Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn

French auteur Philippe Garrel’s international following might stem as much from a voyeuristic fascination with his well-documented personal tribulations as from a regard for his critically acclaimed films. Indeed, his ill-fated relationship with pop icon Nico reverberates throughout much of his later work, including his most recent film, Frontier of Dawn (trailer here), an official selection of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival that screens this weekend at Anthology Film Archives.

It is always hard to untangle Garrel from his protagonists, especially with his son Louis Garrel cast as the lead. In Dawn, the younger Garrel plays François, a somewhat immature photographer assigned to shoot Carole Weissman, a beautiful but profoundly troubled actress. Though camera-shy, she easily seduces François, initiating a tempestuous romance.

Weissman is terrible girlfriend material for a number of reasons—the most practical being her marriage to another actor she hardly knows and rarely sees. She also happens to be an alcoholic and a relentless game-player, who proceeds to torture François, constantly pushing him away, only to reel him back in. Rapidly degenerating mentally, Weissman is eventually institutionalized, where she undergoes electroshock therapy in a scene directly inspired by director Garrel’s own notorious experiences.

Weissman’s self-destructive tendencies culminate in a long dark night of the soul, but even in death François is not free of her manipulations. Engaged to another fragile (but psychologically healthier) woman, François starts seeing Weissman’s apparition, in Ophelia-like funereal dress, literally through the looking glass.

Dawn is a strange film in many ways. While it has the unsparing intimacy that marks Garrel’s oeuvre, it takes an unexpected late turn into gothic territory, capped off by a finale sure to induce double-takes. There is also a sporadic Goddard-esque randomness to the film, as when François declares his Judaism to a drunken anti-Semite in complete dramatic non-sequitur. How this revelation is meant to inform our reading of the film remains obscure.

Still, despite the occasional stylistic indulgence, Dawn is a starkly beautiful film. William Lubtchansky’s black and white cinematography is appropriately haunting, while the classical soundtrack composed by Jean-Claude Vannier and performed by jazz violinist Didier Lockwood sets a truly eerie tone, effectively amplifying the turbulent emotions on-screen.

Laura Smet’s ethereal beauty, simultaneously alluring and forbidding, perfectly fits the troubled Weissman. She is also quite scary (in more ways than one), convincingly portraying her character’s precipitous mental dissolution. Louis Garrel also delivers one of his better screen performances, bringing believable dimension to an intentionally weak, malleable character. Together, they look right but feel wrong.

Dawn is a weirdly elegant film that might even alienate some of Garrel’s admirer’s with its supernatural overtones. Yet it might be his most accessible for the same reasons. Though deemed a revival engagement by Anthology Film Archives, it will be a first run film to most New Yorkers, having previously had a very limited theatrical run, in Brooklyn. Unsettling but affecting, it screens Friday (11/20) through Sunday (11/22) at AFA.