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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The mastery of French filmmaker Philippe Garrel

Posted By on 07.17.12 at 04:21 PM

From Garrels Emergency Kisses (1989)
  • From Garrel's Emergency Kisses (1989)
I'd been familiar for some time with the veteran French director Philippe Garrel (who started making movies as a teenager in the mid-60s), but only since I checked out A Burning Hot Summer at Facets the other night has my guarded admiration given way to over-the-moon pleasure. I concur with Drew Hunt's assessment in this week's issue that Garrel is a master, though I'd add that his is a forbidding sort of mastery, in which everything within the shot—lighting, shadow, sound, actors' faces—carries some deliberate, personal meaning. Even the spontaneous behavior seems part of a precise plan. Yet his films can be hypnotic once you get on their wavelength: Garrel's distinctive, drawn-out pacing and his level fascination with both minute and large-scale detail can dissolve whatever's happening around you and distend your sense of time. The experience is comparable to being on drugs—which may explain why I'm turning into a Garrel addict.

Like Jean-Luc Godard's films and videos since the 1980s, Garrel's cinema has more in common with painting and poetry than with photography and prose. The films linger on faces and exteriors so as to contemplate qualities that can't be absorbed by narrative. Consider one of the central scenes of Burning Hot Summer, a single-take medium shot of Monica Bellucci dancing at a party. Yes, the scene illustrates how Bellucci's character wants to appear like a flirt in front of her husband (Louis Garrel, the director's son and frequent leading man), with whom she's been fighting. But on a more immediate level, it's a portrait of Bellucci—how she moves to this particular song, how she responds to each of her dancing partners, how alternating feelings of sexual frustration and abandon register on her face. As Daniel Kasman recently noted at Mubi.com, the scene recalls a similar sequence from Garrel's Regular Lovers (2005); yet the similarities are less important than the specificity of Bellucci's presence and the emotional context in which she's working.

Garrel in 2008
  • Garrel in 2008
Nearly every scene in Garrel's films communicates this kind of aesthetic fixation. (Anyway, it's true of the four features I've gobbled up since watching Burning Hot Summer.) It's true that his plots can feel like mere vehicles for musings on romance, death, and radical politics, and that his subject matter circles obsessively around autobiographical experience. Yet Garrel's insular body of work doesn't feel particularly narcissistic. A romantic poet in the tradition of William Wordsworth, Garrel isn't interested in his own experience per se so much as in what it permits him to see. In a 1999 interview included on the region 1 DVD of Emergency Kisses (1989)—one of only a few Garrel titles officially available in the U.S.—the director concedes to the autobiographical nature of his work but explains how every filmic image possesses a reality of its own. "It's nearly impossible to make fictional images," he says, while adding that the autonomy of movie reality makes it impossible to recreate personal experience on film.

Emergency Kisses is as good an introduction as any to Garrel's parallel universe. It stars the director, his father (the veteran actor Maurice Garrel), his then wife (Brigitte Sy, who's become a noted director in her own right), and his son, all playing versions of themselves. It depicts the Garrel character's efforts to cast a movie based on his own life. He wants to cast an actress to play his wife in the movie; she sees this as a sign of distrust. Their marriage begins to suffer a gradual, exhausting breakdown (it would dissolve in real life only a few years later), enjoying moments of romantic passion before sliding again into doubt. On the page, this sounds like pure navel-gazing; on the screen, the conflict feels universal. Garrel's meticulously shadowed compositions, given added weight by his direct sound recording, register as studies of the fluctuating emotional states experienced under romantic crisis—or, as the critic Maximilian Le Cain titled an essay on Garrel for the website Senses of Cinema, as voyeurism of the soul. Most of the director's work can be reduced to such a description, and that's fine by me.

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