A French Director Who Turned the Experience of May ‘68 into Intimate Cinema

A retrospective of Philippe Garrel’s films at Metrograph tracks their evolution from revolutionary hopefulness to disenchantment, hallucinatory metaphor, and poetic autobiography.

The Woman (Nico) and Man/Devil (Philippe Garrel) in <em>La Cicatrice Intèrieure</em> (courtesy of the Film Desk)
The Woman (Nico) and Man/Devil (Philippe Garrel) in La Cicatrice Intèrieure (courtesy of the Film Desk)

In April 1968, Philippe Garrel won the top prize at the Festival du Jeune Cinéma at Hyères for a film called Marie Pour Mémoire. When he accepted his award, Garrel, a boyish-looking, floppy-haired 20-year old, announced that he was finished with cinema — what he was more interested in now was “prophecy.” If film was to have any meaning, he noted, it should resemble a brick thrown into a movie theater.

Garrel’s statements were very much of the moment. This was a month after students at Nanterre University occupied administrative buildings in protest of the Vietnam war, and two months after the ouster of Cinémathèque Française founder Henri Langlois, a decision that was reversed following vocal criticisms from many in the film community. A few weeks later, student demonstrations would stream through the Latin Quarter, where barricades would be erected by the police. In other words, the rumblings of May ‘68 were already reverberating through the streets of Paris.

François (Louis Garrel) in Frontier of Dawn (courtesy of IFC Films)
François (Louis Garrel) in Frontier of Dawn (courtesy of IFC Films)

The events surrounding May ‘68 are often mentioned as a pivotal moment in Garrel’s filmmaking, the phantom lurking behind every frame. But how it has been manifested is more complex than a simple transference of influence. As can be seen through the work included in Metrograph’s current retrospective of the director’s work — part one of the series ends today; the second part begins in November — the revolutionary hope quickly turned to disenchantment, and the political foundation of his work was buried under hallucinatory metaphor and, later, a turn toward poetic autobiography that continues in slightly altered form today.

Garrel shot in the streets of Paris during the student protests — the resulting film, Actua 1 (1968), once thought to be lost, has recently been restored and will be included in the second part of the retrospective — but, according to film historian Sally Shafto, he was also quick “to grasp that the revolution would not be sustained and that general disillusion would follow in its wake.” Along with a small group of likeminded amateurs, he began to make political films of a different nature, retroactively catalogued under the designation Zanzibar, named after a trip made to the then-Maoist country by some of the group’s members. Their work was funded by the young French heiress Sylvina Boissonnas, who, it is claimed, would sit at a table at La Coupole on Boulevard du Montparnasse and write checks to whomever had a good idea. (Boissonnas’s mother would later be a major donor to the Centre Georges Pompidou, her aunt Dominique de Menil became one of the most famous art patrons in the United States, and her cousin Philippa de Menil established the Dia Art Foundation in 1974.) From 1968 to 1970, when the loose group began to disintegrate, Boissonnas helped produced roughly a dozen films, many of which are hard to see today but that would prove to be a critical junction in post-New Wave political cinema.

Mother (Bernadette Lafont) and Father (Laurent Terzieff) in Le Revelateur (courtesy of the Film Desk)
Mother (Bernadette Lafont) and Father (Laurent Terzieff) in Le Revelateur (courtesy of the Film Desk)

It’s sometimes difficult to discern the politics in the Zanzibar films, especially the ones made by Garrel under that banner. They bear little resemblance to the collective Cine-Tracts produced by Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and others during this period, for example, and often contained little to no politics on their surface. But they were political in their mode of production: by removing themselves from any kind of commercial filmmaking, the Zanzibar directors were attempting to construct a truly alternative way of making work.

This required some distance. Le Révélateur, which began production at the end of May 1968, was filmed in Germany and features a trio of a mother (Bernadette Lafont), a father (Laurent Terzieff), and a young son (Stanislas Robiolle) traipsing their way through the Black Forest. The entire film is silent and largely non-narrative, but its dream-like construction suggests an anxiety around an unknown danger lurking on the horizon and a break in understanding between children and parents. Le lit de la vierge (1970) would push this even further, placing the figures of Christ and Mary Magdalene against a barren Moroccan landscape in a parable that obliquely reflects thwarted post-revolutionary desires.

Marie (Zouzou) and Jesus (Pierre Clementi) in Le Lit de la Vierge (courtesy of the Film Desk)
Marie (Zouzou) and Jesus (Pierre Clementi) in Le Lit de la Vierge (courtesy of the Film Desk)

What further separates the Zanzibar films from other experimental work of the period, made both in France and the United States, is a visual excess that provides them with much of their power. Much of the Zanzibar work was shot on 35mm and conveys an ambition that was often in tension with the unabashed amateurism in which they were made.

Le lit de la vierge, reportedly made under the influence of LSD, would be Garrel’s last Boissonnas-funded film. During the editing of the film, Garrel was introduced to Nico, and the meeting marked a turning point in his life and work. The Inner Scar (1972), starring Nico and Pierre Clementi and featuring music that would eventually be compiled on Nico’s album Desertshore, heightens the mythic lyricism of what came before, but also signals a new phase for Garrel. The films that would follow are marked by a slide toward an intense, severe interiority and harsh minimalism, in part mirroring his turbulent, years-long relationship with Nico.

Chas (Michel Subor) and Lucie (Julia Faure) in Sauvage Innocence (courtesy of Why Not Productions)
Chas (Michel Subor) and Lucie (Julia Faure) in Sauvage Innocence (courtesy of Why Not Productions)

Les hautes solitudes (1974) is the most stunning film of this transitional period, a completely silent work that unfolds in a series of captured moments, or what Garrel has described as the outtakes of a film that never existed. It contains traces of what came before, both in the form of the faces on screen as well as its loose, non-narrative structure, and begins what would be a descent into autobiographical morass. Garrel began to more boldly turn his relationships into films — L’Enfant Secret (1979), Les Baisers des secours (1989), J’entends plus la guitare (1991), Sauvage innocence (2001), to name just a few — and mine his family history — Liberté, la nuit (1983) — for material. Current and former lovers, his children, and his parents, not to mention himself, would begin to play roles in his films. Garrel’s work became a shield from which to protect himself from the world, a way to process an unstable emotional landscape. “In my life, when I don’t know what to do — and I’ve been through hard times — I’ve done a movie,” Garrel said in an interview. “That has helped me to survive.”

In 2005, Garrel turned again to May ‘68 in a more direct way than ever before. Regular Lovers, one of his foremost achievements, appears as a grand summation of his work. The ghosts of failed revolution, like the traumas of love, continue to haunt him. The only way to exist, the only way he has ever existed, is to continue making films.

Jeanne (Brigitte Sy) in <em>Les Baisers de Secours</em> (courtesy of the Film Desk)
Jeanne (Brigitte Sy) in Les Baisers de Secours (courtesy of the Film Desk)

The series Philippe Garrel: Part 1 concludes October 26 at Metrograph (7 Ludlow Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan). Part 2 of the series begins on November 10.

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