It is a raw experience. No title, no credits of any sort. No soundtrack—although I defy anyone to watch it in absolute silence and not “hear” something, at some point, in their head. Just a series of “moving images” (for once the currently fashionable artworld term is correct), portraits in black-and-white, mostly trained on faces, or the upper parts of several bodies. There is no make-up, only minimal lighting and staging, and no post-production effects or clean-up whatsoever.
The on-screen participants include Nico, Tina Aumont, Laurent Terzieff. And, most extensively, Jean Seberg—which may come as a shock to viewers not entirely au fait with the biography of the film’s director, Philippe Garrel. “Garrel’s camera sees Seberg honestly,” wrote David Ehrenstein in his book Film: The Front Line 1984, “as if discovering her for the first time, as if Jean Seberg weren’t already Jean Seberg.”
Seberg was in her mid 30s when Les hautes solitudes (1974) was shot. Garrel had met her through a friend, during this most hermetic and withdrawn period of his life. Although still acting in professional (sometimes quite mediocre) feature film productions at this time, Seberg had already suffered many hard, emotional knocks and sudden reversals of career fortune. These experiences seem mutely etched into her face in Garrel’s film. In some shots she retains the fresh beauty we associate with her early Hollywood roles; in others, she seems prematurely aged.
Only five years later, she would be found dead in her car, under mysterious circumstances that would be officially ruled as “probable suicide”—thus fueling an enduring, even extravagant legend. Different perspectives on that legend can be explored through David Richards’s book Played Out: The Jean Seberg Story (1981), which Jodie Foster optioned for screen adaptation in the early 1990s; or Mark Rappaport’s essay-film From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995), among other memorials. (When Rappaport made his film, no copy of Les hautes solitudes was available, alas.)
Garrel has often recounted the incident of walking home from a film lab in September 1979 and spying the horrifying, matter-of-fact newspaper headline that informed him of Seberg’s death. That moment is recreated in the short work that most directly depicts Garrel’s time with Seberg, Rue Fontaine (part of the anthology Paris Seen By … 20 Years Later, 1984), in which Jean-Pierre Léaud becomes the alter ego of the director. But there are also traces of their story in Night Wind (1998), where Catherine Deneuve incarnates the part of an emotionally disturbed, suicidal, married woman; and in Frontier of Dawn (2008), in which Garrel once more stages the eerie dream of a woman inside a mirror calling her former lover to join her in the realm of the dead. As in the case of Nico or the painter Frédéric Pardo, the ghosts that inhabit Garrel’s life do not depart willingly or easily.
Let’s return to the texture of Les hautes solitudes as a film. This is the phase of Garrel’s itinerary as artist poised between sometimes sumptuous, neo-romantic experiments like La cicatrice intérieure (1970), and his “return to narrative” in the 1980s, beginning with his masterpiece, L’enfant secret (1982). Much of the 1970s were a dark time for Garrel, as he plunged into the twilight of hard drug use portrayed in J’entends plus la guitar (1991), alongside Nico. He reached the point of making his avant-garde films with almost no money or resources, shooting in his own apartment or the abodes of friends, on whatever leftover film stock he could scrounge. Les hautes solitudes is truly (to steal the title of a Stan Brakhage book) “film at wit’s end.” Its material precariousness, and preciousness, are evident in every flare and flicker, every swirl of celluloid grain, every dip in the light level coming from a nearby window or bedside lamp. At moments, the camera strains to capture—and we strain to see—what is in the picture. Not dark yet, but getting there.
There is nothing systematic about this film, nothing that strikes us as especially premeditated in advance, or figured out in the editing. Is it solely comprised of takes in just the same order as they came out of the camera, placed end to end? We will never know, precisely. There is no seeming logic to the fact that Nico appears in several shots at the start, but then never again; no apparent order to the visions of Seberg in various moods and states; no punctuality in the intrusions of the image of a similarly brooding male. Equally, there is no way to “square” the frequent presence of Tina Aumont (whose own biography is another, countercultural saga altogether)—in her shared moments with Seberg here, she could be a friend, a doppelgänger, a younger self, or an enabler already walking way over on the wild, dark side. The viewer’s thoughts take off on many such tangents during the 80 or so minutes of Les hautes solitudes: further proof that so-called ‘slow cinema’ is essential, soul food for the imagination.
And yet, at the same time, this is far from registering as a casual, sloppy, hand-held series of stolen or spontaneous moments. The mode is closer to Andy Warhol’s static “movie portraits” of the era, clearly a big influence on Les hautes solitudes: Garrel’s camera is always rock-solid on a tripod. His guiding intention was to focus on faces, “keeping secret the conditions of the shoot,” its location or context. The framing of shots plays games with spatial orientation: at times we wonder if the performers are standing or lying down, and at what exact angle (comfortable or otherwise) this might be happening. There is never anything resembling a conventional, establishing view of a room or apartment; everything is corners, edges, the type of indeterminate zones that Gilles Deleueze would label, a decade later, “any-spaces-whatever.” Certain dramatic-looking props—like a table which is also a mirror—add to the floating confusion, this suspension of clear reference-points.
It has often been said: a spectator will search for a story, some kind of story, in any succession of images placed before them, even when a storyline plainly does not exist. It is partly a result of Garrel’s careful framing strategies that we tend to want to read a relation—such as shot and counter-shot—between one image and the next in some parts of Les hautes solitudes, as if certain characters could be talking to each other, or partaking in some shared intrigue. It’s all in our minds; the connections are never really there.
In truth, the film flirts with narrative, but deliberately never follows through. Storytelling (and all it implies for a filmmaker) was too heavy a burden, too tainted a responsibility, for Garrel in this period of his life. But he has testified that Seberg was inventing her own scenes, actions, monologues for his camera, even though she was well aware that no sound was being recorded—“she improvised psychodramas,” including one literally dangerous Method moment where she ingests too many pills and has to be rescued by Aumont. In this Metrograph text translated by Nicholas Elliott from Thomas Lescure’s superb French book of interviews and documents, Une caméra à la place du cœur (1992), Garrel informs us that Seberg “alternated between identifying with [Gérard de] Nerval’s Aurélia, whom she wanted to play in a modern style, and Joan of Arc, because she had played the Americans’ Joan of Arc.” The on-screen ambiguity is total: even when Seberg seems to be sleeping, we wonder whether she is acting, projecting a persona, some evoked memory of Breathless, Bonjour tristesse, or perhaps one of the exceedingly strange films made with her former husband, novelist Romain Gary. Ghosts, yet again.
As much as Les hautes solitudes gazes into the haunted pasts of its players, it also predicts a cinematic future. There are stunning moments where a Garrelian devotee suddenly sees an image—such as Aumont sitting at a table, thinking—that will be recreated, almost exactly, many years later, in major works such as Les amants réguliers (2005). Even that restless gesture of sleeping has become a central, recurring motif in his cinema. It is as if Garrel has stored up, in his memory, all this “laboratory footage” he once had the chance to pursue, in his stoned leisure, with such amazing screen creatures—before the drive to achieve a slightly more normal life, and a slightly more normal cinema, would compel him to change.
Now, Philippe Garrel’s films are the tough testament of a survivor: none of the others in Les hautes solitudes (Terzieff, Aumont, Nico, Seberg) made it this far. His art has endured its “wit’s end”, and is all the richer and deeper for it today.
Les hautes solitudes will screen, in a restored print from The Film Desk, at New York's Metrograph from Friday 24 - March 2, 2017.