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The Mythopoesis of Autobiography: Philippe Garrel's "Emergency Kisses" and "I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar"

"I had a lover,
I don't think I'll risk another
These days, these days.
And if I seem to be afraid
To live the life that I have made in song
It's just that I've been losing
so long."

- Nico, "These Days"

When I think of love, I think of a few people I should have or could have loved, and I try to figure out what I mean when I use the word. The latter is a philosophical project, a rational grappling with things I haven't yet learned to feel. And I think of Aquinas' "To love is to will the good of another," and of the different words that other languages have for forms of love, and of a quote from a book I haven't read: "Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction." But the truth is, I don't believe these concepts one bit. I think that love consists of looking at someone and seeing them, in their complete them-ness and their humanity. Love is the point at which haecceity and quiddity meet.

***

A scene in black and white: A man lies on the floor, reading. We can barely see his face. A woman walks into the room, crying. She tries to convince him to let her play her own role in the film he's making, she says he doesn't love her. She walks around the room, slight tears below her eyes, pleading and full of sadness. She is wounded and vulnerable in her attempts to work through the nature of love; she stands in front of a window that the shining sun turns bright white. The camera follows her face, her trembling eyes, her beautifully lit hair. For four minutes we watch this woman in a single take. I fall in love a little bit every time.

***

"Cinema is by now a part of our memory. It is an attempt to rebuild our imperfect memories. In that respect it can be fiction. I do not think art represents history, I think it is a part of it. Even if it’s fake and mythological sometimes."

- Philippe Garrel

***

Garrel's films self-consciously evoke the myth of the Romantic artist; he shares with his characters a belief in the transcendental essence of art and love. Emergency Kisses pits these two forces against each other. It's a tension Garrel explores in various guises across his career, perhaps most clearly in the classically dramatic ironies of Sauvage innocence, an autobiographically-inflected portrait of his relationship with Nico (one can think of Sauvage innocence as a fusion of Emergency Kisses, I Can No Longer Here the Guitar, and Sophocles). Emergency Kisses offers as setup a meta-film whose crisis is that of a filmmaker's wife made jealous by not being cast in her husband's new film. Philippe Garrel plays the filmmaker, his wife Brigitte Sy plays his wife, young Louis Garrel his son, and Maurice Garrel his father, but the embedded autobiography never overtakes the intimacy of Garrel's camera. Watching these films - the way people move, the way we watch them move - is like learning to see rather than simply looking.

***

Serge Daney on Garrel's 1982 film L'Enfant secret:

"Garrel has succeeded in filming something we have never seen before: the faces of actors in silent films during those moments when the black intertitles, with their paltry, illuminated words, filled the screen."

***

The episode of Cinéma, de notre temps dedicated to Philippe Garrel is titled Philippe Garrel, Artiste. Garrel fits our era's notion of the artist perfectly; essentially derived from the myths propagated* by the Romantics (with a dash of Freud added in), this notion relies on the idea that compulsion is a central component of 'artistic' creation. This myth of authenticity implies that the relation between art and life needs to be blurred for art to be true, and that this 'authenticity' can somehow enhance the truth-value of a work of 'fiction.'

Garrel's use of cinema as autobiographical therapy abstracts his personal history into mythos, placing itself in the overlap between historia as history and historia as story. This mode of creation is especially important to the films made after the end of his ten year relationship with Nico, beginning with 1979's L'Enfant secret. In Emergency Kisses and I Can No Longer Here the Guitar, Garrel distills and twists his experiences into an exploration of their philosophical essences. His films are concerned with rational thought about emotional experiences, and are themselves rationally thought reimaginings of emotional autobiography.

***

A scene in color: A man walks into a room. He stands in front of a white wall and a window; the window's light glows a bit on the side of his face. A woman's voice, from offscreen, tells him: "Marianne is dead." He stops, breathes very deeply, shifts his shoulders slightly. He stares straight ahead, motionless, forgetting to breathe. He breathes deeply again, asks how it happened. The camera pans to the woman, sitting on a couch. She answers him; the camera pans back. He stands there, frozen, starts to turn away, turns back, turns the other way, pivots again. His breaths become heavy and fast. The woman again, full of compassion, offering details, seeing if he is alright. The man again, unsteady, not sure where to turn, turns to the wall, tears start to come, he turns away, weeping, trying to stifle himself.

***

Both Emergency Kisses and I Can No Longer Here the Guitar deal with the tension between ideas and the world. The ideas in question are rational approaches to understanding the characters' own romantic longings and dilemmas. Garrel's magic is the use of his camera to observe these dilemmas and the struggles of characters to make sense of their situations and emotions. In their failure to reconcile logos and mythos, we see these characters in their most private struggles, their most desperate and seeking moments, and in the fullness of their humanity.

***

Emergency Kisses and I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar will be released on May 26th by Zeitgeist films, on a two-disc set that includes Philippe Garrel, Artiste.

“These Days” was written by Jackson Browne
But sung by Nico, which is the import for Garrel…
And Iackson Browne was 15 at the time. Wes Anderson uses Nuco’s version of the song in a key scene in “The Royal Tenebaums” Philippe Garrel is most definitely a romantic — of the Old School. Grand. Passionate. Obsessive. Excessive. Good to see these two films out on DVD. High time “La Cicatrice Interieure” (starring and co-written by Nico) was made available, as well as “Le Lit de La Vierge.” and “Le Berceau de Cristal.” His masterpeice “Les Amants Reguliers” has been available on DVD for some time. Fascinating that there are three generations of Garrels: Papa, Philippe and the babe-a-licious Louis.
beautiful piece. As much as these two films are about a failure in reconciling reality and myth, i see these films as also being about a failure in reconciling trauma and the present in which one tries to move forward. There is a silence and a stasis to his later work (such as these films and others youve mentioned, such as sauvage innocence). It’s like the stasis of haunted people who may’ve died but are somehow survivors stuck halfway between the past and the present. His characters in the 80s and 90s are characterised by silence not so different from those in his ‘muet’ films of earlier decades: but here it is in the spareness of his mise en scene, in the basic ness of the narrative, in the duration of the average shot length.
Thanks so much for the link, David Ehrenstein! I wanted to see “Les hautes solitudes” for quite some time! I will watch it this week.

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