Friday, July 03, 2009

Two by Garrel

Philippe Garrel X 2
Zeitgeist Films

It seems nearly impossible for Philippe Garrel’s characters to discuss their feelings, particularly love, without resorting to epistemological arguments. Yet the examined life is not necessarily the happiest in Garrel’s films I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar and Emergency Kisses, now available on DVD in the two-disk collection, Philippe Garrel X 2.

Though hardly a household name in America, Garrel’s art-house stock has been rising in recent years, partly due to the relatively recent theatrical release of Guitar. Inspired by the death of the director’s longtime lover Nico, the celebrated Velvet Underground vocalist, the film mirrors their tumultuous, drug-clouded ten-year relationship. As viewers first meet Gerard and Marianne, everything seems sunny for the passionate couple, enjoying an Italian holiday with his artist buddy Martin and his girlfriend. However, following a jealous outburst from Marianne, the supposedly enraptured Gerard abruptly leaves the next morning without notice.

Throughout the film, this pattern of attraction and repulsion will repeat itself. At times, their on-again-off-again affair is quite sordid, as both succumb to heroin addiction, hoarding smack from each other, while living in abject squalor. Periodically, Gerard is cleaned up and straightened out by the loving Aline, but despite his better judgment, he can never resist Marianne whenever she resurfaces in his life.

Garrel presents a somewhat less harrowing portrait of problematic love in Emergency Kisses, which he filmed two years before Guitar, perhaps because it was more of a family affair, both on and off-screen. As the portrait of Mathieu an emotionally distant filmmaker, his actress-wife Jeanne and their young son Lo, played by Garrel himself, his then wife Brigitte Sy, and their son Louis Garrel, respectively, Kisses obviously has great autobiographical significance as well.

When Mathieu casts a different actress in the role of his wife in a prospective film based on his life, it causes a deep fissure in his marriage. However, despite various resentments and infidelities, their son keeps them connected in a way Gerard and Marianne (the neglectful parents of children from separate relationships) can never be.

Kisses and Guitar share many similar elements, beyond their troubled central relationships. Both Mathieu and Gerard seek the wise counsel from more mature figures, each of whom has a certain scarred elegance. Yann Collette has a charismatic screen-presence as Gerard’s indulgent friend Martin, despite the glass eye which usually relegates him to villainous roles. Likewise, the wrinkled and weathered veteran French actor Maurice Garrel, real-life father of Philippe and a frequent mainstay of his films, appropriately plays Mathieu’s understanding father.

Both films are marked by their quiet sound, but sparingly feature effective jazz-oriented scores. In concert with Jacques Loiseleux’s black-and-white cinematography, Barney Wilen’s saxophone themes often lend Kisses a noirish vibe. It compares with the moody, impressionistic Miles Davis soundtrack for Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Scaffold on which Wilen also played. For Guitar, French fusion artists pianist-composer Faton Cahen and violinist Didier Lochwood, along with British avant-garde alto-player Elton Dean, perform more lush, classically-oriented themes, which sound great but at times are at odds with the tawdriness of Gerard and Marianne’s train-wreck romance.

There are moments of wince-inducing honesty in both films, but at other times Marc Cholodenko’s overly intellectualized dialogue defies credibility. Even in France, can people really talk like this? Yet, Garrel’s merciless close-ups have such emotional directness the films often feel like a voyeuristic experience.

Garrel is a fascinating filmmaker, whose work is distinguished by his patience and unrelenting frankness. He elicits some brave performances in what are clearly very personal films. (Despite Guitar’s arguably greater critical reputation, Kisses might be the more rewarding film, thanks to its intriguing father-son dynamic.) Garrel’s use of filmmaking as both a therapeutic outlet and psychological defense mechanism is explicitly explored in Philippe Garrel: Artiste, a French television documentary featuring extensive interviews with the director, which is included as a bonus feature. Altogether, Garrel X 2 is an impressive package that should further enhance Garrel’s burgeoning reputation.