MUBI will be showing the retrospective Philippe Garrel: Fight for Eternity from May 1 - July 5, 2017 in most countries around the world.
Question: I must ask you here about one concept you discuss in your book, one that also might be thought of, next to the structural work, as another way to break from the story in the film. The concept is muzan, and I find it quite difficult to think of a proper translation of it into English. How do you employ this concept into your films, and does it, in fact, have anything to do with the way you wish to break away from the story? Yoshishige Yoshida: I understand the word in itself, as you would understand the literal meaning of the kanji: something which expresses the impossibility of attaining stability or change for the better. Yes, I believe this is the meaning of the concept that I use. It refers to the people that are being depicted in a given story: the pattern according to which their nature is depicted. For example, a woman is depicted as a very kindhearted person; then she is raped by someone and ends up going crazy at the end and she kills her own child. Let's take this as an example of a story; in this situation we could understand everything, but why had she killed her child? Or even if we say that she kills someone else's child, this break from coherency is the idea of muzan.
Garrel bursts on the scene—this miraculous, secret infant anointed by Jean-Luc Godard the Baptist—with a weird dionysian force which probably owed more to the times than to him. His first film, 1964’s Les enfants désaccordés, is the missing link, the ghostly transfiguration, between Kirsanoff’s lovely and byzantine Ménilmontant (1926) and the lucidity of The Devil, Probably (1977). In this short, Garrel is recovering, probably without wholly knowing it, the lost poetic logic of the expressionist 1920s in a halting, neptunian way that makes other films of 1964-1972 seem like academic jazz. Only Pere Portabella, in similar dismal times, avoids these traps. Believe the hype! This is the filmic excess of the precocity of Rimbaud or Radiguet. The film moves beyond surrealism to become a, maybe the situationist film—ne travaillez jamais, ‘Drift Through The Cities, Scorch the Earth, Follow the Letter, Never Work’—Garrel, aged sixteen, through some shaman’s gift, already in ’64 senses what is in the air and makes it happen, forthtells it, somehow. The point of this film: The Revolution will be televised.
Therefore, Regular Lovers (2005) is not nostalgia, necrophilia, or necromancy. It is something stranger still. It is a science fictional attempt to call forth those ‘true’ images of May that were reckoned and lost. It succeeds beyond measure. The lost and then found, dead-alive film of actualities, Actua 1, is rediscovered, a mystical possibility only raised by the séance of Regular Lovers. Says Garrel in a Cahiers interview: “In Regular Lovers, I re-made the same shots, like a painter who redoes the canvas that was stolen from him. For example the traveling of the vans of the C.R.S. (the Riot Police Reserves) on the bridge. I realized that it was easier to remember a shot, and then re-make that shot, than to remember an event, which is subject to the metamorphoses of memory and the admixture of dream.”
Eternally grateful to the stranger who discovered that one could/should harness the Grimmrobe Demos of Sunn O))) to the images of Le révélateur (1968). Do this without question. Why? Because this record articulates sonically one of Garrel’s favorite words, le vide, which is both kitchen psychology and talisman of desire. The void, the empty, the waste. The way inner space seeks out and hunts outer space and a hoped for dissolution. Neo-Wertherism à la mode, that old bestseller craze for suicide and world-weariness, but with a growing, radically ironical stance, all too often missed by a society that is addicted to its own well-marketed romance with death-cultishness.
Call it Tunnelvision. What is fascinating about Le révélateur is its combination of wild stylistic invention, Allegory, ‘amateurishness,’ an improvisation in light and dark, discovery of new dramaturgies through planes, proscenia, and depth—and a healthy respect for process and tedium, too. The story is simple: a child (Stanislas Robiolles) is held hostage to the narcissistic love rituals of his parents (Bernadette Lafont and Laurent Terzieff). Childhood unfolds like a mystery without a key. The first and holiest family in Garrel not quite unraveling itself as a nightmare of aimless rituals. To preserve the stasis and inertia of the lovers, the child arrives, and tries yet fails to engage them. This is the plot of a much later film, Jealousy (2013), too, with the added complexity of ambivalent and treacherous loyalty to the unshackled parents, and the fascination with this possibly dangerous woman, played by Anna Mouglalis, who has captured the father. In the second film, that rupture of the Other Woman is what allows the child to see her parents as semi-humans and not just wanton objects of love. But in Le révélateur, the “texts” of his parents are mostly illegible and opaque, which leads the sensitive child to see them as a playground.
Particularly moving is the scene where the child advances on the helpless, idiotic parents in a German forest, gives them coats, and then leads them by the hand. Or the one circling around the quarry to discover the holy family emerging together from the waste below, only to wind up stupidly clinging as couple to a wire, while the child wanders off. The child must only see the actions of the parents as bizarre and futile. What is the point of imitating these strangers?
The child finds the mother tied to a post, unties her, and kisses her wrists. This is the same child who will become the Dostoyevskian idiot (Pierre Clementi) who is so central to The Virgin’s Bed (1969). The child is a sort of genius for the parents, who reveals or develops their uselessness. In the sequel, the idiot is now as helpless as his parents, is still driven by this goodness and desire to help, but is held in check by fate and rage at the passivity of this televised revolutionary wreckage -- when the revolutionaries saw themselves on la télé, their will to alter reality vanished. After that, there could only be betrayal and repression.
The Virgin's Bed is a funny, angry film that is sooo post-68. The mother (Zou-Zou), who is Mary and also the Magdalene, pulls the kelp-covered Idiot from the water, so that Clementi can begin to shiver and tremble. He calls out to his missing father and is nagged onward by his mother, in some vague mission to lead and speak to the people. The irony of the failed revolution is embodied in this Prince Myshkin, this knight errant who succeeds at only one thing: killing his mother. He kills her not out of some strange Freudian desire, but because it seems she refuses to acknowledge the bleak aftermath of this collective failure to overthrow and replace the father. Victim blaming. The father is still distant and still powerful in absence. The film is like a teenager’s version of a Bergman movie, filled with rage and a pointless rebellion against one’s generation.
The ironic temperament and listless tempo of the protagonist’s wounded naiveté is rhymed by Louis, Garrel fils, in Regular Lovers, who wanders, fights in the street, watches, to return home to be fed in an almost identical scene. In The Virgin’s Bed, the Mother berates him for having lost his megaphone, for being useless, for not following these cryptic instructions from his father. And this void is at the heart of Garrel’s melancholy, the father is not present enough, or distant enough, or powerful enough to fuel and fire the Idiot’s refusal or challenge. ‘The Rebel Without a Cause’ could be a good alternate title for this film. The son is half-hearted, presumably like the father. So his rage can only be directed at the women who dispense food, clean clothing, and sex. The idiot-child’s victimization turns on the dual stigmata of nurturing and desire. There is a sadism early on in Garrel, indistinguishable from masochism and the crown of the sad white boy martyr. But out of this comes something of benefit in future films, Garrel’s extraordinary lucidity about male romantic delusion and passivity. There is eventually no bitterness, just wisdom. But how did this transmutation happen? How does Garrel become that generous, emotive father?
In La cicatrice intérieure (The Inner Scar, 1972), the foremother of promotional films like Lemonade, Nico asks Garrel: “Where are you taking me…?” Like a poet, he does not answer. Which is just as well, because it is basically a druggy tie-in for Desertshore, the brilliant Nico record. Another Holy Family (Nico, her son Ari, and Pierre Clementi) leaves Garrel on the outside, with no part to play. Another curious thing: Russell Brand seems to have stolen his entire shtick from Clementi in this movie. The problem with La cicatrice intérieure, is that it covers no new ground that wasn’t covered in The Virgin’s Bed. Because it is a co-signed film in practice if not in name, it is dulled and serious where Virgin is funny, and thumbsucky where Virgin reveals.
Clint Eastwood (Paint Your Wagon), clearly part of the brigade of those thunderstruck by the apothecary’s daughter of Marshalltown, Iowa, says three interesting things about Jean Seberg. First, that she is probably the love of his life. Secondo, that no film ever captured her as she was, whatever that means. And third, that he always wanted (he is almost embarrassed to admit this) to make an improvised film with her, perhaps along the lines of the fictional film starring Maria Wyeth inside of Play It As It Lays (1972). Now, it’s safe to say and likely that Clint Eastwood has never seen Les hautes solitudes (1974). Must we also doubt his considerable authority?
Les hautes solitudes sets about fictionalizing the Warholian movie portrait. Warhol leaves the room, unleashes the camera, craftily unsettles the victim, but Garrel clearly stays, like a scientist-interlocutor who seeks “qualities of life, much more than qualities of style.” Whenever a filmmaker talks of these things, they mean to speak, even if they don’t know it, of the poetics of fiction, the furtive-fictive emblematic qualities of the real. Garrel also describes the film in Gerald Courant's film on Seberg, as a psychoanalysis married uneasily to a psychodrama, not of himself but making it subject to the meanderings and the self-dramatizations of the actors. A film, then, directed by soul. Akin to a ritual when the usual—the therapeutic path—is blocked. What is an analysis? It is either an opportunity to crudely craft a narrative (a hollow victory of meaning) to one’s life, or in this case a way to use the camera to increase the stakes, to trick the soul out beyond the pose. How difficult it may be for a professional, whether an actor or a madwoman, who is strongly trained against self-betrayal to reveal anything without premeditation. Let’s remember that for director Robert Rossen, in Lilith (1964), Seberg made a very credible soul animal on the loose. For the first time, in Lilith, it looks like she is having fun. Garrel gave her an opportunity to tune the revelation to a much more private and secret frequency. Real Presences, but amid confusions of form. But not just that, the aim of Les hautes solitudes seems to be to trouble the coherence of both the real and the fiction, to keep the experience on the absolute border of the tyranny of meaning. What Japanese director Yoshishige Yoshida calls muzan. And there is one more example: the strange, vague, smiling light in Jean Eustache’s eyes taken by Garrel in Les ministères de l'art (1989). But what is lying under these Real Presences to ratify them? Death, or Santa Muerte, I think.
The vampiric essence of photography—Codec: Composition/Decomposition. What you give to the camera is never returned. No amount of selfie-selfhood can hide it. We know this when we watch films of the dead, films of Nico, films of Terzieff, films of Tina Aumont, films of Jean Seberg. Their iconicity cost them something dear. Or maybe life wasn’t so dear to them. They submit to iconicity as a technical means of transcending the flesh, more powerful than any drug. Garrel is interested in this necromancy—if his films front as fetishistic, they are only so incidentally. Garrel is interested in dissolution through the practice of lucidity. His only peer in this particular search is the legendary Iván Zulueta, whose Arrebato (Rapture, 1979), the only honest film in the history of cinema, painfully under-known, is a mathematical proof of these mortuary arrangements of the cinema. Film not as embalming, memorial practice, André Bazin’s mummy complex, but as the Death, literally, of A Thousand Cuts. But notice that the homeopathic, cryptic storytelling in Les hautes solitudes is too weak to ward off Santa Muerte.
Call it a lesson learned.
In Elle a passé tant d'heures sous les sunlights... (She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps, 1985), Garrel hesitates to film his loved ones, because he knows this—this taking—has metaphysical consequences which he is too embarrassed to talk about. This is an amazing scene, and it always surprises me that it’s explicitness is allowed. He’s asking fellow director Jacques Doillon, hesitantly, delicately, how it is possible to film one’s children, and how much weight to give the natural objections of the mother, who wants to shield the child, but also guard her domain. And Doillon is almost contemptuous; he asks Garrel (I’m paraphrasing), “Why do you need to go through the Mother to see your son? — he’s your son!” Doillon is claiming the right to film as an explicitly patriarchal act. This is not the male-gaze, but the Gaze of the Father. And, I think, a sea change in the inner life of Philippe Garrel.
From this point on, it’s possible to see two parallel tracks in Garrel, more shamanistic fictions and the return of the family. Encased in fictions, the beloved persons may travel for the moment safely through Cinema’s death glare. The earlier Liberté, la nuit (1984) is a template for the rest: a film about a dissolving marriage, and about seeing your father (Maurice Garrel) as a lover. Emergency Kisses (1989) tackles the horned dilemma explicitly: Philippe Garrel, as himself, has to defend the choice of casting another actress in the place of Brigitte Sy (the actress-mother-director of Louis), who demands to know how another actress can ever ‘play’ her better than she can. This reading puts the false romance of Nico-Garrel at the periphery of his creative life, where it should be. The true obsessive energy is directed at parental authority, children’s relations of witness to their parents, and (with Louis and Garrel’s daughter, Esther) the way to integrate fatherhood and coupling responsibly, lovingly, and not fatalistically, into a life of film, a filmed life. Which is this modern way of Being Towards Death.
This is not some academic or Kierkegaardian diversion: the ethics of filming and broadcast, of death and iconicity, is now everyone’s problem, not just movie stars and terrorists.
“We're the only two to have started out as teenagers. We were the youngest two filmmakers out of anyone. This was a source of great pride. It created a tremendous bond between us.” “It's strange, this kind of distress. And then there's me, who makes four films with people who kill themselves in fiction. I don't know why this is. I'm not suicidal at all. I think one has the right, that's all. But it really makes you think, the fact that among the six, the first two ([Jean Eustache and Akerman] mentioned would go by their own hand…”
—Garrel on Chantal Akerman (translation Craig Keller)
Garrel was devastated by the twin shocks of the suicides of Jean Seberg and Jean Eustache, just two years apart, so much so that he made a fiction about it, Rue Fontaine (in the 1984 omnibus Paris vu par... 20 ans après). “Beware of life’s sweetness!” says René (Jean-Pierre Léaud), one of Garrel’s brilliantly sketched man-children, who seems to contain inside himself both Eustache’s ancient hero and bitterness itself. Garrel—let’s take his word for it—is not a suicidal personality, but he is interested in the gap between filmed life and inner life, so he is drawn to suicide as a dramatic situation. What sticks in Rue Fontaine is Christine Boisson at the window, as Garrel waits like a hunter for some sort of muzan, some micro-expression that stands for a symbol of this gap.
Suicide is a particular psychic constellation. The experts say coldly, calmly: Failure to integrate the Mother or separate a self from her. So, in 2015 comes the death of Chantal Akerman, the most painful of all for Garrel, literally as the postscript to the death of Akerman’s own much-filmed mother. She sacralizes this vampiric relation directly, without intermediation, in Cinema. They inspired each other, drew strength from each other, on alike paths. These are cautionary tales. Artists take these solitary risks so that we may only watch. But as I say, iconicity is a plague now.
A final, useful contrast: Garrel, former enfant terrible, to Godard the perma-eternal child, the rebel without a cause at 80-something. Who is never cured of his aged Wertherism and the boo-hoo-hooing at the end of cinema and its history(ies). Godard has made a career out of mourning and melancholia, this, that and the other: the counter-Adventist. Like many a mythomanic bullshit artist, JLG finds it impermissible to fundamentally change. And this is why the last 30 years of his life are a futile attempt to get people to enter into his monologue. This is what happens to eternal children—according to the Jungians—motorcycle or mountain climbing accidents, in other words the pursuit of a death wish as a means to defeat aging and the slow spirit of wisdumb. By almost being killed in a motorcycle accident, and failing to become a Neo-Wertherian icon, let’s note that Godard is eerily and doggedly following in the footsteps of his mother, Odile, who, as is never mentioned enough, was killed in a motor scooter accident in 1954. Godard did not attend the funeral.