Saturday, January 16, 2016


(Philippe Garrel, France, 2013)

Garrel's quiet, condensed, unadorned drama is a master-class in negative space.  Not merely visual, but emotional and temporal.  It delivers, in low-key flashes of luminous black and white photography, the story of a dissolution of a relationship, and the delicate web of connections that bind the central character, Louis (Louis Garrel, the director's son), to other people in his life.  Unsurprisingly, they are mostly women, and their connections to Louis are strained, though in different ways.

Garrel is a master of the ambiguous gesture.  An actor's movement of her head, a sudden glance, a hesitation before a line delivery - all of these are orchestrated and mined for maximum aesthetic energy, even if the meaning remains mysterious.  He is on par with Nathanial Dorsky as a seeker of the sublime in the everyday, guided by the conviction that there is no movement, look, or breath that is extraneous.  As such, his cinema is fundamentally spiritual.  This isn't immediately apparent, and this is where the concept of negative space comes in; for Garrel, no image is definitive, and life is so overwhelmingly complex that it can only be approached with a simplicity that becomes indistinguishable from grace. 

You can look into a Garrel film and see drama, comedy, psychology, terror, and even classical humanism.  But you have to keep looking, and looking into the film.  His engagement with the Godard, his cinematic sensai, has produced a reverent, stripped-down approach to the mechanics of the medium.  Whereas Godard's method is a kind of exuberant maximalism that is spiraling always into abstraction, Garrel's has the beatific deliberateness and painstaking care of a monk.  What does a cut mean?  Godard will give you a poetic dissertation, brilliant but baffling, as his interrogation of himself means first an interrogation of the medium.  Garrel starts from the point of view of human relations, and works through the medium to find answers that are rooted in humanity. 

Garrel therefore has a complex relationship to drama.  It's the framework that supports his inquiries, but he is always seeking to transcend it.  His great talent for the momentous in the minute means that he is better at slivers of drama than the big moments themselves; in Jealousy, an attempted suicide seems treated in a strangely even and sober manner, the reverberations of which are no greater than those that come from a single moment of jealousy, or a quick smile of joy at one's daughter's antic. 

Partly, this is deliberate.  In Garrel's spiritual conception, we are always on the brink of life and death, and the point of life is to acknowledge and somehow live within this realization.  But his emphasis on the performative aspects of cinema - Garrel works with trained actors and rehearses extensively before he shoots - and the psychological realism, creates a strange, sometimes productive tension with the more abstract treatment of the medium.  His modernism is a subtle, curious sort: he is interested in making the tools visible, to some degree, but also in the archaic belief in the power of stories. 

Partly, then, this is a matter of form.  Orson Welles famously referred to cinema as the "biggest electric train set any boy ever had!"  Godard took that train set and exploded it, making strange and beautiful (and dense, and difficult) assemblages from the wreckage.  Garrel pulls and pushes the medium, but it still coheres.  That's his relationship to the medium.  But through the medium we see life, and this is where the question of Garrel's cinema is also a question of culture, specifically French culture.  The central fact of French culture is the aestheticization of life itself; after Catholicism, the French religion has become, essentially, art.  This has liberated creative energies that have reached sublime heights; it has also, in some ways, created a deep existential crisis in the heart of the culture.  "To be or not to be", for a French person, is not merely an existential question, but also an aesthetic one. The same goes for "should I stay, or should I go?"  This permits a freedom that few other cultures have dared, and the achievements made in this freedom are something to behold.  But it also creates a certain burden on the individual.  At it's best, this outlook is a powerful incentive to comprehensive humanism, emphasizing our need for beauty, love, and pleasure for its own sake.  At it's worst, it permits a subtle but devastating anti-humanism that would subordinate the messy substance of human life to an exalted idea of beauty, and in doing so, degrade beauty until it has become frivolity.  Artists from Flaubert to Renoir père and Renoir fils have made great art out of this rich material, and Garrel belongs to this long and grand tradition.  The apparent lightness of Jealousy is an example of his commitment.

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