No one shoots a scene quite like Philippe Garrel. The director always captures his characters' turmoil, conflicts and beauty in the most peculiar, surprising ways. Where we expect an establishing shot to set up a scene, he might provide a tight composition and only reveal more if naturally inclined to do so. Maybe he won't need to pan or cut, and we'll study one person's face for the whole scene, never seeing the other party to the conversation.
Despite more than 40 years spent creating indelible moments of cinema, DVDs of the Frenchman's work have been woefully lacking. Zeitgeist Films and The Film Desk look to remedy that, however, with Philippe Garrel X 2, a set featuring two intensely personal films from the second half of the director's career: 1991's I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar and 1989's Emergency Kisses.
Guitar, which tops the bill, is a mesh of memories inspired by Garrel's 10-year love affair with iconic German singer and actress Nico (most notable for her performances on The Velvet Underground's debut album). Garrel and Nico's romantic relationship ended in 1979, but he was so distraught after her death in 1988 that he eventually saw no way around his memories but to make this film.
Perhaps that's why Guitar at times feels like a therapy session, a bit self-indulgent and unstructured, yet yearning to reach an understanding. As it opens, the film centers around two pairs of lovers, Gerard (Benoît Régent) and Marianne (Johanna ter Steege), and Martin (Yann Collette) and Lola (Michelle Perrier). But soon a story emerges about Gerard and his ever-changing relationship with the emotionally fragile Marianne, and how it haunts Gerard's other attempts at love.
While the structure is deliberately disorienting, there is a certain logic to it all. When we suddenly realize that many years passed between a cut, we also realize that Gerard allowed himself to settle comfortably into the life--or mess of a life--that he fell into. The moments Garrel brings us, then, are the ones that shake him from his comfort zone and make him consider the time that just vanished. One day, on the subway, he meets a friend who it seemed would always play a vital role in his life--they don't see each other much anymore, they note. Their friendship faded out, and it took that meeting for him to notice.
All the threads push toward a devastating ending in which Garrel slams us with inevitable news using a shot that kills with its simplicity. Gerard has made a nice life for himself, but lost much of the man he used be in the process. That might not be a bad thing, but he can't easily cope with it.
Emergency Kisses spans a much shorter timeframe, but takes many of the same cues in dealing with a couple's insecurities and hangups. It features a similar collection of philosophical rambles and emotionally frustrated romance, but this time centers around a married couple. Garrel adds a voyeuristic twist by casting his own family to more or less play itself.
Garrel plays a philandering director making a movie, and his then-wife Brigitte Sy plays the director's actress wife, whom he mystifies and angers when he casts a different woman in a part based on her. Capping off the cast is papa Maurice and then-young son Louis (The Dreamers), in his first role.
In an early scene, the wife visits the actress who beat her out of her own role. Sy plays the scene compellingly, but it is written in such a deaf, circular manner that it becomes utterly frustrating by the end. The film continues to play out with a mix of inspired moments, thoughtful ideas, and an annoying tendency to indulge those ideas until they're no longer interesting.
The two films share many qualities, from Garrel's fascinating camerawork to some less ingenious annoyances. Garrel's plays at subtlety sometimes turn out incomplete rather than quiet, only to rely on dialogue in the next scene to spell out the most recent development. And sometimes it feels as if his characters exist not so much as people, but as puppets with which to play out his emotional hangups. But because those hangups are so relatable, it's possible to overlook some of the offenses and enjoy the trail of a unique filmmaking mind.
If asked about the picture quality on Philippe Garrel X 2, I imagine the discs producers might respond, "Hey, we got the damn things released, didn't we?" Neither disc is going to win a Transfer of the Year award, but they're accurate and clean enough to represent the film without distractions.
Both films are presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, but in 4x3 letterbox rather than anamorphic 16x9 pillarbox. If you have a 4x3 TV or don't mind watching the film in a rectangular hole in the middle of your screen (unless your TV has a zoom-to-1.66:1 option), then you'll only have to contend with a lack of detail and some slight ghosting that I would guess stems from an older PAL source.
The I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar transfer replicates the film's muted colors nicely, and captures Garrel's use of various grades of light without being too contrasty. The black-and-white photography's palette comes across well in Emergency Kisses, ranging from blown-out windows to dark theaters. They may not be state-of-the-art transfers and encodes, but they get the job done.
The discs present their respective films with their original French stereo tracks and optional English subtitles. (Subtitles on the extra documentary are burnt-in to the picture and can't be turned off.) The films are well-mixed and make good use of natural sound design, at certain moments using microphone noises as part of the mood. The dialogue sounds clear to someone of my meager French-speaking abilities.
Of the bonus features, the main attraction is a 50-minute interview from France's Cinema de notre temps TV series. Garrel offers matter-of-fact, blasé responses to questions about his career and filmmaking philosophy. There are also some magnificent clips of films that aren't otherwise available, but, alas, no title card to identify them. I guess if you want to see more than the excerpt, you'll have to google it or venture onto one of them newfangled message boards.
Each disc features two non-automated but navigation-friendly galleries, one featuring several lobby cards with stills from their respective film, and the other presenting excerpts from their films' French press-books, focusing on hand-written comments by notable directors. The I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar gallery includes a decorated letter from Jean-Luc Godard. Godard throws out some nice sentiments, but the whole piece seems rather hollow when he admits that he's only seen one of Garrel's films (and not the one whose book he's contributing to). The gallery includes a scan of the full letter, each half in more detail and finally three pages worth of the typed-up English translation, which will probably be the easiest one to read, even if you speak French. The Emergency Kisses disc includes a short, poetic description of (Garrel's) cinema by Leos Carax.
The handsome packaging includes liner notes with an essay by Richard Brody.
And I can't possibly fail to mention the generously provided trailers for other films that happen to be available on Zeitgeist DVDs. At least one of those films is related to the set: Garrel's 2005 film Regular Lovers, about the student riots in 1968 Paris. I haven't seen the film, but this trailer made me want to. The other trailer pitches Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep.
For cinephiles seeking a sample of Garrel's work, this set will have to do. It's a snapshot of a specific period in his career, but the documentary extra offers an overview on his other work. It might not be a perfect release, but it makes the films available in a respectful set.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.