Video Essay. Walkers: A Motif in Philippe Garrel

Walking never means just one thing in Philippe Garrel’s films: it touches every level, every character, almost every situation.
Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin

The twenty-second entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. MUBI will be showing the retrospective Philippe Garrel: Fight for Eternity from May 1 - July 5, 2017 in most countries around the world.

Walking is an ubiquitous activity in art cinema of all stripes, from Mikio Naruse and Michelangelo Antonioni to Chantal Akerman and Béla Tarr. The “walk and talk” scene has long crossed over into the mainstream to become a convention. But Philippe Garrel has tenaciously kept walking as his own, special motif since his first short films of the mid-1960s, and he has guarded it from encroaching cliché. 

Walking never means just one thing in Garrel’s films; it touches every level, every character, almost every situation (even those cramped, indoor scenes where people nervously pace back and forth). It is as if this filmmaker decided to test, from his earliest efforts, just how many variations of mood and sense, of texture and staging, he could discover in this simple, everyday gesture. 

The entire arc of the Garrelian story—the elements of that loosely autobiographical “novel” which he endlessly takes up in different configurations, from different angles—is captured in a montage of his walkers. People alone, brooding or dazed; encounters with a passer-by on the street, seemingly casual but forever life-changing; the romantic couple, walking forward with the camera, or off into the distance and the future, like in a Charlie Chaplin movie; and the “holy family” of man, woman, and child all together, no matter by what strange, fortuitous, or circuitous path that trio may have come to be formed.  

In much contemporary cinema, walking is associated with duration, and endurance. In Garrel it is associated, above all else, with thinking and feeling. Each step marks a further moment of inner reflection (even when we do not know what is really going on in the head of a character). Every extra bit of distance covered together by a couple, arm in arm, as they glance at each other and wonder what the future will hold for them, commits them just a little bit more to their shared destiny. And the evolution from couple to trio, with the introduction of a child, presents a whole new set of possible intimacies, games, and evasions. 

Garrel opts for the simplest, clearest ways to film these actions. A single camera position to record, in a panning movement, people meeting and then moving off down a street. A handheld camera following one person from behind as they approach their rendezvous with another. A low angle to isolate a face against the top floors of a line of apartments. Accompanied by, very often, a clearly defined, musical gesture: one or two instruments (selected from piano, guitar, violin) start up, after a pause at the beginning of the action, and are left to resonate out at the end of a scene. Clarity, concision, direct access to emotion: these are the hallmarks of Garrellian “minimalism.”

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