Signifiers of Tenderness
The French critic Serge Daney once said that Philippe Garrel's is not an individualizing cinema, even though at the same time his work is hardly socializing either. Is it between the individual and the social where this 'cult' filmmaker, this post Nouvelle vaguedirector's work resides? First of all it might be useful to say what individualizing and social cinema would look like, and see how Garrel's latest, monochrome film, Les AmantsRguliers/Regular Lovers doesn't so much work hard to escape such approaches, as possess some fundamentally necessary eschewal that goes far beyond the dichotomies of the individual and the social.
Maybe an individualizing cinema would contain a character by their drives, by their goals, and this could lead to an egoistic narrative of self-defining achievement, as in mainstream films like Good Will Hunting and Erin Brockovich. Or it could lead to a certain intimate alienation present, say, in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samoura, where a man can't quite accept any terms other than those of chilly isolation. A socializing cinema would be a cinema perhaps of social progress, or social conviviality, the necessary belligerence of The Battle of Algiers at one extreme, of The Big Chill and the Return of the Secaucus Seven at the other. These are loose generalisations made only to try and find the singularity of Garrel's work, and see why his films are wonderful example of 'existential solitude', as Adrian Martin once casually suggested; but of course an existential solitude that has nothing to do with the Melvillian. It is instead a sense of solitude that can never really allow the person be alone. For the characters in Garrel films, as we shall see, haven't quite the inner resources for a solitary life; but nor do they possess the belief in social norms to progress through a narrative of achievement, as in many an individualizing film. And nor do they possess, for that matter, the political beliefs, or the conventional social skills, for a cinema of socialization. Instead they are often curiously stranded; between the aridly lonely and the stickily attached.
Garrel's films, then, are, in the very best sense of the term, about relationships. Sometimes these are relationships with the living (J'entends plus la guitare and La Naissance de l'amour) sometimes with the absent (Le berceau de cristal), and sometimes with the dead (Serge's longing for his late wife in Le vent de la nuit). They are about relationships not in the problematic counselling sense of the term, obviously, but in the horribly impossible, paradoxically demanding sense. The relationships in Garrel's films cannot be resolved; nor can they even be dissolved. So often the dissolution is not of the event, the emotional experience, the relationship, but of the self: frequently Garrel focuses on drug addiction and personal dissolution as his characters can't quite find the wherewithal to get on with their lives.
This is no more than a way of trying to make sense of Garrel's latest film. For some it is a riposte to Bertolucci's The Dreamers, another film setting itself around the events of May '68 and its immediate aftermath; that moment in time when it looked as if the intellectual and the worker in France had finally found common ground and a new national order could begin to be formed. Bertolucci's film seems to want a sense of the monumental. Thus even though Bertolucci appears almost to base his film on the claustrophobic atmosphere of Performance as he holes his characters up in an elegant Paris flat, as opposed to the London pile in Roeg and Cammell's film, he nevertheless wants to suggest the sociologically significant by beginning his film with bright, airy scenes of student activity. Bertolucci does so most obviously in the scene with the students outside the temporarily closed Cinmathque.
But let us propose that Garrel has no interest in ripostes first and foremost - no matter the presence of Garrel's son Louis in both Bertolucci's film and his own, and also a direct reference to Bertolucci's Before the Revolution. What interests Garrel much more is instead something that '68 foregrounded but that is in fact essential to Garrel's cinema. In Bertolucci's film there's this sense of novelty as the characters hang out together in the apartment and engage in kinky sexual activity. Bertolucci's film has some of the same frisson that teenagers might possess during a sleepover: it is just that in Bertolucci's film the situation allows the sleepover to extend way beyond the usual limitations. Garrel is instead interested not in novelty but in necessity, as if Franois (Louis Garrel), Garrel's central character here, and many of the director's characters elsewhere, needs a far more ongoing emotional sustenance. There's an air in Garrel's work of his characters never being able to leave each other, or even a situation: Garrel's a great director of the pain of parting, as wonderfully evidenced in that early scene from Le vent de la nuit, where Catherine Deneuve and her young lover part from each other after an afternoon tryst. We can feel Deneuve' s character vibrate with loneliness and abandonment as she prepares to take off in a taxi.
In Regular Lovers, Garrel creates the intimate out of the social, but it is almost as if the social is just a pretext to justify the intimate. His characters also hole up, this time in the large house of a wealthy friend, and rarely leave. But where Bertolucci visually suggests the airy leading to the intimate, in Garrel there really is only the intimate, as if '68 and the barricades function not as a social situation, but as a twilight world (the scenes are generally shot at night) leading to increasing intimacy. As we watch Franois involved in run-ins with the police, we feel we're less in a revolutionary situation than in a situation that will lead inevitably to an intimate sense of the clandestine. Does Francois really want to change the world, or does he simply want to be part of a revolution that will inevitably fail? And that, as a consequence of his involvement and its failure, Franois will have to retreat from society. Just as Serge in Le vent de la nuit explains that he and some friends retreated to a small coastal village in Italy after '68, and lived quietly and simply, so Franois and his friends disappear into someone's house. This is the initial stage of social retreat, which will be followed by a retreat into an affair with a young woman who's a budding sculptor, a further retreat into heroin addiction and then his retreat into death after she leaves him to pursue her career in the States.
Garrel has always lit his films as if there isn't really day light and night light, but public light and private light, as if we shouldn't think of light as objective light and dark, but how it suggests privacy or its opposite. In some sense with all of Garrel's work it isn't so much that it is darkly lit, though much of it is, nor that is takes place at night, though much of it does, but that it generates an intimacy that dissolves day and night as categories. It is an aspect Garrel has in common with Bergman, and to some degree perhaps with Cassavetes, and they represent a certain triumvirate of intimacy which draws on the expressionistic aspect of shadows and darkness without arriving at conventional Expressionist form. What Garrel does especially well is to, say, bring a face into the light from the shadows and thus suggest an aging face we wouldn't quite have expected, or a look of worry on a face that we previously might have taken to be tranquil. There are numerous examples of the former in the lighting of Deneuve in Le vent de la nuit, and plenty of examples of low key fret on Lilie's, Francois' girlfriend, face here. Jonathan Romney alludes to this significance when he ends his Sight and Sound review by saying "...one long take of Clotilde Hesme's Lilie, with her mobile, subtly shifting face - by turns coy, contemplative and amused - could practically stand as the film's raison d'etre." Now what is interesting is that Garrel, like Bergman, occasionally like Cassavetes, takes his loosely expressionist perspective only tangentially from the film expressionists of the 1920s, from Wiene, Lang and Murnau. He instead draws much more from an expressionism from elsewhere, from artists, (from Munch, Schiele and Modigliani) from an intimate expressionism evident in Munch's comment: "No longer should you paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. These must be human beings who breathe and suffer. I would paint such pictures in a cycle. People would understand their sacredness and take their hats off as if in church."
Munch's claims could quite well express Garrel's project, a project that is almost like a paraphrasing of Eric Rohmer's famous comment that he's not so much interested in what people do but what they think while they're doing it. In Garrel though it's not so much what people think but what they feel, and the very degree to which their feelings minimize, even exhaust, the possibility of doing. Thus Garrel doesn't want a cinematicallyexpressionist world. As Adrian Martin once said, utilising a Visconti comment, all you need is a face and a blank wall. But what is needed with that blank wall is an expressionist face, a face that can suggest a world, rather than the surrounding mise-en-scene expressing that world and where the face is merely an aspect of it. The face is the expressionist universe, in fact much more so than of course even in Munch, Schiele and others, who would still work with a surrounding expressionist space to bring out the expressionism within the body. And certainly it is a far more personalized form of expressionism than that on show in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Lang's Dr Mabuse films.
Let us think then of some of these expressionist faces in Garrel's work, and look at the types, whilst also taking into account the main thrust of this piece: the degree to which Garrel generates intimacy and private worlds. First all we can say there are the three ages of the expressionist male face that is consistent with the specifics of aging. There is the callow, shallowly expressionist visage of the youthful male in Garrel's recent work: Xavier Beauvois in Le vent de la nuit, the young filmmaker played by writer and philosopher Mehdi Belhaj Kacem in Sauvage Innocence/Wild Innocence and Louis Garrel in RegularLovers, where we have arrogance, furtiveness and insolence crossing the face. Then there is the wracked, torn middle-aged visage, sometimes entering into despair but with a face not quite containing it (like Benoit Regent's character in J'entends plus la guitare), or where a face contains it so completely that it has become engraved (Daniel Duval's in Levent de la nuit). But it can also of course contain all the pain but also some of the wisdom of late middle-age - like Maurice Garrel in Les Baisers de Secours/Emergency Kisses. These are the most common male faces in Garrel's work, but very occasionally there is a face like Maurice Garrel's here, playing Francois's grandfather, the face of a very old man full of liver spots and lines so etched that no expression can quite eradicate the sense of pain evident in the life. There is also Michel Subor in Sauvage Innocence, a younger face certainly than Maurice Garrel's in Regular Lovers, but it is still a visage that has moved beyond middle-age and into on this occasion a slightly lubricious complacency.
Now for the women we usually have the ingnue and the aging, sorrowful beauty, with Garrel trying to capture the 'decline' as tenderly as possible. In the latter we have Jean Seberg in les Hautes Solitude Nico in Le Berceau de Cristal, Emmanuelle Riva in Libert la nuit, and Deneuve in Le vent de la nuit. For the ingenues we might think of the young lover in La Naissance de l'amour, Julia Faure in Sauvage innocence, and also Clotilde Hesme here. In the latter it's as if the light bounces off Hesme's face, capturing youth, innocence and beauty, as though the light has no reason to settle there. There aren't enough lines, wrinkles and scars to nestle into the shallow folds that aging produces.
And thus it is the face, not the mise-en-scene, which demands or rejects expressionism. As Garrel distributes light in such a way that the interiors contain no expressionist meaning, he throws most of the light onto the face, and waits to see what the visage can reveal. In the young male face it often reveals an unsure, paradoxical haughtiness (Louis Garrel here), or youthful tiredness - the sort of slightly dishevelled look we see on the faces of Beauvois in Le vent de la nuit and Kacem in Sauvage innocence. These are faces without yet stories to tell, and often Garrel will give the actors dialogue that reflects this gaucheness. There are Franois' early comments here when a friend tells him he wants to be a decorator, and Franois responds by asking if he wouldn't like to be more creative. Or Beauvois' Paul, thinking aloud about the end of his relationship with the older Hlne (Deneuve), when she desperately needs to live the relationship in the present But even an apparently inexpressive face in Garrel's work doesn't mean he has to eschew an expressionist style towards it. It just means that there is an expressionist glow, if the women is young and beautiful, evidenced in Faure in Sauvage innocence, and expressionist intensity, if the man is young and attractive, as we see again in Sauvage innocence and Regular Lovers, where there is an insolent countenance.
What we mean chiefly by an expressionism of the face, then, is the manner in which an actor isn't expected to have an emotional range as they act in relation to the various elements of a story, nor even to a broader mise-en-scene. Instead, the actor has an essential emotional reaction to the universe that means it matters little what happens to be going on in that outside world. In art, expressionism so often captures the state of mind as readily through the body and the surrounding space that suggests a reflection of the thoughts of the figure at its centre - as we see for example in Munch's Puberty, and also The Scream. Garrel, however, wants no distortion that could lead to an expressionism beyond the face, and even within the visage he wants a fairly singular response. If there is variety in the countenance it lies less in the actors' expression, than in Garrel's lighting, where we see in much of his work this contrast between light and shade. When in the rare occasion it isn't so obviously there - as in Sauvage innocence - the conventional notion of acting becomes much more significant, because the director no longer lights the performance, and the actor is curiously exposed by the even-ness of the conventional lighting contrasts. Thus if Faure gives one of the least interesting performances in a Garrel film, it is partly because she has a face that would lend itself much more to Rohmer' cinema, and also that she's lit almost as if she were in a Rohmer film - where the crisp and clean shooting brings out the simplicity in Rohmer's limpid style. In Sauvage Innocence, Garrel directs the performance (it's probably the most elaborately blocked of any Garrel film) but doesn't quite light the performance. He chooses not to light the performance the way he lights more readily than directs Jean Seberg in les Hautes Solitude, Nico in Le berceau de cristal, Lou Castel and Jean-Pierre Laud in La naissance de l'Amour, or Deneuve and Duval in Le vent de la nuit.
This may raise an interesting question about auteurs who light a performance and filmmakers who direct one. (And of course let's put aside the many directors cameraman Laszlo Kovocs in Masters of Light calls "traffic directors", directors who just want to get the shot in the can.) Now of course most auteurs usually do both; but some filmmakers give the impression of being great directors of lighting space, and others of directing space, of blocking space in relation to camera movement. So for example a filmmaker who lights chiefly for the purposes of space will no doubt have to work intricately with the lighting to make sure it matches the movement of the camera, but perhaps he'll sacrifice a degree of contrast to capturing the entire space. We might sense this in some of Truffaut's work, where the mobility of the master shot is paramount. As his sometime cameraman Nestor Almendros says in Masters of Light, Truffaut "is the master of the "plan-sequence"...the camera will go from one character to another or will move to another room, all without a cut." Like Mikls Jancs, Bla Tarr and Max Ophls, the filmmakers of the mobile camera may also be masters of light, but it is as if they are, first and foremost, directors of movement over directors of lighting. This is opposed to the 'Lumiere' filmmakers that would include early Dreyer, Bergman, Garrel, noir directors, the German Expressionists, and on occasion Bernardo Bertolucci (the way he lights Brando in Last Tango in Paris.) But what we find in early Dreyer, in Bergman and in Garrel is that the light doesn't orient space but instead disorients it. As James Monaco says in How to Read a Film, "a film shot mainly in close-ups, [like] Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc/La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, for example, deprives us of setting and is therefore disorienting, claustrophobic." The lighting can thus focus on the immediacy of an expressionism of the visage over the mandatory consistency of lighting whole spaces.
This seems pretty much the aesthetic principle at work in Regular Lovers. Let's take for example the early scene where we see Franois sitting alone in his attic room reading a book. As the light is unevenly distributed around the room we see a large shadow against the slanting wall of Franois' head. This is almost an expressionist image, except the shot doesn't suggest Expressionism as defined by Wead and Lellis in Film Function and Formwhen they place Expressionism under the rubric of dreamlike mise-en-scene, and add "Expressionism usually involves the creation of a somewhat unreal environment in front of the camera..." Franois' environment seems very real, a top floor Parisian garret. In Garrel's work it is as if he is searching out an expressionism which doesn't quite express, that Garrel can't quite trust in the visual correlatives to find that "basic principle of expressionism...that the physical surroundings of the characters [will] reflect their internal states." This is partly because Garrel does not show an especial interest in the madmen that would often populate the Expressionist film (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Dr Mabuse) but also because the problematic is very different. Garrel's is not the individuating cinema of madness, but the un-individuated cinema of relationships. These are relationships not in the bruising sense of Bergman and Cassavetes, but in the tender sense, where characters don't so much rub up against each other and create the furious friction we see in the marital spats in Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and Autumn Sonata, or the tense exchanges and fighting we find in Cassavetes' Faces, Husbands,and A Woman Under the Influence, but where people simply just can't move on emotionally.
What Garrel needs to capture is not the general expressionist state of alienation, but an allusive and yet specific state: the state of loneliness as opposed to alienation. Alienation would often seem to demand connotative expression, and also perhaps a cinematically expressionist form, whether conventionally so, as we see in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which expresses madness, or in The Red Desert where the grey fruit helps capture neurosis. Yet Garrel seems more interested in a denotative minimalism. Where we might call expressionism in film 'connotative excess', as it uses the full mise-en-scene to explore psyche, Garrel's 'denotative minimalism' wants to redefine cinematic space minimalistically, so that the surrounding mise-en-scene becomes almost unreadable, and we're left with the nakedness of the face. What we then search the face for is its sense of loneliness, its capacity to register its fragile aloneness, not the mise-en-scene's capacity to capture alienation.
This isn't to say there are no examples of a more fleshed out mise-en-scene in Garrel's work. We've already talked about Sauvage Innocence's capacity for using space to the detriment of lighting faces, and we might think of Garrel's Inner Scar from 1971, and even the generally intimiste Le berceau de cristal from 1976. In the former, Garrel uses the expanse of the African desert to offer a world that Garrel himself, in an article by Kent Jones in Film Comment ('Sad and Proud of It'), has compared to drug taking. Le berceau de cristal is undeniably a face film, but it also creates a surrounding, borderline expressionist mise-en-scene that has led some critics to call it an example of neo-decadence in the tradition of Werner Schroeter's tableau piece, The Death of Maria Malibran. But it is to say that what brings Garrel's work together, what suggests its major significance, lies in Daney's comment and Garrel's expressionism chiefly of the face.
Thus when we talk about Garrel's denotative minimalism, we mean the way a face merely has to express not the wider world of alienation, but the more local problem of loneliness. How often do we read on the faces of Garrel's characters a solitude that doesn't look for connotative meaningfulness but first and foremost a denotative meaningfulness: a hug as opposed to a neologism if you like? This doesn't mean Garrel will eschew aesthetic complexity to achieve the emotional simplicity of the hug, but while it is true some of Garrel's work - or most especially Le vent de la nuit - is in the existential loner tradition of The Passenger and Kings of the Road, there is a greater degree of tenderness in Garrel, because he is searching out this denotative as opposed to connotative tradition. It is almost as though Garrel's work has the feeling of a desperate return to the womb, more than a need to expand into ever more adventurous connotative meaning. (Is this partly why Garrel's sometime cinematographer, Caroline Champetier, once suggested Garrel was "terribly afraid of colour", with all its connotative possibilities?) Thus when we said at the beginning of this piece Garrel seems almost to use the revolution as a precursor to intimacy, it is to say that sloganeering (the neologistic) seems irrelevant next to the tenderness he searches out. If for many '68 was about semiotic change, about changing the language of imagery (Godard for example), for Garrel it seemed to be about semiological simplicity: a sort of semiological primitivism that would return man, woman and child and language to a simple, hermitic existence. Maybe this is what Gilles Deleuze means when he says in Cinema 2: The Time Image that "the theatrical hieratism of characters, noticeable in his first films, is increasingly focused on a physics of fundamental bodies."
Even when Garrel uses semiotically loaded images (perhaps none more so than Serge's red Porsche in Le vent de la nuit), Garrel seems to want to return the image to directness, to try to find in the car not its semiotic significance, but its hermitic possibilities: a car is a high-speed hermitage as the poet Les Murray once said. But it was almost as though Garrel's recent films - like Le vent de la nuit and Sauvage innocence - were overly freighted, unavoidably loaded with semiotic weight. The architect Serge drives that Porsche, and searches out beautiful Italian towns and buildings. In Sauvage Innocence, Kacem's character is a young filmmaker using elaborate technology and selling heroin to fund his film. Regular Lovers appears a return in many ways to a semiotic simplicity, no matter if the subject has a potentially complex sign system to access: May 1968. But as we've proposed, '68 is no longer a neologistic event, la Guy Debord and The Situationists, but its aftermath an exhausted retreat into the intimate and tender. It is not the society of the spectacle that interests Garrel, but the specifics of the soul.
It is out of this exquisite tenderness that Garrel builds his film, so that the signs he is interested in are, to quote Gilberto Perez's lovely phrase in relation to Godard in The Material Ghost, "the signifiers of tenderness." We need only think of the first scenes between Franois and his lover here. As they sit and talk about poetry and sculpture, we notice how Garrel isn't so much fascinated by the anticipatory possibilities in the sexual relationship that is clearly about to develop, but in the vulnerability Lilie feels as she knows, we might surmise, that she's falling in love. As they exchange a wonderfully emotionally rewarding variation on the wedding vow - a sort of aesthetic vow where he promises to teach her about poetry, and she to teach him about sculpture - we see what interests Garrel is the signifiers of tenderness that will lead to the inextricable difficulty of relationships, and that will result in that common Garrel feeling of the bereft. By the end of the film Lilie will leave Francois and move to the States to pursue her career with an established sculptor, and Francois will, a year later, end up dead. It is as if Garrel is offering an emotional paradox: to become a couple one needs to love, but to have too much feeling, too much love in oneself to project onto another, is, if one is to fall into coupledom at all, almost to sign one's own death warrant. Garrel beautifully captures the initial, tentative move towards a relationship in the scene quoted, but in Garrel's work there is often a haunting sense of sadness contained within this burgeoning feeling. It is there in La Naissance de l'amour when Lou Castel's new lover talks about her ex, and we see how impossibly in love Julia Faure's character's ex still is after she leaves him and takes up with Kacem in Sauvage innocence. And of course in J'entends plus la guitare, Benoit Regent is still very much in love with his ex even as he marries and attempts to live a family life with another woman.
Thus this truly beautiful scene between Francois and Lilie may, verbally, end with Francois talking of the "sheer pleasure" of their future relationship, but then Jean-Claude Vanier's music hauntingly captures less the sheer pleasure, than the searchingly melancholic. As the camera holds on Lilie's face, we may notice how each gesture, each shy flick of the head, each embarrassed half glance away, seems likely to seer their way into Francois's mind, heart and soul. This is perhaps the real revolution as Francois sees it, and we should not read this as either Garrel or Francois's cynicism, but perhaps think in terms of Deleuze's answer to what he calls a "tough question" in Desert Islands as he tries to address friendship and love in relation to revolution. "There are relations of friendship or love that do not wait the revolution, that do not prefigure it, although they are revolutionary on their own account: they have in them a contesting force which is proper to the poetic life..."
Let us propose the contesting force in Garrel is on the thematic level an attempt to suggest that the revolution is constant and ongoing, but first of all takes place in the possession of bodies, minds and souls and that cannot but make us part of a whole, a world always bigger than the self. He then expresses this - in his very own form of expressionism - through a minimalist visual correlative that can capture the "tough question". This is a question that may want to deal with revolutionary progress; but Garrel knows finally that his aesthetic sensibility may be open to the world, but demands an emotional rather than a socio-political approach to the problem. As Jones says, writing about a ten minute short Garrel made during '68, Actualit revolutionnaire, "as opposed to every other record of that period, Garrel refused to show the barricades...He instead showed people on the streets, attempting to go on with their regular existence." Garrel's strength has generally resided in this pursuit of a regular existence, of regular lovers, trying to find the emotional wherewithal to share their lives with others without coming apart, without judging, without slipping into conformity. This is Garrel's expressionism: in what a face can tell us about the world if we look with concentration upon it. Just as Dreyer believed that scrutinizing Falconetti's face as Joan of Arc could tell us so much about spiritual belief, so Garrel perhaps can tell us much about revolutionary consciousness in the Deleuzian sense: a sense that has "more to do with Zen Buddhism than Marxism, but there are effective, explosive things in Zen." (Desert Islands)
In this context Garrel's work brings to mind the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa's comment in The Book of Disquiet: "A sensitive and honest minded man, if he's concerned about evil and injustice in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by illuminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life." This may or not be Garrel's belief, but it is aesthetically reflected in his thematic concerns with relationships over politics, and in his expressionist specificity over a more socio-political mise-en-scene. Just as economists work on micro and macro levels to explain the financial nature of the world, so, we could say, filmmakers work similarly with the emotional nature of that world. Garrel's micro-emotional cinema is, as Jones proposes, an "aesthetics of poverty", but we shouldn't only think of this in terms of the very low-budgets Garrel so frequently works with. We can also think of the connotative minimalism which allows Garrel usually to avoid the macro-emotional and socio-political aspects to take precedence. Garrel is finally interested in something closer to Zen Buddhism than Marxism, but it is a resistant quietism that will await the revolution, hoping that in it there will be all the space his characters need to signify their tenderness, that any neologisms will always be contained within the wider possibilities of a universal, unifying hug. Until then, his characters will no doubt continue to die lonely deaths of broken hearts, used up veins, and unexpressed sentiments. For is this not the very combination which leads to Franois' demise at the end of Regular Lovers?
© Tony McKibbin