Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Philippe Garrel's Rue Fontaine (1984) is free to watch below.
As is often the case with the films by Philippe Garrel, Rue Fontaine—made as an episode for an omnibus feature, Paris vu par... vingt ans après (1984)—can be approached from an autobiographical angle. The real-life event at the heart of this film is the death of Jean Seberg in 1979. Garrel had met Seberg some years before, and made one of his most haunting films, Les hautes solitudes (1974), with her. There's a brief but moving account by Garrel himself, "I Made a Film with Jean Seberg," where he talks about the encounter with the actress and the events that followed. It’s surprising to see how closely Rue Fontaine sticks to this account, how many striking details (including some that might seem minor) have found their way into the resulting film. But the greatness of Garrel's autobiographical incursions is that, while drawing from personal experience, while being inextricably intertwined with his own life, they give us back something that belongs fully to cinema, and that cinema alone makes possible.
At the start of Rue Fontaine, René (Jean-Pierre Léaud), sitting in a café with his friend Louis (played by Garrel himself), utters a monologue revolving around pain, nightmares, wounds, medicines, poverty, and violence. He speaks in sudden bursts and pauses, like a madman who has spent a long time in isolation. Only at the end, the break-up with a woman—who had asked him to give her a child and then disappeared—emerges as the possible origin cohering his tortured speech. The director films it all in one, single shot of René—leaving Louis out of the frame. The traffic noise rumbles, obscuring some words and adding an acute sensation of disturbance. René is not an uncharacteristic Garrel hero, but Léaud—who delivers his monologue with the extravagant affectations and enervating obsessiveness unique to him—confers upon the character a distinctively anxious and intense edge.
This heavy plunge into René's state of mind is brought to a close when Louis announces that he is meeting a woman, Génie (Christine Boisson), and invites his friend to come along. Garrel, then, surprises us with the lightness of an unexpected gesture. Lightness in two senses: for we pass from René's somber, medium shot in the café to a bright image of the two friends in the streets; but we also move from René's initial reluctance to his playful participation. He asks Louis for a coin, throws it in the air, and disappears inside a flower shop. In the next shot, the two friends emerge from the subway. René whistles, walking behind a tall, white lily flower—a present for this unknown woman at whose house he's appearing, unannounced. The image is both tender and comical.
No director films encounters like Garrel does. Sometimes there are austere, everyday signs (here, a shot of a plaque with the name of the street) that seem to carry an air of premonition. But, in Garrel's cinema, the birth of love really is like the flapping of a bird: a gracious clinch happening amidst other things. In Rue Fontaine, the encounter between René and Génie is odd and touching. Louis leaves early, but René stays. Génie stands in front of the window, drenched in white light. René sits awkwardly in a chair—an ill-fitting figure inadequately inhabiting this space to which he doesn't belong. There are probing glances between the man and the woman. But, as always, the charge of the event can only be properly recognized by what comes afterwards.
Following René's departure, Génie closes the apartment door and turns to the camera: a deceptively conclusive gesture. Then, in one of the most beautiful cuts of his cinema, Garrel takes us from this interior image of Génie to an exterior shot of René anxiously waiting on a bridge. This very cut marks the start of Faton Cahen's wonderful piano theme, unfolding via returns with minor variations and swift accelerations. What initially seemed a parting of ways results in a montage of eight shots—the couple together in the streets, in a café, back at Génie's apartment— that vividly attests to their romantic rapture. The rush of desire carries us forward while the crystallization of love finds its perfect expression in the centripetal force effected by the gestures of the couple as they kiss, embrace, touch, look, undress, and caress each other. In less than two minutes, Garrel condenses this unique intensity that upturns everything, altering the rhythm, the mood, the weight of life itself.
When the next section of Rue Fontaine begins, we don't know how much time has elapsed. Back in his room, René receives a basket of fruit from Génie. He phones from a booth, asking to see her. In the building's foyer, against a white wall, René walks nervously, up and down—this shot rhyming with that of him waiting on the bridge. But when Génie finally appears, there are no kisses, nor any embrace. In a stark contrast with the previous section, now there is an unbridgeable distance between the bodies. First, René poses his hands on Genie's shoulders, preventing her from getting closer to him. Later, it's Genie who withdraws from his touch, and asks him to leave. In the middle, she tells him about her dead daughter, whose body she's trying to bring to France for a burial.
In The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze discusses Garrel's cinema as one that expresses "the problem of the three bodies: the man, the woman, and the child. The holy story as gesture"; and Rue Fontaine, in particular, as a film where "the child appears as the undecidable point in relation to which the attitudes of a man and a woman are distributed." In Rue Fontaine (which begins with a shot of the Holy Bible on the floor of the hero's room), this figure of a child brings together the two monologues: the first delivered by René at the start of the film, and by Génie in this later scene. The child—strikingly, a doubly absent child: not yet born or already dead—repeatedly marks the impossibility of the relationship between man and woman.
After this separation, Rue Fontaine falls into a parade of echoes and phantasmagorias. The most dramatic moment of the film is about to happen: René walks the streets and, suddenly, freezes; in the reverse shot, a newspaper's front page, bearing a photo of Génie, proclaims the news of her death. To watch Garrel's cinema is also to experience the surging of the unthinkable, of the unforeseen, the abyss slashed by these premature deaths and sudden suicides. An image of the woman's dead body, plummeted onto the bed, flashes on the screen. In this brief, nightmarish apparition, black reigns: the navy blue of Génie's dress appears here blackened, and is pitted against the black of the bed cover. René, in shock and struggling to breathe, puts his hand on his chest—a gesture that reminds us of his earlier monologue: "I'm sleeping and, suddenly, I wake up as if I'd been stabbed with a knife."
At this point of the film, both the narrative and the image become murky. Génie's ghost appears to René in dreams, adopting different guises. First, in the street, as a prostitute; then, in his own room, dressed in a white nightgown. Although Garrel, in his account of the real-life events that inspired the film, compares the apparitions he experienced to those in Théophile Gautier's novel Spirite (1865), several details of this final segment—the reference to prostitution, the mention of the “back of the church" as a meeting point, the unnatural, vampiric motion of Boisson as she caresses the man—seem closer to a short story by the same author, “The Dead Lover” (“La Morte amoureuse,” 1839). Most of this section is lit only by a candle, resulting in a large amount of grain buzzing on the screen, like a swarm of bees. In the last (and strangest) shot of the film, the image is so granulated that it seems to push everything into complete disintegration. René's suicide is depicted as an extended fall. A fall into the night and into despair. A fall of the instruments: the spoon, the glass. And the fall of his own body, slowly collapsing onto the floor.
One aspect of Garrel's cinema that I've always found impressive is his capacity to chronicle intimate relationships by reducing entire periods to a sort of fundamental essence—as if, using the tools provided by the medium, he can extract from life's narrative flow some scenes, events, moments imbued with a precious significance. In his films, to pass from one section to another is to move across time. But moving across time is, above all, navigating through blocks of emotion, each one with its particular density and weight. In Rue Fontaine, the obligatory compression effected by the short format (how much happens in these 17 minutes of cinema!) makes this experience extreme. How close, in this film, are awakening to light and sinking into darkness, frenzy and freeze, the graceful gesture and the heaviest blow. To travel, in such a short span of time, across such changing states and polarities creates a special, breathless vertigo—an understanding of life in all its fleetingness and residue.