshima mon Amour - then we see how it works like an ontological pit stop for characters whose being has been sapped by life. Whether this will move them towards life or death isn't really the issue: does it move them towards greater tenderness, and in Garrel's case one that contains much silence? The characters may retain the nausea but that nauseousness doesn't make them colder human beings, but gives them a degree of warmth within their coldness: a certain quiet sense of being. If Garrel's film works beyond itself, if it possesses a possible optimism from its apparent extreme pessimism, it lies in the way it itself tries to generate this tenderness within coldness.
We could say that when Serge and Helene make love, Serge briefly lives life as it was and that it generally no longer is, and Helene lives briefly the possible life she's never lived. This is Garrel's tenderness within coldness - that the world has been made cold and that we're constantly and slowly being suicided - but we must try and find moments of warmth within it. Garrel is a filmmaker who generally films this world coldly, with an aesthetic of non-identification, as though cinema's spent too much of its time creating false warmth through reaction shots, close-ups and identificatory music. Garrel rejects the reaction shot as it is usually perceived: it is perhaps the most social shot in cinema, frequently used to allow us a social place within the film, so that when a character's action is dumb, or amusing, or untoward, a cutaway can lead us to the right response. Sometimes, of course, a filmmaker will use this device to comment on the ruthless judgementalism of society, as Rainer Werner Fassbinder brilliantly does in anything from Fear of Fear to Fear Eats the Soul. Fear here is a social fear, a fear of the faux pas, of the shameful action, and thus Fassbinder uses the shot within its conventionality, but nevertheless turns the shot inside out. Garrel's cutaways have nothing to do with the socializing reaction shot, though, in its conventional or its radical form, and instead he offers a strange troublesomeness.
In some ways it resembles what critics have called the pillow shot, exemplified in Ozu's work. Ozu's pillow shots, though, are somehow containing, they suggest the world is bigger than the foibles presented, but not troublesomely so. Garrel plays up this troublesomeness, even in one scene utilising a bubble-gum pop song playing on a television in a caf. After Paul and Serge talk, the camera cuts to the song and we're left not reassured by the music but disconcerted by it. The combination of pop music and the unmotivated cutaway creates an ambiguity hinting at a world without contained purpose or meaning.
Yet Garrel's use of non-diegetic music is often meaningful. Though some critics claim it's melodramatic and insistent (see Roy Armes' French Cinema), it nevertheless usually functions antithetically to the ambiguous emptiness of Garrel's cutaways. But in each instance Garrel defies the conventional. If the reaction shot sutures the viewer into a film's social fabric, so the music intends the same effect. In each instance we're advised how we should respond to the scene. This doesn't happen in Garrel. The reaction shot suggests there is no reaction, no containment for the aesthetic vision, and yet the music suggests the possibility of an empathic feeling. Not the social feeling where the music unites the audience (maybe most obviously mastered by a composer like John Williams in Star Warsand in a number of Spielberg films), but instead empathises tenderly with a character's inexplicability. Garrel works on a fellow feeling that is simultaneously alienating and unifying. It's alienating from the perspective of the normative, where the behaviour may seem absurd, evidenced for example in the scene where Helene slits her wrist and immediately afterwards John Cale's music keys us into Helene's state. Had the music started moments earlier, just as Helene slits her wrists, this may still have remained normative, normal in the sense that we could respond to the shocking aspect of the situation. But that's not what Garrel asks - he wants us to respond not with a normative response of shock, but the 'abnormal' response of the suicidal state.
We could say this is a singular empathy, as though Garrel's project finally isn't to say life is futile, but more that society is meaningless, and it is Garrel's purpose to show up its meaninglessness aesthetically. By refusing the conventional reaction shot or universalizing music, Garrel - like many another filmmaker in nauseous cinema - looks to work against both society and the conventional film language that can come out of social expectation. Thus when David Bordwell brings together the Straubs, Idrissa Ouedraogo and Hollywood filmmakers to suggest the shot-reaction-shot is a convention and thus easy to comprehend, he draws parallels with society and film. But if this move towards convention is present on occasion in even the most radical of filmmakers like the Straubs, then surely it's still better to explore how the radical filmmakers deviate, and where maybe a degree of convention is held onto for no better reason than that the filmmaker wants to work towards a new society through a new technique, but will allow a small number of conventional techniques to help take him or her there.
Yet Garrel unlike the Straubs finally doesn't seem like a filmmaker who wants to change society. He's more a filmmaker who wants to articulate his vision almost from a position of utter loneliness. It's this quality Olivier Assayas pinpointed in an interview with Fergus Daly in Film West when he said "Garrel's films are like messages in a bottle". Garrel's deviations from the norm don't really require the radical theoretical framework of the Straubs; and instead work much more from autobiographical elements, from a certain inner state over an external demand. Garrel once said working with a scriptwriter allowed him to escape from being too hermitic and made him feel comfortable about speaking about himself. Now here we could invoke Pier Paolo Pasolini's notion of free indirect point of view and the filmmaker's monstrous subjectivity. But we would have to acknowledge that Pasolini makes clear in a 'Cinema of Poetry' that generally this monstrous subjectivity - this newfound freedom in sixties cinema that can move away from the immediate demands of the story towards a filmmaker's phenomenological originality - is first and foremost an aesthetic issue. It would manifest itself in a shot that would break with convention. Though Pasolini talks specifically about the camera, in Garrel we could say it's most insistently present in the music. But even so this isn't what we mean by Garrel's 'monstrousness'. Garrel's is much more a genuinely monstrous 'autobiographical' subjectivity, where he places his being, the events of his life, and his relationships at the core of the film.
Of course many believe this type of critical analysis is worthless, that the author's life is irrelevant to an explication of the text. Yet if critics are still willing to accept analysis on the basis of society, of symbolism, or for example the connections between Godard's Le Mepris and Homer's The Odyssey, or the importance of Fritz Lang's presence in Le Meprisand his referenced presence in Kings of the Road, can't we speculatively bring together a filmmaker's life and his work? This isn't to make the work authenticating (as if autobiography is more true than non-autobiography) but it is to make it speculatively rich. So for example, just as we can talk about the macro-significance of, say the memorial museum in Hiroshima in Hiroshima mon Amour, so we can here talk of the micro-significance of Garrel's former lover, Nico's grave in the scene where Serge and Paul go to Berlin. Certainly central to Hiroshima mon Amour is our awareness of World War II and Hiroshima, and these events are macro-significant to the narrative, just as the notion of Nazi Germany and post-war American influence on Germany are central to Kings of the Road. It's as though Garrel though is always looking to undermine the macro-significant and find the micro-significant, so that even an event like 1968 becomes allusively present. This is partly because May 68 is culturally minor next to WWII - it's almost a subjunctive rather than an actual event, an event that never quite took place and therein lies for many French people the melancholy.
But Garrel wants to impress on us the micro-significant events in a life and thus draws on '68 as no more than a memory fragment, a fragment of pain perhaps not too different from that we suggest is present in Nico's character in Le berceau de cristal. To make the event too central (as Bertolucci would do with The Dreamers), or too universal (WWII say), would mitigate the private nature of the pain. What matters seems less the political and social nature of the situation than the private feeling. It's this the husband is getting at when he says Blondin was right-wing but was fascinated by the individual - everybody interested him, but in a very individualising manner. For Garrel, then, '68 isn't first and foremost a left-wing political event, but a fragmentary recollection of past experience as present pain. This is partly why Garrel returns not to the events of '68 as the film follows Serge travelling literally through the geography of his past, but 'posthumous' events, as he returns to the small resort where he hung out after '68, as he visits his wife's grave in Berlin. We could say Garrel is asking how do we make our lives micro-meaningful against the onslaught of impersonality. He is willing to utilise his biography, his life with Nico for example, and her grave in Berlin, as part of this micro-meaning.
Now certainly Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault's twin-pronged attack on authorship proved of immense and justifiable import, but Garrel is a filmmaker who wants to return the author to centre stage. It's the need to resurrect the author not as the motivating purpose generating a text, a film, an art work, and thus a reflection of genius, but much more the personal as a place of tenderness. When Barthes writes that the author is killed the moment he starts writing, the moment he becomes part of the wider cultural world, there's a triumphalism of which Garrel might despair. Garrel's take on making art resembles in some aspects Kafka's the way Ivan Klima sees it in Love and Garbage, and the way Kafka himself would describe it. In Klima's book Kafka had no interest in producing literature; he merely had a need obsessively to reveal, and this revelation often required abstraction that resulted in literature. As he once proposed, "It sometimes seems to me that the nature of art in general; the existence of art, is explicable solely in terms of such 'strategic considerations', of making possible the exchange of truthful words from person to person." This is similar to Garrel's sense of cinematic necessity.
Now for all Foucault's proclamations of the death of the author and his admirer's respect for this demolition job on the literary genius, Foucault also, elsewhere, allows for its return in a more tentative, revealing and creative way when he critiques Sartre in passages in the essay and interview collection Ethics, talking of the importance of "creating oneself as a work of art" and also when he writes about the Greek's need to show oneself and explore oneself. "In the philosophical tradition inaugurated by Stoicism, askesis [ascetic] means not renunciation but the progressive consideration of self, or mastery over oneself, obtained not through the renunciation of reality but through the acquisition and assimilation of truth." It is this combination Garrel tries to bring out in his work, as he reveals himself but through a constrained aesthetic - an ascetic aesthetic.
First of all Garrel rejects many cinematic conventions because they're too readily part of the givens of mainstream form, they too readily lead us to hold to our reactions, without generating new ones. Thus Garrel will use music to generate not an instant reaction, but a curious, permeating affection - an emotional response that requires not our immediate empathy but an emotional comprehension of the characters' state. Whether this be in the form of John Cale's music playing moments after Helene has slit her wrists, the camera in long shot viewing Jean-Pierre Leaud and Lou Castel walking along the street silently in La naissance de l'amour to a score that alludes to both characters' melancholia, or the moments before Helene cuts herself as she silently observes her husband and lover talking, Garrel asks us to comprehend their beyondness, their emotional state that is somehow beyond conventional living. It might, finally, be too much to say Garrel films from a suicidal beyond; but it is fair to suggest that within the lives we're expected to lead it is understandable that some choose not to continue their existence, and Garrel offers such a position up as a meaningful possibility. When Foucalt says in an interview in Ethicsthat in Europe "we don't have a culture of silence; we don't have a culture of suicide either", Garrel is one of those filmmakers working in a nauseous cinematic tradition capable of indicating such a world of both silence and suicide. There may be, as with many nauseous films, a pessimism of content, but there is also an optimism of possibility. Garrel's work contains within it a sensitivity towards suicide and silence, and finds a form in which to contain them.
© Tony McKibbin