Philippe Garrel, now in his 60s, is semi-famous for being semi-obscure, even in France, though he remains one of the last stragglers to have fallen under the New Wave umbrella. (When he was 20, he trailed Godard, who in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s phrase “virtually adopted him in May ’68, when both were cruising the Latin Quarter student demonstrations with their cameras.”) Here, Garrel had to wait until “Regular Lovers” (2005) for a film of his to find stateside distribution. But it’s a small wonder: Garrel’s career project is resolutely personal and self-examining, to a degree that makes Cassavetes and even Godard look like rangy entertainers. His approach is observational and so intimate you begin to sweat the bell jar effect of the locations. Garrel’s life has been tumultuous — including a decade spent with Nico, making impromptu experimental films and doing heroin, on and off Ibiza — and it’s his life that’s onscreen, for better or worse. (“Regular Lovers,” his most embraceable film, has the extra-creamy benefit of ’68 nostalgia.)
There could hardly be a more concise example than “Emergency Kisses” (1989), in which Garrel stars as essentially himself — an egoistic, philandering mega-afro-ed filmmaker trying to juggle art and home and make a film about his own life and marriage — and then-wife Brigitte Sy as essentially herself, the actress/wife who concludes that if he does not let her play herself, their life is a hollow disaster. Louis Garrel, now a star but then a burbling blonde five-year-old, plays himself as well, as does Maurice Garrel, Philippe’s movie-legend father, to the extent that they’re not really acting. Anémone — a French cinema stalwart who got her start in a Garrel film years earlier — stars as the actress taking the wife’s part. Of course, Sy, with her glaring eyes, confrontational jaw and untamed silky tresses, did get the role of the wife, just not of the actress who gets the role of the wife, in the movie as yet to be made but which we’re watching anyway. This Charlie Kaufman-esque knot of meta-ness (made when Kaufman still clerked for a newspaper in Minneapolis) takes a backseat to Garrel’s real focus, the minute-by-minute emotional struggle of marriage as it’s compromised by artistic necessity.
Garrel is not a sophisticated moviemaker, but because his films are elliptical and hyperreal, they always suggest mysteries and unanswered questions. In “Kisses,” a context-free shot of Anémone is interrupted by Garrel coming into the frame and admonishing her: “Mind being in the film?” On one level, her controlled and charming reaction demonstrates why she “got the role” (even if she actually didn’t) — is Garrel suggesting that she’s the better actress (better than his own wife?), but life overrules art regardless?
In the other offering in Zeitgeist’s new twofer, “I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar” (1991), Garrel returns to his Nico years, with puppydog-ish Benoît Régent standing in for the director, and Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege playing the bipolar Nordic junkie with whom life crashes and burns, and who haunts the Garrel avatar even after he finds a stable married life (with Sy, playing herself again). Since Garrel’s later features are only and entirely about him and the individuals in his orbit, the same stylistic choices show up over and over; a treatise could be written on the aesthetics of massively unruly hair in the Garrel oeuvre (all of it bewitching, and suggestive of the central conflicts). But rarely has a filmmaker taken his own maturation and middle-aged growth as his career subject, in film after film, without distraction or compromise. It seems clear that Garrel’s messy, incorruptible, wide-eyed precedent far outweighed the other New Wavers in influencing the new French cineastes of the ’90s (Carax, Desplechin, Assayas, Jacquot, etc.), even if the Garrel file is still, as always, a work in progress.