By Nick Pinkerton
Jâ€™entends plus la guitare (I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar)
Dir. Philippe Garrel, France, 1991, The Film Desk
Is Philippe Garrel ready to â€śbreakâ€ť in Americaâ€”or, at least, New York? Last yearâ€™s limited release of his opus Regular Lovers was the first stateside distribution heâ€™d received in four decades. Nobody got rich off it, but for the cabal of film obscurantists it screened to, it was an unquestionably major document. Like his contemporary Roberto BolaĂ±oâ€™s The Savage Detectives, it was a â€ślove letterâ€ť to the generation who came of age in the late Sixties and Seventies, accomplished with romance, poignancy, and the sociohistorical breadth of a 19th-century novel (that itâ€™s a generation thatâ€™s treated itself to far too many eulogies already does not, I should say, diminish the art).
Now BAMcinĂ©matek curator (and longtime Garrel booster) Jake Perlinâ€™s nascent distributor Film Desk is giving the directorâ€™s Jâ€™entends plus la guitare (I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar) a long-deferred run. Itâ€™s a chancy gambleâ€”but the until-recent obscurity of Garrelâ€™s name stateside, his ever-modish sullenness, and his impeccably hip references/collaborators (Cale, Godard, Jean Seberg, Nico) might seem to favor a new generation of kids pretending theyâ€™d known about him for years (this is the best-case scenario).
Further evidence that the Nineties might be the greatest film decade: Guitar was finished in 1991, three years after the mausoleum-throated Teutonic chanteuse Nico plopped off her bicycle in Ibiza, dead (keeping an appointment, by most accounts, sheâ€™d had for some time). Garrel had spent most of the Seventies with her. Their bodies of work from their time together are inextricable: the cover of her album Desertshore is a still from Garrelâ€™s monumentally inhospitable La Cicatrice interieur (The Inner Scar), in which she and her music prominently feature, alongside the director himself. Together theyâ€™d blackened spoons, stabbed veins, and creatively malingered in slag piles of medieval dolor and post-plague barrenness.
They met sometime in â€™68, â€™69, weâ€™ll say. He was a prodigy, having turned out a near-masterpiece by age twenty (the mythopoetic house-of-horrors Le Lit de la vierge, which uses her â€śThe Falconerâ€ť). She was ten years his senior, and had been making the scene foreverâ€”tripping through La Dolce vita, recording with the Velvets, and basically being the Forrest Gump of â€ścountercultureâ€ť starfucking, notching affairs with Bob Dylan (who wrote â€śIâ€™ll Keep It With Mineâ€ť for her), Jackson Browne (ditto â€śThese Daysâ€ť), Lou Reed (to whom she granted the legendary dismissal â€śI cannot make love to Jews anymoreâ€ť), Jim Morrison, Tim Buckley, Alain Delon (with whom she had a child in 1962), Iggy Pop (whom she allegedly gave the clap) . . . Garrel seems to have taken her more seriously than the aforementioned. He seems to take most things rather seriously.
Garrel often plays himself in his autobiographical films. His screen presence is near nullityâ€”the heavy head hangs; he speaks in quiet monotone, barely moving his lips; his posture is loose, as if nodding; his gaze is disconcertingly intent. In Guitare, however, that demeanor is channeled by BenoĂ®t RĂ©gent, playing â€śGerard,â€ť opposite Dutch actress Johanna Ter Steege as the Nico stand-in, Marianne.
Gerard and Marianne are on a limbo vacation amidst the tumbling slopes of postcard Positano, staying along with artist Martin (Yann Collette) and his girlfriend, Lolla (Mirielle Perrier). The stereotyped image of the Bay of Naples as a plein air paradise of purgative light is inverted; everything is shot in blue, dusky offseason light (I can scarcely think of a diegetic electric light source in the movie, and many key scenes occur in near-darkness). The tide rasps in the background, and the four drift in a Sargasso of lassitude.
There are no identifying period markers in his film in memoriamâ€”other than a general sense of self-explorative indulgence that we associate with the late Sixties, that is. The only cultural signifiers are books of poetry. Everyone is sedated, rarely seen standing, occupying underlit, underfurnished rooms, against a canvas of fresh, cool white linens. Eyes locked, sinking into one another, they pontificate on the love theyâ€™re living or losing. The dialogues are by Marc Cholodenko, a little-translated French poet and novelist with whom the director has collaborated on screenplays since 1989. Thereâ€™s a lot of meandering, stoned talk, and little wordplays based around in Marianneâ€™s fragmentary French.
Garrel, who cuddles his camera into the snuggest of intimacies, places paramount importance on the close-up and, in effect, its limitations. A key line, from Martin: â€śIâ€™m too close to you to even be able to look at you.â€ť The directorâ€™s produced an entire film out of loose ends, scrutinizing female faces in silent repose, which seems the quintessence of his cinematic experiment: how much can you extract from looking hard? (Collette, whose visage is half-collapsed around a glass eye, is fascinating to guiltlessly stare at.)
Return to Paris. Drugs are implicit from the beginningâ€”what else inspires people to slump in naked, twilight cells?â€”but now heroin comes in. Gerard, deceptively passive and near-incapacitated when he bottoms out, eventually proves himself a proper heir to a lineage of unrepentantly asshole-ish leading men of the French art house (see Messrs. Eustache, Pialat...). â€śAfter tomorrow, will you still be around?â€ť Marianneâ€™s young boy, raised in another house, asked of Gerard. He says yes; the kidâ€™s never seen again. She breaks Gerardâ€™s heart; he spreads his pain around. Thereâ€™s a procession of fucks with memorable faces. A casual thing with Linda (AdĂ©laĂŻde Blasquez, dark, sternly middle-aged). His clean-up savior Aline (Brigitte Sy, savage, beak-faced, either homely or gorgeous; the mother of Garrelâ€™s child, Louis), who justâ€”appearsâ€¦ and then a baby justâ€”appears. By which time heâ€™s off fucking young Adrienne (Anouk Grinberg), while Marianneâ€™s gone and buried, and thatâ€™s all there is to it. Has it been a year? Five? Two decades?
This all gets at the feeling that comes when waiting to fall asleep and remembering people you used to know. To judge from his films, Garrel seems a profoundly disappointed person; disappointed in the Gaullist re-election, in old love affairs, and generally in the world as it is (one so inclined could see this as a symptom of very early success). Regular Lovers, which documents the respective deaths of political and romantic idealism, is in the company of Jack Londonâ€™s Martin Eden as autobiography in which the author seems to indulge a fantasy of his own suicide. Iâ€™m working from a fractional view of his filmography, but an ascetic strain runs through Garrelâ€™s movies, which speaks of someone whoâ€™s in the habit of refusing the worldâ€”though maybe he just likes a blank backdrop against which to put a pretty girl in relief.
The disappointment in Guitare seems to stem from the realization that youâ€™ve come too far along to backtrack into the identifiable moment where things were right (the pat finality of death has that effect). Prog-fusion jazzman FranĂ§ois â€śFatonâ€ť Cahen does a superlative soundtrack, which often suggests obscure menaceâ€”and so is all the more moving when it unexpectedly breaks into slippery, sentimental fiddle and gamboling piano, as Gerard opens the door on Marianne, returning home to give things another try (â€śItâ€™s time for a kissâ€ť). A cut; kneeling before his seated beloved, he contentedly presses his lips to hersâ€”and then the clatter of her piss hitting water interrupts.
I havenâ€™t seen anything in movies that affects me quite this way: it is rude and ridiculous and really real. Itâ€™s the old harmony that Garrelâ€”or Gerardâ€”canâ€™t forget, which underlays everything after (from Martin Eden: â€śA man who has found the path to the hidden temple but has not followed it; who has, perhaps, caught glimpses of the temple and striven afterward to convince himself it was only a mirage of foliageâ€ť). So: is the title just wishful thinking?