J’ENTENDS PLUS LA GUITARE A
aka: I Don’t Hear the Guitar Anymore d: Philippe Garrel
France (98 mi) 1991
One doesn’t get a chance to see films like this very often, a premiere in Chicago 17 years after it was released, opening with little or no fanfare, no special announcements or critical appraise, little to alert the public of a special event, playing in a near empty theater where only those few who have heard about it by word of mouth are there. Garrel’s more appreciative work was his most recent film, REGULAR LOVERS (2005), a mammoth 3-hour work that looks behind the scenes at the student demonstrations in Paris during the late 60’s which played the festival circuit and was widely acclaimed, starring Garrel’s own son Louis who may as well be the poster child for French films. To my knowledge, that is the only film that had a run here in the United States. Garrel’s other 25+ films have only been talked about, perhaps a few have been screened across the country in recent retrospectives, but most have never been seen. This is a magnificent looking film, one that takes full advantage of the utilization of space, usually from close to medium range shots where the emptiness of the unfilled space between characters becomes one of the themes of the film. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier makes it all look effortless with an extremely fluid camera style that at times resembles choreography, particularly the way she changes the focus between characters by following the pace of their body movement. This is an extremely naturalistic film, one of the quietest seen, much of it shot in interior rooms conveying a maximum amount of silence where even natural sound appears to be muted, where quiet, near inaudible conversations appear to be taking place in a vacuum, as if the outside world is not allowed to protrude. This mood is perfectly accentuated in brief glimpses by outstanding original music by Faton Cahen, which features a piano and a few ascending jazz riffs on a sax, an eloquent testament to a narcotic induced haze.
While this nearly non-narrative, highly impressionistic film is certainly not for everybody, as it’s clearly downbeat and utterly sad, an unglamorous view without artifice of what might be described as the cinema of no emotion, but what it does offer is an artistic appreciation for realism with a nervy intelligence. With no particularly likeable characters, this is an extremely personalized, understated, autobiographical film, a fictionalized recreation, opening in bed with a couple awakening from sleep on the sunny Italian Riviera, Gérard, Benoît Régent, a stand-in for the director, and Marianne, Johanna ter Steege, brilliant as a stand-in for his real-life girlfriend Nico (Christa Päffgen), from the Velvet Underground, with whom he spent ten years of his life and made 7 trippy films together in the 70’s. While discussing the ramifications of love, it’s apparent they are questioning every word, every syllable, in attempting to break down anything phony in their commitment to one another. Marianne especially finds Gérard’s words to be a kind of empty articulation that feels learned and ingrained, hardly spontaneous revelations “of the moment.” Régent offers an unusual style of being completely noncommittal, almost as if he’s not even there, as we never learn his profession, what money he lives on or anything about his background, instead he remains hidden behind a cloud of mystery, somewhat reminiscent of Bill Pullman in LOST HIGHWAY (1997). Marianne on the other hand, whose every movement is followed by the camera, has her own sensual style with a playfully inquisitive mind, very direct and to the point, but never forcing the issue, simply asserting her views openly. They share their time with another couple, Gérard’s friend Martin (Yann Collette), a painter who has lost an eye and his girlfriend Lola (Mireille Perrier), with whom Gérard may have at one time been intimate. Anouk Grinberg as Adrienne plays yet another outside interest. Together they express a free wheeling, somewhat indulgent philosophical style that represents a lofty, grandiose view of themselves.
Moving back to Paris, the interior mood has darkened considerably, as has their increased drug use, introducing heroin into their relationship. It’s interesting to see how one’s obsessed notion of “need” can become an illusion, used frequently as a romantic expression between lovers, yet with narcotics it’s a foregone conclusion who (or what) becomes the real need. Humans become completely irrelevant. Marianne quickly disappears without a trace, presumably with another man, though perhaps out of self preservation, which leaves Gérard nearly immobile and alone. Like an answered prayer, a woman appears at his door, announces she’s a friend of Marianne named Aline (Brigitte Sy, Garrel’s former real life wife and mother to Louis), who proceeds in grand style to nurse Gérard back to the living, which includes getting married and having his baby, all of which is realized in a single shot. Compared to everything else we’ve experienced, usually seen through oblique, intensely personal conversations, a dinner sequence with her family and the newborn baby has a tinge of the ridiculous, yet it’s perhaps the most normal scene in the film. When Marianne returns, Gérard is torn between separate lives, his old and his new, and hasn’t a clue how to make it right, as it’s clear his earlier high-minded ideals and confessed promises to Marianne are coming back to haunt him. The internal damage this causes each of them after supposedly cleaning up their lives, is devastating, perhaps best represented in a scene between Marianne and Aline, which appears to be something of a peace offering but soon deteriorates into a strange personal confession by Marianne describing her life with Gérard, which evolves from an existential meaninglessness to greater transcendent heights, all of which is meant to casually dismiss Aline’s world to the near-irrelevant, but it perhaps drives a stake through her own heart instead.
This film is gorgeous, intelligent, and surprisingly tender, offering little if any emotion emanating from the screen, but that is the Bressonian mold which forces the viewer to supply their own emotional perspective. Partly that is what makes this film so unique, as it doesn't follow convention any more than the characters do, as when moving in a single shot from the day he meets Aline to a subsequent day when they are married and already have a child. That type of economy is, to say the least, unusual. Also, of interest, the filmmaker spares no one, especially himself, revealing his own inadequacies in nearly every shot, especially the last one. This kind of ruthless critique of one’s own behavior deserves some recognition. The spared down version of how he tells the story of his life is unique, yet due to the way he films it, where so much detail permeates specific periods, it's as if we've read a book, as we feel intimately familiar with the lives of the central characters. Marc Cholodenko is credited with the stunning dialogue, much of which owes a debt to Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973), as the unsparing confessional tone is mixed with a raw internal dysfunction, where the physical quality of the peeling paint on the walls literally takes on a life force of its own, where people’s lives start to resemble the worn out, dilapidated buildings that they casually inhabit all their lives, never giving it a second thought. Yet by the end, it’s clear that Gérard was never honest with himself throughout the entire film, a realization that haunts him and taints his memories of Marianne, clearly the singlemost significant relationship in his life. What stands out is the amount of time wasted in this director’s life where so much is lost on drugs and personal missteps, where only after Nico’s death does Garrel come to realize how much he loved her and that she was in fact the love of his life. With this film, the haze has cleared and Garrel finally has the opportunity to tell the unvarnished truth. The film is dedicated to Nico who died three years before its release.