Feature by: Leo Goldsmith
Posted on: 07 February 2012
On Wednesday, February 8th, we’ll be presenting a screening of J’entends plus la guitare, Philippe Garrel’s intense autobiographical portrait of his decade-long relationship with Nico, as part of our monthly series at 92Y Tribeca. On the occasion of this screening, we offer here an overview of their collaborations between 1969 and 1979, documents of a tumultuous period that Garrel has repeatedly revisited throughout his career.
In 1968, a 20-year old filmmaker named Philippe Garrel, son of the actor and puppeteer Maurice Garrel, won grand prize at the Festival of Young Cinema at Hyères for his first feature film, Marie pour mémoire. By this point, the young Garrel had already been making films for at least six years, had been a regular denizen of Henri Langlois’s Cinémathèque française, and had made friends (and comrades) with his idol, a newly radicalized Jean-Luc Godard, and would soon become a prominent figure in the Paris demonstrations of May ‘68. A year later, while in post-production on his second feature, Le Lit de la Vierge (The Virgin’s Bed), Garrel received a visit from an intrigued new fan, the German actress, chanteuse, and Warhol Superstar Nico. She contributed a song, “The Falconer,” to Garrel’s new film, and the two then embarked on a 10-year romantic and artistic relationship.
Over this decade, Garrel’s collaborations with Nico spurred the making of only about a half-dozen films, some threadbare Warholian portraits, shot without sound and on old film stock, others mythopoeic allegories of creation, destruction, and revolution, shot in exotic locales from Iceland to Morocco. Even for Garrel, whose work before 2004’s Regular Lovers has barely found release in the English-speaking world, the films from this early period are extremely hard to find—only one or two are available on home video, most are only visible in pirated copies or excerpted on YouTube. And while today Garrel is best known internationally, if at all, for the films that came after the 1970s, his deep, volatile relationship with Nico – complicated by the couple’s heroin addiction and economic instability – has exerted a profound influence on the content of all of his subsequent work. An avowedly personal filmmaker, Garrel has revisited these years repeatedly and explicitly in his films ever since: as early as 1979’s L’enfant secret, but most vividly and powerfully in 1991’s J’entends plus la guitare, which Garrel began immediately after Nico’s death in 1988.
Still, as familiar as Garrel’s autobiographical gestures in his later work have become, his early work with Nico herself has remained largely under-analyzed in anglophone criticism. This is of course partly because of its relative inaccessibility – both in its inscrutability and its being difficult to find – but it is also because of the nature of the films themselves. In English-language summations of Garrel’s career to date, these early works are often collectively described as “underground” and “visionary” with little more attention to their content or their points of correlation with his later, more explicitly narrativized, perhaps even more “professional” films, like La Vent de la nuit or La Naissance de l’amour. Even so, it was this young Garrel who first captivated French cinephiles like Henri Langlois, who hailed Garrel’s 1972 film La Cicatrice intérieure as a masterpiece, and Gilles Deleuze who, in 1985, praised Garrel’s “cinema of revelation” in his second Cinema book.
Deleuze’s reading of Garrel, derived almost entirely from the ’60s and ’70s films, describes a “liturgy of bodies,” a devotional, if not exactly pious cinema. For the young Garrel, cinema serves as a vehicle for prophecy and vision, as a religious experience that intersects the French New Wave’s near-monastic affinity for the Cinémathèque with the late-’60s notion of Christ as the first hippie revolutionary. Many of Garrel’s films of this period reference the story of Christ, either explicitly (as in La Lit de la Vierge) or obliquely (in the allegories of La Cicatrice intérieure). But in a deeper sense, these films express a kind of devotion to cinema’s powers to reveal and to reflect. Unlike the psychedelic, multi-exposure underground films (like Visa de censure no X) of his frequent collaborator Pierre Clémenti, Garrel’s mythic visions are rendered plainly—there is a sense in which, for Garrel, cinema’s photochemical process is alchemy enough.
So, while films like La Lit de la Vierge, La Cicatrice intérieure, and Athanor (excerpts of which can be viewed here) enact totemic visions of fire and ice, and heroic figures set against stark landscapes (like Clémenti in Cicatrice, riding a horse while stark naked save for a bow and arrow), other Garrel films of this period are simply works of cinematic portraiture—intimate, intense, even invasive in their unflinching gaze at their subjects. And these subjects are interesting, indeed: 1974’s Les Hautes solitudes is probably the most widely known of these because, along with footage of Garrel regulars like Nico and Tina Aumont, it features some of the last ghostly images shot of Jean Seberg. The film observes these and other actors without sound (be forewarned that audio has been erroneously added to some of the YouTube clips) and in uncomfortably tight close-ups – sometimes gazing back at the camera, sometimes asleep or just waking up – and in this way recall the Warhol screen tests. But where Warhol was interested in surface nuances and the performance of identity, Garrel is much more probing and his images draw out more pain than play. Nowhere does Garrel’s oft-quoted axiom, “Cinema is Freud plus Lumiè,” seem more apt, and it’s this ability of cinema to register interiority visible that continue to preoccupy him through his later (semi-)narrative films.
Increasingly in the 1970s, Garrel’s films would blend and interpolate these modes of intimate, crepuscular portraiture and the mythic, hallucinatory visions into the distinctive personal, even artisanal cinema of his later career. 1974’s Un ange passe combines footage of conversations between Maurice Garrel and other actors and images of Nico alone, but it deliberately fails to reconcile them, giving Nico the role of an angel who haunts the rest of the film. And a similarly disjunctive form of parallel editing makes its way into 1976’s Le Berceau de cristal, in which Nico sits reading and writing pensively, and seems to imagine idyllic visions of Dominique Sanda and shadowy reflections of Anita Pallenberg and Garrel himself, all to an ethereal space-drone soundtrack by krautrock duo Ash Ra Tempel.
Most surprising of all of his collaborations with Nico, perhaps is his last. Le Bleu des origines (1979) is in many ways another silent portrait film, following Nico through monumental structures in Paris and framing her in great pools of blackness. But there is a more reflexive element in the role of a photographer played by the actress Zouzou (a Garrel favorite herself, as well as Rohmer’s Chloe). The images of Nico are more fragmentary and evocative than usual, almost cohering into a narrative, but they also suggest a dialogue between filmmaker and subject, a connection that is intimately private but also universally relatable. So much of Garrel’s later work would summon up this period with Nico, never in a gossipy or vengeful way, but always as a way of capturing something of their connection.