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Garrel and the Unknowable Woman

By Miriam Bale

Meditations on a blonde in bed open two French films in release this week: Phillipe Garrel's J'entends plus la guitare (a film from 1991 that's just now having its first proper American release at Cinema Village) and the re-release of Godard's Contempt at Film Forum. The unforgettable scene in Contempt -- Brigitte Bardot as reclining nude asking her lover if he likes each of her bits -- makes a mockery of her power over her lover/viewer and also mocks him (and us) for falling for it. She is the ultimate woman and the ultimate movie star, always at a distance of the gaze.

To (not) know her is to love her: Benoit Régent with Johanna Ter Steege in J’entends plus la guitare

Garrel, on the other hand, opens his film with a shot not of contempt but of wonder: the luminous face of Johanna ter Steege (playing a role inspired by Nico, the director's ex-lover and frequent star) as she lays in repose surrounded by rumpled sheets (Garrel's signature shot). She says nothing as the camera tries to drink her up. After these opening scenes, each film unfolds into two very different gorgeous, pastel-walled insular worlds, each a study of the respective director's relationship to woman/muse. Though Godard was Garrel's mentor, the aesthetic differences between the two films are extreme. Contempt is all artifice, of course: wigs and Cinecitta and (fascist) utopian architecture on the edge of a too-blue sea. It's also pure cinema, built on blocks of film references -- Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Dean Martin, a walled world of adolescent fantasy fuelled by devotional movie-love. Guitare is something else. It’s humor and beauty in squalor. It's natural light. It's losing oneself in realistic details until the world slows down to a drugged pace.

The films reflect two approaches to art and also two sorts of glorifications of self-absorption. In his 1997 article "Sad and Proud of It," Kent Jones wrote that "Garrel's strictly autobiographical films are unapologetically centered around men." Jones went on to write that "though I suspect he finds them ultimately unknowable, women provide the gravitational force of his universe." While both films are essentially about The Unknowable Woman, the key differences between the two directors is that Garrel playfully admits and explores the limited vision of his befuddled men. His men are sad and proud, intellectual but deeply dopey. His films are knowingly airheaded; that's what makes them so great.

The key scene of emotional weight in Guitare begins with the following exchange when Gerard’s ex-lover Marianne calls him out of-the-blue:

Marianne: "It's me.”
Gerard: "It's you?"
Marianne: "It's me."
Gerard: "What?”
Marianne: "Nothing. [Pause] That’s all you have to say to me?”
Gerard: “Well, you called me.”

Moments later the love of Gerard's life falls back into his life, with heroin. Oops. Three minutes of romance accompanied by sloppily incongruous music then occurs on screen. It's only after the film is over that it becomes clear that the entire film is a dazed hangover (or pre-hangover) to these three minutes of clarity of purpose. Garrel makes everything seem accidental. He creates an unusually intuitive experience of time -- of bumbling through one's life -- masterfully, but without ever seeming as if even he is really in control.

Seduced and Abandoned is a regular feature about repertory cinema highlights in New York. Miriam Bale programs the monthly series The Movie Night Disco at Frank's Lounge in Fort Greene. Read her previous columns here.

Posted at March 12, 2008 8:12 AM

Comments (1)

J'entends plus la guitare was an absolute revelation when I finally saw it last month at Film Comment Selects; if I had my druthers, every other movie theater would stop showing movies for a month so that everyone would be forced to watch it at least once and reassess the way they think about character and narrative. The cut to the dinner-table tableaux with the baby is extraordinary in the way it collapses time; I really can't say enough about it. We'll have more on it this week at Reverse Shot. Until then, everyone, go see it at Cinema Village.

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