Above: Louis Garrel, behind the camera, and Laura Smet in front of it, in Philippe Garrel's Frontier of Dawn.
SPOILERS TO FOLLOW. As if in warm-up for its upcoming Carl Th. Dreyer retrospective, BAM releases Philippe Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn, a film seemingly inspired by Bresson’s Une femme douce, but also very much by Dreyer. Or perhaps Griffith? Lovers divided by powers natural, supernatural, and societal, finally manage to lock themselves in a room removed from the regulations and the strictly defined spaces of the times: it happens in Griffith, Dreyer, Rivette’s L’amour fou. And in Frontier of Dawn it even happens without the strictly defined spaces, or the times. All about immortality’s pull—infinite, timeless love from beyond the grave, not to be restricted by dates or deaths—Frontier mostly takes place in white-walled limbo, anonymous chic, in which ageless youths spend their days writing love letters, while a gravestone reads 2007 (the ultimate joke). As always, Garrel’s characters are only spectral presences, no feet on the ground; like the lovers of Dreyer and Griffith, Frontier’s couple can communicate telepathically in cross-cuts that find them looking out windows together and reacting to one another, though they’re on opposite sides of the city. They’re beyond reality way before they’re beyond reality.
In all Garrel films, nobody has their reasons: they want to die for no reason, sing for no reason, love for no reason, do drugs for no reason, all these events and intuitions detached from any sense of personalities (people doped or asleep wouldn’t reveal them). When a ghost comes back from the dead in Frontier’s end, she talks with an echo from bad ghost movies, but mostly she doesn’t talk at all. She just breathes. What she has to say isn’t important, neither to her nor to her lover who’s probably imagining the apparition all that matters is that she’s there, and he has her. Which is all that matters to Garrel: Frontier’s sole characterization is to make its hero (Louis Garrel) a photographer, who flirts with the beautiful girl (Laura Smet) by doing a shoot and trying to keep her in frame, before she has her first break-down and refuses to be photographed: she won’t be captured. The rest of the film will follow his failures to capture her, as she eludes him in greater and greater measures (another lover, a psych ward visit, death), and is filmed by William Lubtchansky nearly as a series of still photos in stone-faced rooms in which the lovers sit, then fidget, almost imperceptibly (Dreyer), lit up as if from within (Rembrandt). So Garrel builds his film out of the most basic principles of sound movie-making: light out of darkness, motion out of stillness, breathing out of silence. Life out of death, or better, waking out of sleeping (as in Dreyer); Garrel, like Dreyer, constructs his films on top of voids—white and dark and silence, on which people hum and click their feet together with a skip—if not to explain the despair then to make it comprehensible as a state of mind. Heel-clicking, as in Garrel's Elle a passé tant d'heures sous les sunlights..., as in Blow-up’s park jaunt, seems the only means of happiness.
Count the times characters sleep in Frontier: not just the dozy death throes of electroshock treatment and an overdose, but lovers asleep when a boyfriend returns, at a dinner party, and even within a fairy tale hallucination in the middle of the woods. Frontier plays in on-again off-again delirium well before a ghost walks into frame, and is somewhat closer to Garrel’s hallucinatory early work than the little-autobiographical-moments-and-Nico’s-death trajectory of the later stuff (but it’s that too, in alternating scenes with the love story). Garrel’s trick has always been to make it seem, in the long takes and little tapping gestures, as though we’re watching life being lived—nobody’s better at a guy hanging in bed the next morning and lazily drumming on a girl’s arm—but only with Regular Lovers and Frontier does it look like he’s found the context—the abstract, shadowy backgrounds that look ready to pull the heroes into silhouette; the dreams—against which specific, throwaway gestures have meaning, that they can touch and feel each other, that they exist as real bodies in the present-tense (Dreyer again). Unlike most Garrel movies, Frontier radiates details even in single strands of hair.
Of course, tapping a girl’s body and breathing audibly are only momentary balms: Frontier’s lovers are together four or five scenes, and Garrel does everything he can to keep them apart well before they’re locked in separate frames from each other. They must communicate in cross-cuts, in love letters; other parts of their life, like a psych ward visit, divide them. Garrel films a late encounter, in which Louis and Laura already asunder in all sorts of ways, to show her only through a mirror and telegraphs the effect by zooming in to ensure they’re not in frame together; she dies. Frontier has nothing to do with physical love: that would be a porno. Frontier is more a psychic porno, a love fantasy one step-up from a sex fantasy, about a relationship that only really works when the lovers are apart and thinking about each other (but works, as it never would in Hitchcock). The love is always an internal projection, deliberately upset by their few scenes together, and especially projected at the end, when he sees her in a mirror and kills himself (like in Une femme douce, we follow his steps, ghost-like, in a few cuts that end on the simple, physical fact of what’s happened). The film’s last scenes are only a logical extension of the phantoms, dozes, disconnections, and shadows that have preceded it in death drive. And with the magic mirror, Garrel happens across the perfect metaphor for his own films: not Lang’s or Welles’ shattered mirror to reality, but a mirror as most people use it, to look at a face or body and see how it changes in changing light and expressions of everyday fiddling around, to navel-gaze.
Dreyer’s, Griffith’s, and Rivette’s walls hold worlds of businessmen and shoestring sorcerers behind them. Bresson’s walls are part of civilization’s cage, locking in sweet women and making them carry its sins. Garrel’s walls relieve his characters—and him—from worrying about anything outside of themselves. Unlike just about every other great filmmaker ever, Garrel doesn’t open up worlds, but closes them down (he’s a hell of lot closer to Borzage than Sternberg). The societal strains of Frontier are only metaphysical: the girl’s tortured, emotionally and physically, because that’s how it goes. Would the scenes of the lovers writing letters lose their beauty if one of their dads was in the next room paying his taxes or, as in Oliveira, watching the news? Garrel probably thinks real life would taint his pure romanticism of the sweet hand from six feet under, but neither a visionary nor a realist, he’s no Romantic either: the Romantics locate themselves in what they see around them. Garrel’s characters look inward; nothing goes on around them. That love is the only reason to live is reasonable: Dreyer concluded the same. But Dreyer never said it was a good reason to die—for Dreyer, the very act of living, whatever it’s for, includes myriad banalities and compromises and debates and hours of kitchen-work in search of greater meaning.
Garrel’s characters, fascinatingly, are in search of nothing (was Regular Lovers a paean to a revolution or The Kinks?). They exist in the safe, classist universe of Woody Allen, where staying warm is only a concern during an overdose. Garrel’s interests, even in the early outside work, are entirely in the bedroom: sex and sleeping and laughing and taking drugs. It’s that delight and obnoxiousness all throughout Garrel: that these are people with nothing else to do—ever—than what they’re doing on-screen. Frontier remains a completely irrelevant fairy tale about impossible love that is, in fact, impossible, and is, for it, a beautiful bit of skin-and-light games from paradise’s far side.