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Where to begin? A review of a film over 30 years old, seen by so few people that its existence in the public domain is now a source of wonderment. How I don't know, but somehow a version of this film has surfaced in Japan on DVD, complete with Japanese subtitles. Little help one suspects for a bemused audience needing fluent French, English and German to follow the plot and the songs.
Plot, however, is something of a misnomer. There appears to be one...of sorts.
In some ways this is Nico's film. She wrote the script, has a central role in the film, and provides about half of her songs from her album Desertshore, and the later recorded Konig, as soundtrack. In fact the songs are integral to the film in a way that predates the later use of promotional video. She looks, as always, stunning. Even though dressed in what looks like biblical sackcloth, cut in a modern design. Philippe Garrel was said to have designed their clothes.
The main star of the film is not however human - it is the landscape. Garrel has filmed his story in a wide range of deserts. Hot sandy deserts, cold glacial deserts, hot rocky deserts, hot lava deserts in a cold environment. Earth, fire and water (often in the form of ice) are very much at the centre of the film. This return to the elements, to the absolute basics of being, provides a platform from which a narrative evolves. Not many films have not only the distinction of being filmed in Sinai, Death Valley and Iceland, but of making the landscapes such a central feature of each scene.
Given the difficulties of getting to see this film at all, I'll run the risk of "spoiling" the plot by talking about it. This is nowhere near as straightforward as might be assumed. Any description of the plot will inevitably involve a good deal of speculation and interpretation.
The films opens with Philippe Garrel walking a rocky path. His clothing and general appearance indicate a poet, a romantic. He encounters Nico sitting on a rock. In silence he takes her onto his path and into his journey. She asks "where are you taking me", receives no answer, but continues to walk with him.
The next scene has Nico, totally distraught, sitting in a different desert holding onto Garrel, who appears to want to leave. Eventually he pulls away from her hand and walks away. He walks around in a circle, panned perfectly by the camera, stepping over Nico as he completes his circle, only to walk another circle before she stands, pushes him away and wanders off in a different direction. All of this accompanied by Janitor of Lunancy, a sado-masochistic song about power in relationships addressing the past, present and future. You might think that this is the end of the relationship, but no, because they break up again as they walk along a glacier in a different desert. This time Garrel dies, but Nico survives.
And hence into a sort of opening scene, where Nico provides a commentary in German.
Nico appears from this point on to have become something of an old testament prophet. Dressed in her biblical sackcloth and standing on a rock in yet another another desert, she has a soliloquy, contrasting nonsense with mercy, concluding that there is no mercy, before being given a small goat by a passing shepherd. She has prophesied that the "waters will rise over your heads".
Cue for the next scene to begin with a small sailing boat containing a naked man washed up on a glacial beach. This is the archer and horseman. He mounts an Icelandic pony who takes him away. Nico is still prophesying, at first on a cliff, then in one of the most beautiful scenes ever filmed, standing on a rock at the base of a waterfall from where she informs him that "we can never be here until we die/dance???". The photography in these scenes in especially impressive. The technical difficulties of filming large scale scenes with dialogue against a wind swept or water teeming backdrop are transcended. All scenes are shot in real time with a single moving camera. There is no visual editing to improve the realism. Garrel makes every shot count.
In the next scene the fireguard picks up and carries a bowl of fire. Walking slowly against the wind and past lava flows, he guards the flame, before merging with the dark.
A naked child, alone, lies on a bed of feathery down, indented in the glacial ice. A nest. The archer sails in, bringing a bowl of fire, and sets it down on the icy shore. The child is pleased.
We now enter the land of fire. The horseman is running across a flat hilltop, volcanoes in the distance, tracked by the camera until he encounters Nico, still as a statue. She is petrified to the spot. He wakes her from a spell. She wants him to stay but she walks backwards away from him. They leave in different directions. He turns to watch her in the distance. Two figures in a landscape somehow conjoined but very separated.
Nico, wind swept, stands high above a glacial lake. The scene lingers, wind providing the only movement. The camera turns 90 degrees. The horseman rides in from nowhere. They walk together toward the seashore. He sails away, she returns inland.
Nico walks down a rocky path. She finds the fire king. He sees her sitting high on a ledge above his cave. He climbs the rock to pass her his sword. She has become king. The song Konig accompanies the scene.
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