Mirror Image
by Michael Joshua Rowin

Frontier of Dawn
Dir. Philippe Garrel, France, IFC Films

This past year the U.S. debut of Philippe Garrel’s 1991 masterpiece J’entends plus la guitare led Reverse Shot’s own Nick Pinkerton to ponder, “Is Philippe Garrel ready to ‘break’ in America—or, at least, New York?” (Hat tip as I steal his lead.) Now with the arrival of Frontier of Dawn, the third Garrel stateside theatrical release in three years (including 2007’s Regular Lovers), the answer might be for the first time an unqualified yes. More than that: even by the relative standards of an uncompromisingly dour and slow-paced Gallic auteur, Frontier of Dawn happens to be the most audience-friendly Garrel of the ten or so I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. It’s not exactly Happy-Go-Lucky, but for an art-house director who figures as one of the last hopes in Adrian Martin’s postmortem on cult cinema in the latest Cineaste (“being part of [a Dublin gathering of Garrel enthusiasts] felt thrillingly like obtaining membership to a secret society”), Frontier of Dawn might mark a significant ripple in the gradual wave of Garrel’s ever-growing renown in the U.S.

Aesthetically Frontier of Dawn (apparently also translated from the original La Frontière de l’aube as Frontier of the Dawn or The Dawn of the Shore) strongly adheres to the stark, painfully intimate, long take–heavy, usually black and white–palette cinema (here lensed by William Lubtchansky) that Garrel’s made his own since he was a 20-year-old wunderkind; as a story (co-written with Garrel by Marc Cholodenko and Arlette Langmann, collaborators on his last three pictures) it grants to his autobiographically-tinged ur-narrative of romantic disintegration and regret a cast of modern young people existing in the present day but living very much as the anachronistic super-grave bohemians of almost all his films. Photographer François (shaggy-haired son Louis Garrel) meets famous actress Carole (Laura Smet—Garrel has an affinity for women more striking when they frown than when they smile) on an assignment to take pictures of the star (for what purpose we never learn—the world outside the characters’ emotions barely registers). Carole is married to a man often away in Hollywood, and François and Carole fall in love in his absence, though early on they’re already talking of their inevitable breakup.

Carole proves to be a bit more than François can handle—she drinks, she flirts with other guys, she’s unpredictable and flighty and perhaps even downright insane (she thinks she’s being tailed by a cop because she “gives money to people”), and when her husband makes a surprise return and nearly catches the two in bed, François calls it quits. She cracks up while feverishly writing increasingly bizarre letters to François and ends up in a mental institution where she undergoes electroshock (one clue that the film takes place in 2008 by way of 1968). Though François tries to help her when she’s incarcerated, she commits suicide upon release. A year later François meets Eve (Clémentine Poidatz), equally beautiful but comparatively much more stable. Carole isn’t far from his mind.

A synopsis can never fully convey the way a film unfolds on screen—how it actually looks and feels—and Garrel’s work seems particularly resistant to written summation. The prior paragraphs may read as cliché, either in its self-pity or latent misogyny, but Frontier of Dawn is all in the delivery—in the way Garrel shoots a familiar dramatic moment from a surprising angle, the way he holds a scene until his quasi-somnambulant actors betray a telling gesture, the way he frames a bare interior to express its inherent loneliness, the way the sound mix gives sharp distinction to the gentlest, and often most nefarious, ambient noises; there’s only the faintest ornamentation (Jean-Claude Vannier’s intermittent piano and violin score and a few well-employed irises). For instance, he quickly introduces the film’s leads and the tension between them, but gives nothing away about how long it will take until they become more than cameraman and subject. About ten minutes in François is shooting Carole as she reclines on a bed, her face tilted in close up as François snaps away off screen. Carole smirks a little, giggles nervously, but her face never warns of François’ sudden entrance into the frame as he lurches over to kiss Carole. Only in retrospect do we realize Carole’s eyes have been leading François to her the whole time, and only in retrospect do we realize their physical embrace could have only occurred at that specific moment.

There’s an astonishing plan-sequence just before Carole’s suicide that further demonstrates Garrel’s understated gravitas. At first we see Carole alone in a café sleepily sulking, her head leaning on an upraised arm as she sits waiting in the sullenest gray shadows this side of Béla Tarr. The camera zooms in as Carole notices François approaching her table, and stays on her as it zooms out to now capture the back of François’ head in the frame. Carole tells François he’s changed, and the camera accomplishes a flawless pan and zoom toward a nearby mirror (an object that will become increasingly significant in the film’s second half), inverting the position of the two former lovers and lending importance to François’ reaction when Carole asks, “Remember I asked you if you’d love me if I was crazy?” François evinces a slight hesitant pause before his reply: “No.” Cameras have captured reflections countless times before, but never like this, never with an artless precision perfectly timed not for an ironic revelation but an ambiguity—François could be lying or telling the truth about his past promise to Carole, and either possibility is a horror. A palpable dread can then be felt when Carole asks, “Is that true?” “No, it’s not,” François sighs. The camera moves back to its original position as François devastates Carole by telling her he’s seeing someone else.

The mood of a film composed of such fragility and concentration can be wrecked by the slightest miscue, and Frontier of Dawn isn’t without some odd and questionable auteurist choices. One is François’s merely decorative Jewishness, mentioned for the first and only time when he confronts a proud anti-Semite in a pub. The scene bears no connection to anything else in the film except perhaps an earlier aphoristic non sequitur François intones to Carole (last name Weissman, it should be noted) while in bed together: “The day the last concentration camp survivor dies, World War III will start.” But here the tenuous apocalyptic poetry is undermined by Carole’s adoring response: “You’re my love.” Garrel’s relationship portraits are so subtle that one could read into this exchange a hint of Carole’s obsession with François (no response to his cryptic lament for his people, just a schoolgirl declaration) or her powerful attraction to François’ eschatological romanticism, but I also wouldn’t blame anyone for rolling their eyes at it. It’s one of a few unnerving examples of Garrel’s flirtation with self-satire—the half-relatable, half-insufferable narcissistic brooding he sometimes indulges in along with his characters. Compared with, say, the contradictorily exhibited pain (pouting, goofy, bitterly raw) of Joaquin Phoenix’s protagonist and the many ways love is discovered and experienced in James Gray’s Two Lovers, Frontier of Dawn and Garrel’s cinema as a whole can appear—with only the oscillation between knowing compassion and unconscious modeling as a varying component—frustratingly one-note.

But even so, what a note. And what a risk Garrel takes in flubbing it by edging Frontier of Dawn toward a haunted-beyond-the-grave tragedy in its final, stunning half hour [spoilers ahead]. I certainly can’t think of many directors who could pull off what he manages here. Once Eve tells François she’s pregnant he has a dream in which the pair, now Medieval-garbed, fall asleep in a country house shrouded in half-light. Carole looks at them through a window and instructs François to travel deeper into the forest: “You’ll find a field with a tree in the middle. You can stay there . . . forever.” The dream recalls the revolutionary reveries of Regular Lovers, and, by being shot exactly as Garrel depicts “reality,” its disturbance lingers far beyond what would resound from a typically ostentatious movie-dream dream. From then on—after he fully commits to Eve and their child—François encounters Carole in mirrors as a vision or hallucination, with the eerily lit and frighteningly downward-looking Carole (Jack Nicholson’s stare in The Shining comes to mind) exhorting him to “abandon [his] life of resignation” and prove she’s his only love. Friends reassure him this ghostly Carole is a product of his subconscious guilt for her death and nervousness about his impending wedding to Eve, but François succumbs to Carole’s seduction and jumps out a window: the last three shots are of a darkening room and a monstrous face appearing in its mirror; the window from which François jumped; and an extreme high angle view of our hero’s body lying in the street. We never hear François hit the ground.

There are a million conceivable ways to render this material trite, melodramatic, and laughable, but Garrel perfectly brings forth its eerie fatalism and its testament to love’s inextricably deceptive power to destroy. Just as his unshowy camerawork goes unnoticed until a simple pan or zoom calls attention to the carefulness of his compositions and the purpose of any deviations from pragmatic long-take coverage, so do Garrel’s narratives steadily, patiently build on gloom-drenched, picaresque rhythms, revealing an overall design only at the end. Often those ends are punctuated by death—since Carole's suicide comes in the middle we can guess where we're headed sooner than usual, thus making this the most conventional Garrel to my eyes. But the manner in which Carole visits Francois in the guise of death is executed so quietly and unceremoniously that it unsettles what's so far been possible in Garrel's realistic yet sensual dramas, as well as what we think is possible in the world beyond.