To engage in Philippe Garrel’s autopoetic world is not a task; instead, the viewer’s participation fuses with a spellbinding mood. Garrel is a filmmaker who seems to be forever working on the periphery, yet he is treasured whenever he is discovered. His body of work, which spans over six decades, is remarkably self-complementary and bracingly emotionally consistent. Across it can be found an unmissable thread of thematic preoccupations, as well as typified characters drawn from Garrel’s biography, such as a consistent filmmaker protagonist (Garrel shot his first film age sixteen) and tumultuous relationships (mirroring his own with the singer Nico), electroshock and heroin abuse. A son of an actor himself, he often explored familial relationships by casting his father (Maurice Garrel), one-time spouse (Brigitte Sy), son (Louis Garrel), and, recently, his daughter (Esther Garrel) in his films. Rather than mistaking all this for mere artistic auto-fixation, one should freely surrender to the abundance of repetitions and stoppages his films explore, and gladly drink from the poison of the love story every one of them has to offer. It’s clear that Garrel’s need to tell a story over and over again unearths some universal truth, but by focusing on the skeleton, rather than the flesh, of passion and pain-inducing relationships, the French filmmaker has carved a spot for himself in the canon, cut as a wound that refuses to heal.
The first viewing of L’enfant secret (1979) might feel like observing newlyweds being buried alive. A fragmented tale of a relationship burning bright and burning out, the film offers a claustrophobic portrait of a struggle for happiness that never comes. In Garrel’s personal life at the time, his decade-long relationship with ex-Velvet Underground singer Nico was on the verge of collapse, and his approach to dealing with it was to observe and rework the present, as it was happening. 1979 was the year that bore both L’enfant secret and the silent 50-minute feature Le bleu des origines, starring Nico herself, alongside Zouzou, and Jean Seberg. The latter fits the experimental lineage of 70s Garrel films with his partner as lead, while the former brought a more comprehensive narrative shift which permeates the filmmaker’s body of work today.
Garrel is an artist that deems separation between interior life and art redundant, and accordingly his subsequent development towards more conventional storytelling introduced a new mode of self-reflexivity. While retaining the brooding mythopoetics of his earlier films, working more directly with characters and story opened up more horizons for identification in Garrel’s cinema. Most importantly, by casting actors as himself, Nico, and her son, the filmmaker conceives space for critical distance that conforms to art’s therapeutic function, as sublimation and performance of trauma. In a salubrious way, narrating is structuring. By tracing sequences and consequences, “you narrate to recover,” writes Serge Daney regarding L’enfant secret.
For this reason, albeit a lesser known Garrel film, L’enfant secret can be seen as paradigmatic for his work. It was shot in 1979 yet it was held at the lab until 1982. The film has rarely seen the screens since, acquiring a mystical aura, strengthened by the recurrence of epithets such as “devastating” and “tragic” that echo in the singular reviews from the time. However, salvation does not lurk around the corner, as the film certainly does not offer a trim, summarizable story. It is a somber story, presented in fragments, suffocates its viewers gently by tightening the grip ever so slightly over four chapters with impressionistic titles from “The Caesarian Section” to “The Disenchanted Forest.”
Elie, an actress (played by actress, writer, Godard’s ex-wife, and Bresson’s “working model,” Anne Wiazemsky) meets filmmaker Jean-Baptiste (again, Bresson’s discovery Henri de Maublanc) and their one-night stand turns into an intense love affair. The conflicting middle ground proves to be her extra-marital child, Swann (Xuan Lindenmeyer), who is denounced by his father. Between attending to her son and the director’s projects, Elie loses her mother and ultimately confesses to be a heroin addict. The story splits its focus between the two protagonists, with equal time devoted to them apart and together. Film theorist Gilles Deleuze makes a point of Garrel’s attention to the man, the woman, and the child. As an archetypal story, it resonates with the Biblical names of both protagonists, yet it remains insoluble, be it cinematographically or physically.
Philippe Garrel produced his own film and brought on board Pascal Laperrousaz, a cinematographer that he soon collaborated with again. The film itself was shot on excess segments of celluloid that was left unused by bigger productions. The production was of such economic constraint that Garrel’s distinct one-shot method evolved, the static camera lending its patience to the character to unfold a quiet gesture or a stare. In composing the rhythm, shots turn into tableaux that, grouped together, organize the singular chapters. As stripped back and atomized as every segment may be, taken apart, it anchors the story and adds emotional gravitas. Whenever a character is portrayed on their own, time is at once arrested and beckons the eye to focus on the empty spaces, be it only a wall, or an unfurnished room. As it happens, the patience and longing one projects, prompted by the still camera’s attention, is rewarded when the other half of the couple enters the frame, undoubtedly fillings its rightful place. An allegory of two-halves-make-a-whole perfection is latent in every shot of a couple’s caress, or, the signature one, a woman leaning her head on her lover’s shoulder. While such a perfect image of one complete being never lasts, the natural way of things proves to be way more chaotic.
A case of repetitive emotional entropy infuses all of Garrel’s features, and mostly so in the case of L’enfant secret. Even if by the end of the film, Jean-Baptiste exclaims that “Love exists, it crushes the wall of solitude,” the last meetings between him and Elie are framed all through a restaurant window, emphasis put on their lack of intimacy. The couple’s togetherness is always marked by a disappointment coming from the external world, or a case of permeating sadness. Twice Elie refers to her feelings as if she’s “in exile in herself,” the existential crux that ultimately separates the lovers rather than uniting them. It’s tormenting to see them together, yet it brings even worse agony to observe them apart, or in the company of another. In addition, Garrel’s characters have trouble talking. There are utterances and acts of speaking, but they are rarely reciprocated, as each one’s singular lines lay suspended in mid-air. Sentences fly by the other, yet their articulation seems to be agonizing. It seems an arduous effort to utter the first word, while their thinking process becomes almost tangible in the restlessness anticipating the act of speaking. It is as if their souls stubbornly remain perched on the tip of their tongue.
Garrel, crowned by Kent Jones as “one of cinema’s great intimists,” certainly manifests his aesthetic preference in long takes of contemplating his character’s beautiful faces. Drawing on a collectively “angelic” look which is shared by all his “Nico” characters, the charm enhances Anne Wiazemsky’s chiseled features and her white skin radiates every time she’s touched by daylight. In contrast, nighttime is a solid marker of undoing any potential stride towards happiness, as the camera silently introduces a prostitute, or hides Elie’s face in the shadows. Apart from its visual statement, the aural effect of L’enfant secret is sepulchral and incites a silent mourning for its beautiful but tragic protagonists. In this way, the palpable interaction between physical pain and lovelorn agony is one of bringing two open wounds in contact with each other, and this sensation is made viscerally apparent with the rhythmic dissolution of Elie and Jean-Baptiste’s story. While the film mourns the impossibility of being together, its asphyxiating grip affirms that being in pain means being alive, and where words fail, cinema shall lends its loving gaze.