An autobiographical element is not uncommon in almost any artist’s work, but some take it further than others—and a few forge whole careers from examination of the self, however thinly veiled.
One is French director Philippe Garrel, son of actor Maurice (who’s frequently appeared in his films), father of actor Louis (ditto), and erstwhile companion to the late model/actress/Warhol Superstar/chanteuse de gloom Nico. A few years after their decade living and creating together ended, and just after kicking a 15-year heroin habit, she died from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 49.
Thanks to her music, ice-goddess looks and connection to the fabled Factory/Velvet Underground era, Nico—a performer who in popular terms never developed more than a small cult following during her life—is probably more famous than ever 20-plus years post-mortem. And she still looms large in Garrel’s films, though she stopped appearing in them after 1978. Perhaps beautiful, mercurial, self-destructive women are the only kind he’s ever been involved with. Or maybe they’re just the only ones he likes to make movies about.
The latest is Frontier of Dawn, which made its Bay Area premiere this Thursday and Sunday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room. Shot in delicately luminous B&W by William Lubtchansky, whose cinematic resume likewise reaches back to the Nouvelle Vague’s mid-‘60s height, the feature isn’t written by Garrel himself—rather by his frequent past co-scribes Marc Cholodenko and Arlette Langmann—but might as well be.
Like several of his efforts, including 1991’s I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (which was dedicated to Nico) and 2001’s Wild Innocence, Frontier is about an authorial alter ego irresistibly drawn to a love object who’s goin’ down, either alone or dragging our hero along with her.
His protagonist is, once again, Louis Garrel—operating in the great French tradition of screen actors who seem to merely exist on camera, making their lankiness, diffidence and attractively unkempt hair do the emotional lifting for them. This time he’s photographer Francois, assigned to take some shots of well-known actress Carole (Laura Smet, herself the spawn of thespian Nathalie Baye and musician Johnny Hallyday). Complaining of feeling unwell, she abruptly calls their first session to a halt. But their next one ends in a spontaneous makeout session.
Suddenly they’re an item, at least secretly—her husband (another actor) being away pursuing even greater fame in Hollywood. Francois adores her. One might wonder why, though, since Carole is petulant, sulky, drinks too much, bursts into arbitrary tears, and demands avowals of love whilst having ambiguous relationships with who-knows-how-many other men.
When her spouse returns, Francois scrams; she soon beckons him back, but he has perhaps come to his senses and doesn’t answer her entreaties.
Whether for this or other reasons (Carole seems to have more problems than the film cares to delineate), she quickly falls apart—meaning, even more so than previously. She gulps booze and pills; has a pyromaniac episode; is seen strait-jacketed at a sanitorium she’s committed to, where she also endures electroshock "therapy." (Garrel himself suffered the trauma of electroshock treatment among many consequences to his druggy, out-of-control 1970s spent with Nico.)
The film’s second half takes place a year later. Francois is getting on with his life—even if new gamine girlfriend Eve (Clementine Poidatz) is also on the high-maintenance side, albeit not as excessively as Carole. But the prospect at last of "conventional" (or "bourgeois") happiness triggers something that may or may not originate in his own mind: Ghostly visitations (staged a la the mirror scenes in Cocteau’s Orpheus) insisting he has only "one true love," and must pursue it even beyond the grave.
Philippe Garrel’s early films—particularly those with Nico—have been alternately adulated and dismissed as pretentious tosh for their abstraction, symbolism and pictorial emphasis. (You can watch 1974’s B&W silent Les Hautes Solitudes with Nico and Jean Seberg at www.ubu.com, and an illustrative trailer for 1972’s color The Inner Scar with Nico and Garrel himself on YouTube.) Following their 1979 breakup, he moved into the more narrative, explicitly autobiographical terrain he still treads today. Yet these talky, nazel-gazing later efforts still tend to sharply divide viewers. Some find them fascinatingly intimate self-portraits of an artist; others find them unintentional parodies of yesteryear’s most arid art cinema pretentions.
Either way, you’ve got to admire a man for stubbornly sticking to his highly personal aesthetic—and principal subject—for a full lifetime. Garrel, one suspects, considers any love that doesn’t torment as the kind you just don’t bother making Art about.
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