I sense two things when Philippe Garrel turns his camera on. One is a person—not a character, but a real person—isolated off into their own space with their own sensibility. This is the spatial attribute of Garrel’s cinema, giving us the barest essentials of a limited location and coloring it almost in its entirety by the tenor of a person’s feelings, thoughts, and mood. The second thing that occurs with the revelation of each Garrel shot is the sense of an immediate, but receding, time. Like a water droplet stretched to its limits and about to fall off into space, each Garrel shot seems to have a tremendous but utterly fragile sense of a singular moment in the present, yet the very act of showing this “now” saps the camera’s present-tense enunciation. Even as we watch it, the shot seems removed—or removing—into the past.
It is this latter quality, this combination of momentary singularity and of time somehow passing beyond that moment, perhaps even during the moment, that gives Garrel’s cinema its unforgettable quality of memories transferred to film. And it is the spatial quality, isolated, minimal but so textured, and imbued with a beautiful sense of a life experienced—no psychology, no melodrama, just thoughtfulness and feeling—that gives this cinema of lived memory its devastatingly tangible feeling of the utterly personal.
Inexorably, this sense makes Garrel’s work (post-1970s at any rate, the films I have seen) bleed into each other, as the weight of May 1968 and Garrel’s relationship with Nico so informs and is so reworked in so many of the director’s films. Garrel's 1991 film J'entends plus la guitare (“I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar”) makes this latter influence particularly specific, as the film is dedicated to Nico and also has a character visit her real-life grave. Yet I’m not sure the film is any more or less distinguishable from Garrel's other films, or more or less personal. Instead, it is another Philippe Garrel film, which may already say it all—or, at least, say enough. In other words, a masterpiece much like the rest.
Love now and love in the past structure J'entends plus la guitare’s story, both the now and the past belonging to Marianne (Johanna ter Steege), and therefore haunting her boyfriend Gerard (Benoît Régent). Something is already between the couple even as we first see them on vacation, as they seem to want to live just for the moment, but a pall of unhappiness suggests the presence of an inescapable memory. This suggestion becomes a bit more concrete when we learn that another vacationing couple is made up of Gerard's painter friend Martin (Yann Collette) and his girlfriend, someone who Gerard too once dated. She doesn't exactly cull up old memories and feelings, but that existence does suggest to Marianne, and even perhaps reminds Gerard, that a past existed before their present love.
Their vacation and its immediate aftermath take the form of spats and small ecstasies, and when it’s over everything afterwards refers to that fighting love. Once over, now "Gerard and Marianne" becoming that thing in the past that leaves traces on the moment of the present, Martin's girlfriend forgotten. These characters so yearn for a kind of original, first-and-only love, or, perhaps put even better in the form of a title of another Garrel film, they want to be the birth of love, the start and end, with nothing before or afterwards but that singular person, that singular feeling. The impossibility of this love of the moment and forever is a recoginition of the impossibility of idealism that extends beyond Garrel's romances and plugs directly into his muted politics and its echoes of May '68.
Garrel is of course too oblique to tell what precisely is going wrong for these people and their times together, giving the most cryptic of shots and edits (a fade out on a man’s hands undoing a woman’s dress, neither owner identified), or ones so blunt they seems almost unbelievable (the sudden appearance of a baby signaling more plot development in a single cut than the rest of the movie as a whole). So we make do—sorrowfully—with Garrel’s melancholy slivers, obsessed with trying to live happily for a moment full of love but finding most moments beset by a restless and haunting past. What is so singular and ecstatic about Garrel's cinema is that this feeling, this sense, is not merely the summation of a story's themes but literally the evocation from the film's form itself. The importance of spelling out characters and plot is totally eclipsed when one can see the power and the wounded, personal sensibility in even the most non sequitur shot, or cut-away, the most elliptical dialog or argument, and here in such a quotidian but utterly devastating final gesture.
*** J'entends plus la guitare is playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Film Comment Selects series.