'J'entends plus la guitare' is dedicated to the memory of Nico, the Swedish model and actress who was director Garrel's muse, most famous as the blonde Marcello meets at the castle party in 'La Dolce Vita', and the singer with the haunted monotone on the Velvet Underground's extraordinary 'Banana' album. the heroine of the film is a blonde German who, like Nico, turns to drugs - her last appearance is marked by a pun on heroine/heroin (the Velvets' most famous song), and the Velvet-esque guitar of the title is no longer heard by the hero, or the director. The female is usually signalled in Garrel's films by music, as if music itself was somehow a feminine principle - the 'Je', therefore, is plausibly the director's, offering the film as a mea culpa, blaming himself for a death triggered by pure male egotism. Gerard is one of the least likeable characters in European cinema, an emotional vampire who needs to suck the emotional blood out of countless women, leaving them diminished, empty, to save himself from a similar fate.
Perhaps, again in tribute to Nico, Garrel's usual stylistic austerity is filtered through a Warhol-like sensibility. this is one of the most gruelling films I have ever squirmed through, in terms of style - long, punishing takes in shabby, bare environments of people either talking self-serving philosophical twaddle, or, worse, little at all, the peeling of the walls against which the characters are framed speaking more eloquently for the emotional and imaginative inertia; takes that are so long and unadorned that the characters (or actors) arent' allowed to hide, and the various mannerisms or tics or little theatrical heightenings are exposed for what they are, not as accretions to be stripped away to reveal some real 'truth', but as part of the truth that we can never strip them away, never truly give ourselves to another - and in terms of content.
the film begins as a stereotypical French film, with two couples frustrated in love: one is in love with another but won't give him a child; one refuses to tell his lover he loves her because she doesn't know what the word means. The men begin the first of their discussions about their relations to the women, one grounded in culture, the other in experience. One could argue this as the philosophical base of the film.
In any case, things go from bad to worse, people start leaving each other, losing their children, sleeping with prostitutes or older, abused women. What is unusual in this film is that 'seedy' subject matter usually treated luridly or with too much downbeat detail, is here represented in a flat, monotonous visual style, and through a disarming ellipsis that doesn't warn the viewer that five minutes or five years have passed. This is the closest cinema has gotten to the numbed, unsensational texture of life itself. To even ask entertainment of it is besides the point.
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A post-New Wave love journal that hasn't lost its freshness
Philippe Garrel is a French director of cult status whose work has not been much seen in the US. Interest among film buffs certainly must have grown with the showing of Garrel's wonderfully atmospheric evocation of 1968-69 'Regular Lovers'/'Les amants réguliers' (2005) at the New York Film Festival, with a brief New York theatrical showing two years later. After re-watching Regular Lovers last year I wrote that it is "the kind of film that burns itself into your memory and keeps coming back."
And this is a French cinematic dynasty. Philippe's brother Thierry is a producer; his father Maurice is a veteran actor with well over a hundred credits (recent notable ones: 'The Red and the Black,' Dercourt's 'My Children Are Different,' 'Kings and Queen,' and 'Regular Lovers'); and his son Louis, the young poet and central character of Regular Lovers, is the hottest young French screen actor in more senses than one. Americans saw Louis with Eva Green and Michael Pitt in Bertolucci's 2003 'The Dreamers.' But what are Philippe Garrel's important films? I don't know; the promoters of the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center say 'J'entends plus la guitare' ("I No Longer Hear the Guitar") is "arguably Philippe Garrel's masterpiece."
Masterpiece or not, this film (which won the Silver Lion in Venice) is a complete contrast to the over-three-hours-long, epic-feeling black and white 'Regular Lovers'--and yet memorable in its own way. It's quieter and more intimate and more obviously autobiographical--almost like a loose compendium of fragmentary diary entries from a man who had many lovers and one good friend, a painter (Martin, Yann Collette, a veteran actor who happens to have a sunken and blind left eye). The man is Gerard (Benoît Régent). One of the women is Aline (Brigitte Sy, mother of Louis Garrel). But most important in Gerard/Philippe's life is Marianne (Johanna ter Steege), a luminous exotic Nordic lady drawn to drugs and dirty longhairs (unseen in the film but described with distaste by Gerard) who say "Yeah man!" and "cool."
The film begins with Marianne and Gerard in Positano, on the Italian Riviera, with Martin and his friend Lola (Mireille Perrier). They go back to Paris where Gerard spends every evening smoking hashish at Martin's place talking about Marianne. Gerard's fascination with her is obvious, but there are no love scenes. One day Marianne meets another man and wanders off.
Marianne is, as is well-known, the stand-in for Nico (stage name of Christa Päffgen) the singer of the Velvet Underground and Warhol "superstar" with whom Philippe Garrel had an ongoing relationship for over a decade. In the person of ter Steege, Nico/Marianne's appeal is obvious. Nico herself was in seven of Garrel's films in the Seventies. This one was made three years after her death--and Marianne like Nico is described as dying while riding a bicycle.Gerard meets Linda (Adélaïde Blasquez) Aline (Brigitte Sy), and then Adrienne (Anouk Grinberg), but Marianne remains in Gerard's world, the love of his life.
Scenes of 'J'entends plus la guitare' over twenty years later still evoke the Sixties and Seventies in content and style. They are so simply staged they're arresting. A woman comes to the door and says she's a friend of someone else. Apparently she moves in, just like that. The next thing you know Gerard is in the bath and this new woman brings him a plate of food which he forks down hungrily. He gets up, hastily towels off, puts on a shirt while still wet. The woman spreads two sheets on the bed. They get under them, clothed, and propped up on their elbows lie looking into each other's eyes. This is how the beginning of a new relationship is described.
When Gerard's girlfriend has a baby, they eat at a table with a whole family, but nobody's identified. Closeup of a young teenage boy looking on with eager happiness as the food is dished out. Most of the scenes are one-on-one conversations (unlike much of 'Regular Lovers,' which is more collective and symphonic). This is like an autobiographical meditation, verging, the FCS blurb suggests, on "psychodrama." Garrel is an heir to the Nouvelle Vague who captures life in the raw with lovely cinematography and interesting and attractive people but not very sophisticated or self-conscious technique. His films (so far as I've seen them so far) can be irritating and slow but are curiously endearing. Think Warhol, but without the titillation and voyeurism, and with a European straight male sensibility, particularly here. Even without the presence of Louis (who was around eight when this was made) this is still a fresh, youthful kind of film-making. It may seem self-indulgent, but it doesn't age.
Shown as part of the series, Film Comment Selects, at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center, New York (February 25, 2008).
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