The Salt of Tears

(Le Sel des larmes, Philippe Garrel, France/Switzerland, 2020)


No Way to Say Goodbye


The Salt of Tears is a film of doors. At the end of the opening sequence – which details the arrival of Luc (Logann Antuofermo) in Paris, and his chance encounter with Djemila (Oulaya Amamra) – we see Luc arrive at the place where he will stay for the duration of his visit, enter a code, and enter. Fade out, while the camera stays on the street. The home itself – which we barely glimpse beyond a corridor and a bedroom, while its owner (a family relative) remains invisible off-screen – is not particularly significant in the overall story and schema of Philippe Garrel’s film. But the fact that the camera remains tactfully outside, that it does not allow us easy or immediate entrance so early in the story, is extremely significant. The entire work builds up like a crystal from this cell.


“There’s a closed door that keeps us guessing”, said Pedro Costa of his Ossos (1997). Closed doors are everywhere in Garrel’s cinema, and never more so than here. Doors stand for alterity: for somebody else’s otherness, a no-go zone, sometimes something hidden or secret or mysterious in them. Or simply what is private, the irreducible core of that person. Doors signal a certain formality: the distance that is in place, from the outset, between people. Twice, Luc will wait for his lovers-to-be at the front or back door of their work place: first with Djemila outside an office, later with Betsy (Soheila Yacoub), a nurse at Hôpital Saint-Antoine. Twice he will be left, somewhat befuddled, by these same two women outside the front doors of their homes.


For doors also function in cinema (Ingmar Bergman well knew it) as the principal, trembling threshold of intimacy: a border or barrier than can be breached in transgression (think of Al Pacino breaking into Penelope Ann Miller’s apartment in Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way [1993]); or the point of no return across which one is invited … The moment that Luc decides to spend the night with Geneviève (Louise Chevillotte), the ex-girlfriend from teenage school days that he will re-encounter in his local area of Longueil-Sainte-Marie in Northern France, rather than Djemila who waits for him in a nearby hotel room, is signalled by a perfect moment of cinematic economy: Geneviève steps through the open door frame, and casts Luc a glance to follow …


At a dramatic highpoint, Geneviève slams a door in Luc’s face. In the final third of the film, there is a door sign (a tie on the doorknob!) that signals when a couple within the uneasy ménage à trois of Luc, Betsy and Paco (Martin Mesnier) wants alone-time. A poignant sequence devoted to Luc’s solitude at the École Boulle (where is learning to be a cabinet maker) – he’s too poor to go eat lunch with classmates, so he trundles off alone to munch on his choco-bar – shows him pausing before the door to the now-empty work studio, about to steal a private wander and look through this (to him) sacred space. And the very final image of the film, like in Ossos or Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), is a closed door, accompanied by the concluding lines of the third-person, novelistic narration used sparsely at crucial juncture-points, telling us that, as Luc does not believe in Heaven, all he has to face now is absence.


A fundamental moment in the film comes when – just near her front door – Djemila resists Luc’s embrace that is beginning to pin her to the wall. It is reminiscent of the hands-off gesture of Myriem Roussel in Godard’s Je vous salue, Marie (1985) – and, in both cases, it is not a matter of prudishness or sexual repression, but rather a statement of limits, of tact, of necessary respect that must always be paid to the Other, body and soul. Djemila is a figure of mystery (as later, differently, Betsy will also be), but not in a mystified way: her family, her background, her recent past (“I screwed up, I ran away”), her values and beliefs inhabit a space that the film delicately suggests but does not presume to pry open.


Garrel is a master at giving us an off-hand glimpse at a character or a story we will not be privileged to follow any further: look for the gorgeous shot of Luc’s friends Alice (Aline Belibi) and Jean-René (Teddy Chawa), wedged into the ongoing tale of Luc and Betsy, sharing a table after their “first dance” together. This is the complete opposite to hypocritical tokenism in representation (as some see it) on Garrel’s part; it’s an honest, mindful approach, aware of its own limitations and blindspots.


So much in The Salt of Tears proceeds in this way. It marks out limits and enigmas to be negotiated in the name of familiarity and intimacy. Some things (such as an abortion) Garrel judges wiser not to show, not to include in direct narrative acts – but to convey indirectly, through another character’s verbal account. A crucial turn in a character’s destiny may be rendered off-screen in this way (such is the case with Djemila) – and thus our discovery of it, as spectators, when it comes, will be all the more powerful and chastening.


Garrel explores the paradoxes and misapprehensions of intimacy: Luc’s father (André Wilms, so touching in this role) truly believes that his son tells him everything, when in fact it’s closer to nothing. One of the most finely judged interactions takes place when Djemila is helped out, in her moment of total, devastating heartbreak, by the hotel receptionist (Michel Charrel, who I took to be a perfectly cast non-professional – but he’s a veteran of 147 movies, including 3 others by Garrel!): this old guy is kindly but hardly indulgent or sentimental, and he regards Djemila’s plight, with a touch of distanced sarcasm, as the same old song: “I’ve seen women wait for a man their whole life, and they’re alone in their grave”. This monologue speaks to more than one person’s plight – because with the irreducible privacy and mystery of every individual comes an inescapable, eternal solitude.


Let’s resist the reviewing reflex to trawl through the echoes of previous Garrel films in The Salt of Tears: street encounters, dance scenes (an exuberantly choreographed one here, set to Téléphone’s “Fleur de ma ville”), a close father-son bond, a fleeting reference to prostitution, outburst glimpses of the contemporary political landscape (racist thugs in an alley, Luc’s “stalking” of a woman who turns on him), Renato Berta’s superb black-and-white, widescreen cinematography (at the opposite pole to the fiddly sheen of David Fincher’s Mank [2020]), the uncomfortable threesome that recalls (in a different gender configuration) not only this auteur’s own J’entends plus la guitare (1991) and thus its source in a difficult part of Garrel’s life, but also Jean Eustache’s masterpiece The Mother and the Whore (1973) to which it pays identificatory homage.


From the very first image – an unfussy, high and distant angle of Luc emerging from a train station – and the opening notes of Jean-Louis Aubert’s plaintive piano score (riffing on his 2019 track “Bien sûr”), it’s all unmistakeably Garrelian. But this unavoidable “signature” aura can too easily overwhelm what is specific to the achievement of any particular film he makes.


I am often struck by the sheer obtuseness of so much that is written about Garrel’s work, and never more so than in the case of The Salt of Tears. Again and again, one reads that the film is indulgently “male-centred”; that it’s confused and anachronistic (Djemila sending Luc a postcard rather than blowing-up his mobile phone has, for instance, been mocked: but that, too, is another index of formality and privacy); that it’s nostalgic for the “affectations” of the Nouvelle Vague (huh?).


Demi Kampakis in Reverse Shot describes the cinematography as “slick”, imbuing a “polished and chic sense of nostalgia” – what film did he watch? Diego Semerene in Slant (apt name for that publication) adds deafness to blindness: to him, the minimal music (used during “transitional scenes”, which is incorrect) is “melodramatic”! Kampakis also finds that the script (by Garrel and screenwriting veterans Jean-Claude Carrière and Arlette Langmann) “doesn’t really demand enough” of Antuofermo, whatever that means. Some reviewers love to tacitly presume they could have done the job better than the filmmakers themselves!


Then there’s the gender politics. To Semerene in Slant, “Djemila is interchangeable with Geneviève … or whatever woman comes next”, and all these femmes “circulate from man to man, father to husband, husband to lover, like some sort of currency”. What a grotesquely inaccurate description! For Emily Barnett in her Inrockuptibles column series “Un autre regard” (rueing the days she had “loved Garrel’s cinema maybe too unconditionally”), “women are only phantoms, fleeting (sometimes persistent) visions, in men’s lives”. These admirable young women, she states, find their “energy constrained” by the Master-auteur within “tiny narrative spaces” (literally: “a bedroom, a framing window”), they lack “any job worth mentioning”, and they are “eliminated in a single line of dialogue, without a past, without a dream”, since they exist only in relation to the hero, his desires and agonies. So much for the art of ellipsis (in terms of both narrative time and off-screen space) and the poetic mysteries it generates in the cinema of Philippe Garrel!


There is such literal-mindedness in a great deal of current film discussion. And the interpretations that come along with this mechanical, tunnel-vision literalness are even worse. Barnett regrets the moment that Garrel passed from the “singular, unique love” between two people (but there are always complications to such coupledom in his films!) to “multiplied lovers … the feminine becomes plural”. A bad sign, it seems. “Instead of uncovering an enriched complexity, all is folded into the simplifying look of a narcissistic, self-centred masculinity”. She further accuses Luc’s gentle father of “macho violence” in his behaviour and attitudes toward women: again, what film did she see?


Barnett and Kampakis reiterate the same baleful terms of engagement: the latter considers that “each female character functions as little more than a prop to advance Luc’s story and inform his complexity” and nominates the women-types as Girl Next Door (Djemila), “monogamous clingy girlfriend” (Geneviève) and Jezebel (Betsy); while the former detects a projective, misogynist dichotomy between Sex-Woman and Martyr-Woman, Judith and Lucretia, Whore and Mother. Barnett concludes that Garrel’s cinema is now “sadly museumified” and that the guy has grown too old (at 72!) and out of touch, his films being neither “timeless” nor “modern”. Get me out of here!


There are, regrettably, so many (too many) misunderstandings here to fully disentangle. But let’s make a start at it. You may be wondering how some reviewers have managed to square the mother/whore dichotomy with the fact that there are three central female characters in The Salt of Tears. Not easy! There are at least two important facets to the issue of how Garrel depicts these women: first, their place in an overall filmic structure; and second, their individual portrayals. And a further, interrelated issue is the film’s presentation of Luc.


On the first aspect, it’s evident that Garrel and his collaborators have deliberately chosen a particular narrative form: a story in which there is an anchoring character (Luc) and then a chronicle of different lovers passing through a depicted segment of his life. Even when making the anchor masculine, this is not an inherently misogynistic or patriarchal story format; no story format is inherently anything a priori.


I would even say that Garrel has been prudently modest in limiting his “parade” to three women; compare that to, say, the profusion of female archetypes in Terrence Malick’s Song to Song (2017) or, further back, The Man Who Loved Women in its François Truffaut (1977) and Blake Edwards (1983) versions. The more apt comparison here, despite the vast difference in tone, would be to Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York (2019) – Garrel is well-known as an admirer of Allen’s work – where, on one level of its sinuous structure, Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) is the hub, and three sharply contrasted (“stereotypical”) encountered men (apart from the boyfriend-hero) spin around her in rapid succession.


It is likely a mark of Carrière’s contribution that the anecdotal power of The Salt of Tears’ scenario, on this level, is so strong. A sequence of gradual comparisons and reversals are set in motion, whereby Woman 1 refuses sex, Woman 2 leaps at it but becomes pregnant, Woman 3 extends it into a threesome … but that is only the start of the pattern, not its fixed or given “meaning”. What Ado Kyrou called “love-eroticism” is present (to varying degrees and in different ways) in all the encounters; possessiveness (on the part of both male and female), secrecy, death, pregnancy, evasiveness – all these spin around the five central characters (Dad included). It’s the complete pattern they form that is meaningful, not this or that isolatable piece.


Let’s wedge Luc in here before I conclude. He is a fascinating figure. Whether or not he is the usual Garrelian alter ego is irrelevant, and probably misleading (at least when it leads to the “narcissistic and male-centred” critique). He, too, is someone we observe from a distance (that’s why the third-person narration is there), rather than ever being invited to “be in his head”. Far from being any kind of hero, he is consistently callow, callous, a coward. There’s a casual insensitivity and brutality (if not quite “violent machismo”!) to him: Djemila, Geneviève and his father all pick him up on the shallowness of his remarks in the midst of intense exchanges. He’s a mystery to himself, and not in a good way.


That’s why Luc is full of wily self-rationalisations, in passive-aggressive style: he tries to make it seem as if his choices are never really his, that his actions are determined externally – and also that (as he decides) he has “never truly loved”! When he finally becomes grandly active in the final scene, it has a note of false histrionics, a mere acting-out. At the same time, parts of his life (such as the relationship with the father and his genuine passion for his vocation) are deeply felt and conveyed to us in a very touching way. Kampakis, while conceding that Luc is “supplied with just enough persuasive interiority to make him a reasonably complicated figure”, also finds him “too impenetrable to invite robust empathy”. In other words (and according to the all-pervasive contemporary cliché): not sufficiently relatable! Happily, Garrel’s complexity with building character-mosaics is of a quite different order.


Let’s get back to the full span of characters. A central presentational motif in the film – as always with Garrel at his best, unostentatiously offered, not underlined in the flow of images, sounds and story – are what Cristina Álvarez López and I call its portrait-shots. Not long-held close-ups this time, as they so often are in his cinema. Rather, a person alone in a space, looking around, engaged in a daily activity, or contemplatively facing a budding crisis. Luc has his lunchtime school studio scene that I’ve mentioned. Geneviève stands in the shed, sizing up the home-workshop of Luc and his father. Djemila makes herself up in the mirror and – in an agonising long-take – slowly goes to pieces as she realises that Luc is not about to show up for their rendezvous. And Betsy, somewhat surprisingly, gets a domestic portrait, patiently tidying up the small, shared apartment. All different variations on aloneness, the fundamental solitude and privacy of these characters.


But Garrel is also a grand filmmaker of intimate exchanges between two people – even as their couple-status, in the larger narrative schema, is always uncertain and in question. His reverse shot/over-the-shoulder volleys between open faces with searching eyes are entrancing, bottomless. Garrel balances – and this is the heart of his cinema – the absolute intensity of the present moment against that broader pattern of misalignments I have outlined.


Return, when you can, to the opening 25-minute section encapsulating the story of Djemila and Luc. Look closely at her furtive, hopeful, keen glances (so well acted by Amamra), while walking along the street or during the Murnau-Sunrise-style bus ride, and then tell me that Djemila is just a male projection, a cipher! In those moments, these privileged cinematic glimpses, she is present, fully alive.


And then look at the sequence of Luc’s departure from Djemila and Paris – a caesura this male character handles very badly indeed. Is it all over for him, is he looking for a fast, efficient escape route? He doesn’t even know, within himself. Djemila doesn’t want to hear about the exact time that his train leaves; she only wants to prolong the eternity of their shared moment. “Let’s go somewhere”, she says; they exit the frame and, with the camera a decent distance away, they find a spot (which is no spot at all) between trees.


Then comes a shot that lasts 80 seconds and feels like a lifetime: slightly shaky hand-held framing, Aubert’s piano score, an embrace that starts and stops and restarts, a few banal spoken words, and finally another exit from the frame. Total, pure, lacerating cinema. And in my mind, I hear the refrain of a classic Leonard Cohen song: “Your eyes are soft with sorrow / Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye”.

MORE Garrel: L'Enfant secret, Sauvage innocence, Lover for a Day

© Adrian Martin December 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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