J'entends plus la guitare

(Philippe Garrel, France, 1991)


J'entends plus la guitare is a unique screen autobiography. It is at once extraordinarily frank and revealing – Philippe Garrel (who becomes Gérard in the film, played by Benoît Régent) doesn't really come out of his own life story as such a great guy – but also very mysterious.

The film is about Garrel's relationship with Nico (fictionalised as Marianne, played by Johanna ter Steege), singer with The Velvet Underground, to whom the film is dedicated. (The title – strictly ungrammatical in French – is apparently a mimicry of the German-born Nico's broken French speaking style.) Garrel strips almost everything away from this story except the barest bones. He has commented: "I always sacrifice points of detail. I always find good reasons to do away with artifice." (1)

The fact that Garrel is a filmmaker and Nico a musician does not enter the film. In fact, there are only three fleeting allusions to the fact that the character of Marianne is actually Nico, and I find them so indirect that they are all rather chilling, as if there is some kind of strange voodoo going on. Twice in the film, Garrel fades up and down, like some distant echo, a sound of a discordant rock riff. That's music by Nico and the Velvet Underground. And the gravestone that the character of Gérard stands in front of and obscures, in one of the most remarkable passages of the film, is in fact Nico's grave in East Berlin. (2)

Even more remarkable is Garrel's treatment of narrative time, narrative space, and narrative action.

Narrative time. Those who know the real story of Garrel and Nico may be surprised to learn that J'entends plus la guitare covers some fifteen, maybe even eighteen years in their lives, from the start of the '70s to near the end of the '80s. Garrel deliberately omits any period detail, and refuses to mark the passage of narrative time in any conventional sense. He creates a sense of an eternal present, or perhaps a crystalline series of remembered fragments.

Narrative space. Garrel is a filmmaker who takes seriously the famous words of Visconti: "All you need to make a film is a bare wall and a human face." Gestures and poses often occur in an indeterminate space in Garrel's films. Portions of space are cut-off, disconnected. Take the scene where Gérard first meets his young lover in a café. Both Gérard and his wife (who is played by Garrel's actual wife of the period, Brigitte Sy) are in this scene, but all we see is a strangely off-centred frame, though a café window, of this woman and her friend at a table. The eyelines of the characters sometimes don't join anything up very clearly. This film gives the illusion, at times, that scenes that might have been staged, filmed and edited in a more classical fashion have been reduced only to their most essential, intense and intimate moments. But there is in fact no improvisation in the film – every word is scripted, just as in Cassavetes.

Narrative action. J'entends plus la guitare is not a plotless film. It is in fact full of narrative events, many of which occur off-screen, between scenes, such as Marianne's death, or repeated scenes of drug taking (which occupy at least five to eight years worth of this story), or the numerous times that one lover leaves the other. Sometimes Garrel, in the Bresson manner, reduces key narrative events to a single, simple signifying moment, such as the first time that Gérard leaves Marianne: we simply see him walking up a flight of stairs. Nonetheless, the film is full of a certain kind of quietly intense narrative intrigue. Almost every scene in the film, starting on the close-up of a human face against a bare wall, poses a mystery: where are we now? Where is Gérard, where is Marianne? Who are these strange new women that keep popping up in Gérard's life, where did they come from? Who is that forlorn, intense young boy that Gérard is smiling at, whose child is this? It always takes us a little way into the scene to figure out the cues and clues about these mysteries, and sometimes they remain pretty mysterious. Garrel, like the American director Abel Ferrara, rigorously expunges traditional narrative exposition, and it is this that helps to create the sense of an eternal narrative present tense. As spectators, we are always plunged into the middle of things.

There is so much fiction off-screen here that, when it does appear on-screen, it assumes an unprecedented force and gravity. I think of the moment when Marianne returns to Gérard, the only happy moment in the film, when sweet music plays, and Garrel's camera, for the one and only time in the film, moves gently towards the smiling faces of these lovers, in a gentle and beautiful inter-cutting movement. I think of the crucial turning point where Marianne holds up a little packet and says: "Come and look, it's heroin". I think again of the café, where we study the expression on a young woman's face, full of curiosity, desire, gamesmanship. Garrel cuts from this shot to another of the same woman, in another unspecified space and at a later unspecified time, saying to an off-screen Gérard: "I'm glad you called me". As Godard said, in such scenes, the look creates the fiction, and Garrel needs little more than this look. Herein lies not only the economy but also the emotion of Garrel's style.

Reflecting on Garrel's treatment of narrative time, space and action, I am drawn back to Jean-Claude Carrière's description of The Tempest, with its "island ... truly free of time and space". Like a number of post-Nouvelle vague filmmakers, Garrel shapes films that are like precious, fragile little islands. Carrière talks of Shakespeare's characters in The Tempest as castaways from some prior, unseen disaster. Garrel's autobiographical films have often been described this way: as assembling the scattered fall-out from some cataclysmic personal explosion, the crystalline pieces of memory.

There is a haunting malaise in Garrel's cinema – indeed, for Garrel, I think life pretty much equals malaise – but also, in the whole manner of his style and sensibility, a kind of self-protection. Many French critics have observed this: too much fiction, a sudden acceleration into melodrama, any trace of manipulation or sensation, would ruin the delicate spell of Garrel's films, which tremble just before that point of no return. (3)

It is as if, recovering some old catastrophe, Garrel is trying to hold off the next life catastrophe. With quiet desperation, Philippe Garrel is, in his films, trying to break his calamitous fall into what Maurice Blanchot called the madness of the day. (4)

MORE Garrel: L'Enfant secret, Sauvage innocence, Lover for a Day, The Salt of Tears

MORE drug films: Jesus' Son, Rumble Fish

© Adrian Martin May 1995


1. See Philippe Garrel, "Propos Rompus" (interview), Cahiers du cinéma, no. 447 (September 1991), pp. 34-5. back

2. The documentary Nico-Icon (Suzanne Ofteringer, 1995) also reveals that the woman (Alain Delon's mother) who gained legal custody over Nico's child by Delon plays herself in Garrel's film. As well, the scene in question appears to have been filmed in her own home; I suspect that all the key locations in the film are similarly authentic. back

3. See especially Colette Mazabrard, "Love, Cinema", in Cahiers du cinéma 1951-1991, texts chosen and presented by Antoine de Baecque (Melbourne: Australian Film Institute, 1994), pp. 38-9.

4. Maurice Blanchot, The Madness of the Day (New York: Station Hill Press), 1981.

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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