Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Philippe Garrel's A Burning Hot Summer (2011) is showing June 22 - July 22, 2018 in many countries around the world.
There is a moment in Philippe Garrel's A Burning Hot Summer which stands out. Three characters attend a party. Frédéric (Louis Garrel), a painter, and Paul (Jérôme Robart), a budding writer, sit together discussing their work. “I’ll base a character on you one day…you won’t recognize yourself,” Paul suggests. Frédéric responds: “maybe I’ll be better…better than in real life.” In the next room, Frédéric’s wife Angèle (Monica Bellucci) dances with a number of partners to ‘Truth Begins’ by Dirty Pretty Things. Garrel’s camera, normally restrained, breaks free, loosely tracking Angèle’s path from one partner to another, only to be obstructed by the movements of other dancers as the foreground becomes increasingly abstracted by their fluid movements around the room. No one figure has control over the others. The scene, shot in a single take, is a rare moment of freedom in an otherwise rigid and formally austere film that it underscores just how trapped Angèle has been leading up to this moment.
The male gaze haunts Philippe Garrel’s cinema: “Cinema was designed by men and it is always they who determine our portrayals, our ways of seeing things and telling things.”1 His male protagonists are plagued by a pathological need to own every aspect of the women in their lives, a dichotomy realized in its purest form in 1974’s Les hautes solitudes: an uncomfortably intimate, uncompromising exploration of femininity told entirely through silent close-ups of actors and actresses. Garrel implicates himself in this gaze through his role as cameraman. His then-girlfriend, Nico, shouts wordlessly at the camera, as if exasperated by its constant gaze. But it is an exasperation the camera cannot comprehend. We see the breakdown of their relationship in real time.
Garrel’s attempts to reconcile his separation with Nico becomes a preoccupation throughout the rest of his films:
“A woman has disappeared and we celebrate the love we felt for her. At first, we are satisfied with glorifying the world and the tenderness of the feelings we shared. And when all that falls short, we seek solace in art, and through it, we try to leave for others the proof that love exists, and that it abandoned us, since we felt it…”2
Frédéric, played by the director's son, is the latest in a long line of these self-inserts. The endemic nature of masculine dominance in cinema is echoed in Frédéric and Paul’s creative endeavors. Frédéric’s paintbrush could be seen as synonymous with Garrel’s camera. The men are drawn to art, because through it they can construct meaning and, more importantly, exert dominance over their subjects. Upon seeing Angèle dancing, an image which is truly free from any codes of gender or masculine dominance, Frédéric instantly rejects her: “You had a good time whoring around” is the only thing he can think to say. Frédéric, totally convinced of the nonexistent power he has over Angèle, cannot appreciate the moment as beautiful, because it is a beauty that is out of his control.
Frédéric is unable to see the world beyond his own immediate interests; his creative power over Angèle has given him an ugly self-entitlement, disconnecting him from the reality of the person closest to him. The act of painting becomes a form of infidelity, allowing him to paint and sleep with women other than Angèle. His image-making permits him to exercise a universal masculine dominance. Women are interchangeable, because Frédéric is in love with an image rather than an individual. Angèle is no longer a person, she is an Other for Frédéric to fetishize relentlessly. This dominance has rendered Frédéric unable to comprehend Angèle’s subjecthood.
Garrel’s male protagonists are driven to destruction by this impulse to consume. Their desire to posses their lover, to fully understand and thereby control her is doomed, because it is a desire that fails to recognize this fetishization is built on depersonalization and obscurity. Though Frédéric considers himself free to sleep with anyone, the second Angèle attempts to separate herself from Frédéric, the second she shows a hint of personality or self, his insecure fantasies spiral out of control and he violently rejects her expression of self. “I’m not made for self-sacrifice,” Angèle discloses. She understands that her relationship is damned, because she cannot give herself over entirely to Frédéric.
Frédéric and Paul spend the entire film talking about something they never have any direct contact with. Despite all their claims to understand art and beauty, they are unable to comprehend true beauty when they see it. Instead of reveling in Angèle’s expression of liberation, Frédéric would much rather isolate himself, limiting the definition of beauty to his immediate circle of influence. Frédéric could not recognisz the character Paul bases him on, because he is unable to reconcile the image of himself with the man he truly is. He is so consumed by their self-worth and creative genius that nothing else can penetrate his carapace of narcissistic isolation. Despite rejecting the bourgeois dead beauty of Rome, Frederic is surrounded by it. His numerous attempts to forge new meaning fail, because he cannot comprehend that which is truly new or free. His inability to comprehend Angèle as a person has left him stuck in the old ways he claims to despise. Dead beauty is his prison.