The first entry in a new and on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin.
When asked about the central dance scene in Regular Lovers (Les amants réguliers, 2005), director Philippe Garrel testified that, as he and his closest co-workers get older, they more naturally collaborate – in order to get things done more efficiently, creatively and pleasantly. So did Garrel plot every camera move, choreograph every gesture, set the entire mise en scène of this dance, or any of the similar scenes in his films of the 21st century? It’s unlikely. This is not the awesome, choreographic, one-man mastery of a Max Ophüls, but a collectively shaped vibration or wave: actors, cinematographer, off-screen advisers, director, all mucking in together to capture a particular swirl of sensations and associations clustered around the motif of dance.
The songs, we imagine, are chosen (or at least vetted) by Garrel: “Friday’s Child” by Them (featuring Van Morrison on vocal) in Sauvage innoncence (Wild Innocence, 2001); “This Time Tomorrow” by The Kinks in Regular Lovers; and, most recently, “Truth Begins” by Dirty Pretty Things in Un été brulant (A Burning Hot Summer/Cruel Summer/That Summer, 2011). When someone new to Garrel’s films checks out the available clips on YouTube, it would be easy to mistake him for a director of music videos, so fondly (and understandably) favoured are these particular fetish-scenes of group dance.
In all three films, the dance scenes are filmed in a similar way: in very few shots, and with a choreography designed around the camera which, instead of following the characters, is mainly placed in a strategic position that allows a recording with only small pans or reframings. However, despite the fact that all the scenes are designed around a similar set-up, and have the recurrent motif of dance and other similar elements, what happens in them – what we see inside the shots – is different in each case. The relationships between the actors – their gestures, looks and movements – are totally singular and unique: a beguiling play of repetition and difference.
This brings us to the paradox at the heart of any study of a director (or auteur). Many such studies stop dead at the simple act of listing, making an inventory of, the recurring motifs in a director’s work – as if this mechanical repetition constituted sufficient proof of the filmmaker’s artistry and his or her ‘signature’. In Garrel, we find both the recurrent motifs and their perpetual refreshing; both the obsessive repetition of certain situations, images or scenarios, and their uncanny overlap and blurring (helped, in this case, by the reappearance of some actors from one film to the next). What emerges is the guiding idea of a ritual or ceremony of return, giving a special, underlying logic to Garrel’s work. By fusing three dances into one, by using superimpositions and cuts that create connections between shared movements and gestures, we invoke the characters of the separate three films and let them live, like ghosts, in this continuum where past, present and future form a totality.
For this audiovisual meditation on dancing in Garrel, we have displaced his original song selections and plucked out an earlier musical landmark in both Garrel’s cinema and his life: a performance by Nico (with The Blue Orchids in 1981) of one of her signature tunes from the Velvet Underground days, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, as played at length over a scene of Mireille Perrier and Lou Castel driving in Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights … (She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps, 1985). It is a song that gathers so many motifs present in Garrel’s cinema: costumes, masks and dresses, all under the star of a certain nostalgic, Romantic dandyism; the euphoria of anticipated release (Friday’s Child) and the sad come-down of disappointed aftermath (Sunday’s Clown); material poverty and imaginative richness; community and solitude; decadence and innocence. All tomorrow’s parties: Lou Reed’s lyrics signal both the profuse joy of the imminent, Dionysiac weekend, and the desert infinity of all the same, boring, pre-programmed get-togethers, forever repeated in dull ritual …
Garrel’s films take us – over and over – from the ecstasy of groups and couples dancing, a sweet fusion signalling the loss of individual identities and borders … to the tears of a clown that inevitably come afterwards, after the betrayals and break-ups and sudden sentimental realignments: alone in a kitchen, or outside the party, or at a table, hammering in the agonising death-blows to a relationship in crisis. Garrel always plants the seed of despair at the heart of the dance: the looks from the side, those wallflowers consumed by solipsism or jealousy, waiting for their moment to strike at others or at themselves.
The continuum of Garrel’s cinema is fixed between the poles of the free movement of camera and bodies during dancing, and the rock-solid, often disquietingly silent portraits of women and men weeping. Time works differently at each extreme: in the dance it is the lived eternity of the present moment, shadowed only by the spectre of this love that (as Serge Gainsbourg warned in “La Javanaise”) will last only to the end of the song; and in the teary postscriptum, it is the painful void that stalls, expands, and will seemingly never come to a close.