By the end, Judge Joel Pearce felt glad this wasn't Garrel x3.
Two personal films by Philippe Garrel
When film technology advanced in the late '20s and simultaneous sound recording became possible, the resulting films were called "Talkies." In the first few years after that, Hollywood films became highly static, trapped by the imposing requirements of unmoving microphones. Because they were able to record dialogue, directors felt that speech was the best possible way to convey cinematic information. Much of the same things can be said about these two films by French art filmmaker Philippe Garrel.
Facts of the Case
Included is Emergency Kisses, a film about a director who makes and autobiographical film, but chooses to cast a different woman in the role of his wife. The other is an autobiographical film, I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar, about Garrel's own relationship with German singer Nico. They both deal with broken relationships and alienation. They are both largely driven by dialogue, and the characters gradually come into focus as they talk through their issues.
The comparison between Garrel and early talkies is probably a bit unfair. Garrel does have a keen eye for film, and builds on the French New Wave to create languid character studies, with agonizingly long takes and layers of ambiguity. Some of the conversations are fascinating, and the performances are exceptional.
Emergency Kisses is a telling exploration of a marriage that's quickly sliding off the rails. It begins simply, as Jeanne (Brigitte Sy, Deluge) learns that her husband Mathieu (Philippe Garrel) has decided to cast another woman in her role in his upcoming film version of their lives. She is angry, reading the choice as another way to push her out of his life and carry on his philandering ways. He still wants her help to prepare the actress to play the role, and so begins the conflict that will threaten to drive them even further apart. As other betrayals and infidelities surface, their relationship becomes even more tense, all witnessed by their young son.
The performances are exceptional, which shouldn't be too much of a surprise. After all, Garrel was married to Sy while the film was being made, a relationship that broke down afterwards. The film exists in a strange grey area between reality and fiction, enhanced by the fact that he even makes Emergency Kisses about a film director. Unlike many metafictional narratives, however (like those written by Charlie Kaufman), there's nothing playful about this film. Instead, it is a discouraging look at failed relationships and how a marriage can disintegrate between two people who truly do love each other. There are a number of conversations about love, discussing how one should express and demonstrate love for the other.
I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar is a more complex story, but no less introspective. A reflection on his own relationship with Nico—renamed here as Marianne (Johanna Der Steege, The Vanishing)—it follows the destructive relationships of two men and their respective partners. Leaping nimbly from scene to scene, we learn about these relationships in fits and starts, as the characters talk, sit alone, and commiserate with friends. It's a long way from being a cheerful film, but it certainly has emotional intensity.
Alas, the slow pace of the narrative and the scattered presentation make it hard to really embrace any of the characters. Where most love stories seek to draw us in and feel the emotions of the characters, I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar does everything it can to hold us at arm's length, though it's clearly a deliberate choice rather than a failure of Garrel to tell the story that he wants. There are some touching moments here, but we ultimately feel as alienated as the film's characters.
More than that, though, I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar is a strong study of the way drugs can erode relationships. As the characters start to get involved in drugs, it drives rifts between them all, driving them into misery. While it's a plausible and well-rendered misery, I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar certainly will only appeal to a select audience—those with the patience to deal with the slow pace as well as the stomach for so much hopelessness.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course, there's something horribly pretentious about a director placing himself in the fictional worlds of his films. While Garrel certainly has the chops to make such films without suffering too much indignity, enjoyment of these films depends greatly on the viewer's willingness to accept this conceit. They are both art films in the most traditional sense of the term, and will only appeal to those who regularly seek out art films and respect these aesthetic sensibilities. For everyone else, Garrel represents all of the stereotypes that have been assembled about art films.
As a set, I find myself underwhelmed by the technical presentation here as well. Emergency Kisses is in black and white, but the non-anamorphic widescreen image is washed out, lacks any feel of film grain, and doesn't have enough contrast to do justice to the cinematography. It looks like a DVD master from quite a few years ago. I have the same complaints about I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar, except that it's in color. Many details get lost in the shadows, and there is some ugly ghosting at times. I don't know what kind of source material Zeitgeist had to work with, but there's nothing special about these transfers. The sound is about the same, existing as flat stereo tracks that do little more than pass on the dialogue. The only extra worth mentioning is a 50-minute documentary on Garrel that's found on the Emergency Kisses disc. For fans, it is certainly worth a look.
Emergency Kisses and I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar are both well-crafted and personal films. For that, it's hard to criticize them too aggressively. At the same time, my own experience with both of the films was one of frustration and boredom, rather than joy. I can respect the craft that went into them, and I do feel like I know something more about Garrel as an artist, but I find myself bored by his bland self-reflection and self-inflicted misery.
Not guilty, though also not my cup of tea.
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