The first time I ever heard of Philippe Garrel was in the pages of the groundbreaking critical book "Movie Mutations" (2003.) Garrel was at the center of a group of contemporary directors fueling the burning cinephilia of critics like Alexander Horwath and Nicole Brenez. For Horwath, Garrel emphasized "the importance of the body" and expressed a deep rooted pain.
For both Horwath and Brenez (and, if I recall correctly, the other "Movie Mutants"), Garrel is one of the defining directors of contemporary cinema, yet at the time "Mutations" was released, Garrel's films were almost unseen in America. The situation hasn't changed much in the last several years though 2005 saw the release of his grueling/devastating "Regular Lovers" which received the widest (festival) release of any of his films and earned multiple nominations and awards.
The relative breakthrough of "Regular Lovers" did not, however, lead to a flood of Garrel titles in the Region 1 DVD market. To the best of my knowledge, "Regular Lovers" was his only title available in Region 1 until the release of this two-disc collection from Zeitgeist Films.
It's not because Garrel is a new name. He began working in the late 1960s and according to Jean-Luc Godard (in a letter re-printed on the first disc of this collection) Garrel captured some of the most lasting images of the 1968 protests in Paris. I can only assume that it's because Garrel has not become enough of a staple on the international festival circuit to guarantee the small but loyal audience of ardent cinephiles required to justify the production of his work. Or maybe it's just that nobody got around to it until Zeitgeist.
Whatever the explanation, the two films on this disc certainly back up Horwath's description of Garrel. "Emergency Kisses" (1989) and "I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar" (1991) aren't just expressions of personal pain, they are open sores made cinematic flesh. Both films are semi-autobiographical depictions of the waxing and waning of relationships. Shouldn't the "semi" be assumed when dealing with anything described as "autobiographical?" Any autobiography (even one labeled a documentary) requires embellishment, selection and re-structuring such that there can be no such thing as pure, unadulterated autobiography.
"I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar" is inspired by Garrel's long and tumultuous relationship with Nico, the musician/actress of Warhol Factory/Velvet Underground fame who died in 1988. The Nico stand-in in the film is Marianne (Johanna ter Steege) and the Garrel stand-in is Gerard (Benoît Régent). Garrel paints in spots of time, telling the story of their doomed relationship in a series of conversations that skip ahead months or years with no clear demarcation. Marianne moves in and out of Gerard's life (and vice versa) and just as he tries to pick up the pieces and move on, she shows up again and they pick up where they left off, sort of.
Like Jean-Luc Godard, Garrel (and Mark Cholodenko, credited with the dialogue on most of Garrel's films) peppers his conversations with aphorisms. One of the central questions of "Guitar" is one of the oldest in literature: What is love? The question is usually answered with other questions: "Is love the fear of not being loved?" In the most telling moment, when the two lovers worry about how to pay the bills when all their spare cash goes for heroin. Gerard dismisses such concerns as long as they still love each other. Marianne: "You think love can heat us, light us, feed us and get us high?" Gerard: "Exactly." There's "the importance of the body" Horwath was talking about. Love as a mechanical heart that keeps the blood pumping and the limbs moving. It's a romantic conceit, but that doesn't mean it has to be dismissed.
Moments of raw intimacy like this make it particularly painful to watch as the film lurches/slouches to its inevitably tragic conclusion. Ter Steege is extraordinary in the co-lead, a real powerhouse whose performance feels completely authentic and never overwrought as Marianne's center gradually collapses. Brigitte Sy (then Garrel's wife) is also outstanding as Gerard's wife and the mother of his children. She endures his infidelity but not with the passive grace of a "good wife" but rather the anger/faith of a confident woman in love.
Shot in grainy high-contrast black-and-white, "Emergency Kisses" tells a similar story, but this time with Garrel in the lead role along with most of his family, including Sy, his son Louis (then only 6 years old) and his father Maurice, a veteran film actor. Mathieu (Philippe Garrel) is directing a film about his family. In the opening scene, Jeanne (Sy) is angry that he wants to cast somebody else as the wife which, for obvious reasons, she thinks she could play. Even when Mathieu points out that he won't even be a character in the film, her anger is not assuaged in the least. She doesn't quite understand the "semi" in autobiography. The bulk of the film's first several scenes involve her attempts to convince first Mathieu and then the actress that Jeanne is the only one who can play the role. These scenes feel like they've been plucked from a lost Cassavetes film (Cassavetes being another director admired by the "Mutants" for his emphasis on the body). Whether these scenes are improvised or not, I don't know, but Garrel certainly trusts his actors to breathe life into their roles and the effect is jolting and occasionally irritating (again, like Cassavetes.)
This seemingly minor quarrel proves to be a breaking point, or at least a severe straining point, in their relationship. Like "Guitar," "Emergency Kisses" jumps ahead in time and requires viewers to catch up with what has changed in the cut. Husband and wife are together, separated and together again, harboring bitterness then seeking tenderness together (or sometimes with others.) The enduring images of the film are of bodies and faces. Philippe Garrel with his shock of curly Bob Ross hair, Sy's menacing/implacable expression, little Lo walking in on his parents' love-making in a moment as natural and graceful as a summer day.
Garrel taps a deep vein in his films and extracts something precious, raw emotion, and he does it without the theatrics or hysterical over-acting of Hollywood Oscar-bait. Both films are occasionally harrowing, often uncomfortable, and wholly rewarding.
The films are presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is non-anamorphic. Image quality is average but the colors look washed out in "I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar." Both films show wear and tear from the source print, but this seems to fit perfectly well with the rough, raw look of ‘Emergency Kisses." The contrast level isn't as sharp as I would prefer.
The films are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The sound track is spare in most parts and I didn't notice any problems with the audio here. Optional English subtitles support the French audio.
Disc One ("I Can No Longer Hear The Guitar") includes reproductions of Original Lobby Cards and excerpts from the French press booklet. This consists of an original hand-written letter by Jean-Luc Godard on Nov 29, 1990 in praise of Garrel, and a typed English translation.
Disc Two ("Emergency Kisses") also has Lobby Cards, but includes a more substantial extra, the 48-minute documentary "Philippe Garrel, Artiste" (1999) made for the French television series "Cinéma, de notre temps." Befitting the nature of Garrel's work, it's a fairly intimate conversation that spans most of Garrel's career.
The insert booklet includes an essay by Richard Brody.
Prior to the release of this double DVD, the only Garrel film I had seen was "Regular Lovers," and as much as I liked that, I prefer both "Emergency Kisses" and "I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar." All the praise that the Movie Mutants showered on Garrel is deserved and I hope that Zeitgeist's release brings us more work by this modern master. I'm particularly keen to see "Les hautes solitude" (1974), his film about Jean Seberg.