L’Enfant secret

(Philippe Garrel, France, 1982)


Garden of Stone

Finally getting to see L’Enfant secret (1982) as part of the Philippe Garrel conference in Dublin in June 2001 resolved a dilemma for me. (1) I had been in love with this director’s work since the single – and, for me, momentous – Melbourne screening of Les Baisers de secours (1989) in 1994. A year later, after seeing J’entends plus la guitare (1991) and La Naissance de l’amour (1993), I was uncertain as to which to nominate as my favourite of his films: Baisers or Naissance.


Since that time, I have managed to see most of of Garrel’s entire output, working backwards to the earlier phases of his work in the ‘60s and ‘70s. All of the films are fascinating and many (including Liberté, la nuit [1983], Le Lit de vierge [1969] and Rue Fontaine [1984]) are tremendous, with J’entends plus la guitare rising in my estimation over time. I had always been keen to see L’Enfant secret – the film that, as every loyal Garrelian knows, marks the beginning of his narrative period, and the recommencement of the autobiographical project left behind after his first short, Les Enfants désaccordés (1964) – but I had no idea how overwhelming or extraordinary the experience would turn out to be. L’Enfant secret is in every sense the central film of Garrel’s career. It is also, in my view, incontestably his best.


Intensity is a quality I value in cinema, almost supremely. L’Enfant secret is a relentlessly and incomparably intense film, with a remarkably sustained, oceanic level of emotion. Of all Garrel’s autobiographical works since 1982, it is the one that seems to hold closest and most directly to the outline of events in his life. Where his alter ego figure in later films will transmute from theatre director to writer to painter to architect, here Jean-Baptiste (Henri de Maublanc) is a filmmaker. Only, perhaps, in the casting of Anne Wiazemsky as Elli (the Nico figure) – Garrel called her a “French princess playing a German worker” – do we see the first sign of the director’s creative, multi-faceted exploration of casting (as Fabien Boully has suggested, Garrel’s cinema is truly an art of casting), and his sense of the fictive possibilities of the auto-portrait roman (‘novel’) form. (Stoking this atmosphere of the Romanesque is the very title, derived no doubt from life, but also from a Juliette Greco song.)


The film traces a line of events from the first meeting of Jean-Baptiste and Elli in a communal household and an idyllic period of love, through to a separation that precipitates a period of drug-induced psychosis for Jean-Baptiste and then incarceration in a hospital where he undergoes electro-shock treatment. The lovers are subsequently reunited, but the death of Elli’s mother sends her into a depressive spiral that leads to heroin addiction. The secret child of the title is Elli’s; alluding to Nico’s son by Alain Delon, Garrel explains that “she had a child with a celebrated actor who would not recognise him”. (2) (Note the different selections and emphases Garrel makes for each discontinuous slice of his autobiographical roman: he largely conserved his memories of the May ’68 experience, for instance, for the magisterial Les amants réguliers [2005].)


Where Jean-Baptiste, as incarnated by the Bressonian model de Maublanc, is the most strikingly sunken, heavy-set and morose of the director’s stand-ins, Elli is an extremely complex, enigmatic and moving figure. In Garrel’s cinema the trauma of a grown-up person having to finally confront the symbolic order of adulthood (and parenthood) after suffering the death of a beloved parent tends to be mainly a male story (I think, principally, of Le Cœur fantôme [1996]) – if only because masculine problems are the ones with which Garrel is most familiar (despite his proud boast, increasingly over the past decade, that he ‘turns his control over’ for scenes written and scripted by women). (3) L’Enfant secret is the striking exception to this rule. The part of the story devoted to Elli’s grief over the sudden death of her mother, and the cataclysmic effect this has on her future development, is powerfully felt. Wiazemsky’s chanting of “maman”, in one of Garrel’s ubiquitous train scenes, is lacerating, like the son who cries “papa” in La Naissance de l’amour. Intriguingly, this aspect of the Nico story (assuming it is indeed based on real life) is filtered out of J’entends plus la guitare which, in content if not form, is the film closest to L’Enfant secret in Garrel’s career.


Talking of the characters in this way – and one should never deny the flesh-and-blood reality of the people in Garrel’s work, nor the acute psychological and behavioural observation he brings to his storytelling – runs the risk of erasing the special quality of L’Enfant secret. It is in many ways an iconic movie, made up solely of compressed, vivid high points – the kind of film that many dream of making but so few succeed in shaping. The characters are not given a conventionally psychological treatment, yet nor are they the grave emblems, set within the geometry of their intersecting solitudes, that we find in Le vent de la nuit (1999). What matters to Garrel in L’Enfant secret are the pure flashes of intersubjective states – union and separation, despair and derangement, ecstatic loss of self and hellish, immobile confinement. Although the film is essentially linear, its only essential driving logic is one of stark contradiction between one scene and the next: nothing and no one remains static or unified for very long. Bed scenes, which are a central motif of Garrel’s cinema, are here already used to conjure this entire kaleidoscope of situations, tensions and sensations.


When I suggested above that L’Enfant secret is in every sense the central film of Garrel’s career, I mean that firstly in its chronological and descriptive senses. The film stands at the cusp between what is, at present, the two halves of his oeuvre. It inaugurates the narrative period, but is itself only minimally and tenuously a narrative – it takes two main characters through from point A to B, but that’s about all. One could rightly say that it is simultaneously a fiction and a portrait film, the jewel in the crown of the series of works done in the ‘70s (including the remarkable Les Hautes solitudes [1974]). (4) The work on attenuated duration – or, in Alain Philippon’s more precise words, “the alternation of accelerations and decelerations, ruptures and open stretches” (5) that marks all of his work from the portrait-films on – comes to be focused, in L’Enfant secret, on intersubjective looks, embraces, frozen (sometimes inscrutable) moments of tension. (In Les Hautes solitudes, that intersubjectivity exists, but its line runs from the subject in front of the camera to Garrel, the hand-holding operator, behind it. In L’Enfant secret, Elli will accuse Jean-Baptiste, in the aftermath of a painful love scene, of having “a camera where your heart should be”). One also sees now, looking back at the ‘70s work, how certain key Garrelian motifs and hyper-charged images – such as sleeping, walking, or a woman leaning against a window – pass directly from the portrait-films (where they are generated as spontaneous, documentary, primary evidence) to the fictions.


At the giddy height of this portraiture, there is no passage in Garrel’s cinema more divine or heartbreaking in its eternal stillness and internal repetition than the one about fifteen minutes into L’Enfant secret, where Jean-Baptiste and Elli are locked in a nocturnal embrace in the street, seemingly unable to say goodbye, but somehow forced to separate. The entire push-and-pull intensity of the film is concentrated in that precious combination of images, gestures and music.


At the same time, L’Enfant secret returns to Garrel’s work of the ‘60s – but in a ghostly way, picking up its distant echoes. Where the director’s ‘70s phase inaugurates an arte povera, his ‘60s work – the Zanzibar period – is (at least in an avant-garde context) rich, luxurious, expansive, a time of dandy aestheticism. It throbs with a counter-cultural sense of timeless myth, ritual and magic (extended in the films directed by Garrel’s collaborator, Pierre Clémenti), often centred around Holy Family imagery. In L’Enfant secret, the trio of mother, father and child has fallen to earth, and is more internally fraught and split than in even Le Révélateur (1968). It is essentially the intertitles that divide the film (not without mystery) into its parts – “The Caesarean Section”, “The Ophidian [i.e. snake] Circle”, “Last of the Warriors”, “The Disenchanted Forests” – which bring back traces of the ‘60s vision. (6) The richness of L’Enfant secret derives from a tension between the heightened poetry that these titles (perhaps also reflecting Nico’s song lyrics) massage – nature-based imagery of birth, danger, idyll, night/day cycles, weather, the animal kingdom – and the small, even tawdry lives and events related.


Raymond Bellour was astute to yoke the memory of L’Enfant secret to the currency of Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre (1998): “… not since Philippe Garrel’s L’Enfant Secret has one seen, from a still young director, such a new and cutting-edge film in French cinema”. (7) There is much that links the films – from a view of emotions and experience that is clearly marked by a psychoanalytically-influenced understanding of the essential human drives (in both films, the scene of a small child viewing a movie, as if the first time, is truly primal) and a subtle but crucial reference to the realm of the fairy tale (stronger in Grandrieux’s film than Garrel’s) to an astonishingly intricate exploration of a range of conventionally forbidden techniques. These techniques include: extreme light and darkness (via photographic over– and under-exposure); an early-cinema preference for silence, music and noise over dialogue; and out-of-focus blurring (there needs to be a filmic history of blur written, at the very least to redeem it from the current modish use of the device in ads and rock video).


L’Enfant Secret seems to me to go even further than Sombre. The formal inventiveness of Garrel’s film is prodigious: image-flares, repeated shots, black frames, refilming off a moviola, shooting through various kinds of glass surfaces, startling compositional decentring (one of its most beautiful shots gives us a peek of tiny eyes without a face through the abundant leaves on a tree). Some scenes begin suddenly, shockingly, with the film taking flight into a hitherto unfamiliar stratosphere: the moments where Jean-Baptiste violently smashes a window, or Elli attempts to hurl herself out a window; or two men dragging Jean-Baptiste by force into the clinic, as his disembodied voice is heard on the soundtrack uttering a single word: “Resist”. This is the most extremely dissipative and disintegrative of Garrel’s works.


The effect of all this is startling, sometimes bewildering, offering a hyper-charged flow to which one ultimately must simply surrender – few films suspend the apprehension of real time like this one. One appreciates better the poetic oddities of Liberté, la nuit – especially its Godardian duality of tender lyricism and violent abruptness – having seen the film that precedes and prepares the way for it; but Liberté, for all its qualities, is already a step towards the cleaner arthouse style that Garrel will adopt fully only in Le Vent de la nuit – and only temporarily, as it turned out, in the light of Sauvage innocence (2001) and La frontière de l’aube (2008).


L’Enfant secret, by contrast, brings us very close to a dream-image that has long animated a certain discussion of cinema, especially experimental, animated, underground and Super 8 cinema: the idea that certain works, certain forms, can take us close to the ‘unconscious of film’ itself, a severe, primal, baroque place where language (of whatever kind) is still piecing itself together in the maelstrom of pre-signification, all the drives are superimposed in their impersonal intensity, and the very materiality of the cinematic medium is exposed at its rawest nerve-ends. Garrel’s radical work on flicker-effects and exposure ignites this dream, as does the presence of camera noise, which is such an integral part of the film’s texture – one really feels that one is attending, like a midwife, the birth of cinema.


On another level of heterogeneity, there is the dazzling music by Faton Cahen and Didier Lockwood. I have always been impressed by Garrel’s use of music as gesture, the way he emphasises the act of its precise placement by isolating it or delaying its entrance. But L’Enfant secret offers his boldest gesture of this kind. The first ten minutes or so of the film are completely silent, until that amazing music floods in, soaring for long passages. In a game that will reappear in a softer and more lyrical mode in Les Baisers de secours, music and dialogue at one point compete for aural dominance, weaving and fading in and out of each other as the characters walk.


Experiencing the shock of L’Enfant secret, I came to appreciate the significance of a certain, intractable experience of Otherness or alterity in his cinema. This stark presence of the other takes many forms in Garrel’s work; his mastery of these levels of ambiguity and strangeness is an overlooked aspect of his gifts as a director. There is the shock of people whom his characters encounter, particularly children, like the first view of Marianne’s secret child in J’entends plus la guitare.  There is the matter-of-fact but fascinatingly deformed shape of a face in the same film. There are mysterious events that unfold, magically, before us (this is the Dreyer side of Garrel), like the instant togetherness of a new couple in La Naissance de l’amour, or a man waiting for his own death to arrive in Le vent de la nuit, or the pregnant complicity between Duval and Deneuve in the same film (there is a sense that they have met before – the haunted or shadowed encounter, a Blanchot theme dear to Garrel). There are the sidebar stories (usually accompanied by a surprising voice-over) which enter in a flurry and exit just as quickly: Mathieu finding the earring in Baisers, Marcus spying on his wife in Naissance. There are the written notes (voiced on the soundtrack in a spectral reading) or the phone calls (no less spectral in their intricate figuration of presence and absence), almost always harbingers of death, loss or disaster in Garrel (as in Rue Fontaine [1984]). There are his marvellous, poetic titles (phantom heart, secret child, emergency kisses, birth, wind, night), a mélange of Breton and Poe, so rich and strange …


There are otherly apparitions in Garrel. Psychosis: Jean-Baptiste sitting up in bed in a military outfit. Some visions are frank and base – Marianne pissing, Alcaïs menstruating – and others are obscene, like the hypodermic syringes that appear in the bathroom in L’Enfant secret, discarded on the floor in J’entends plus and especially the one found beside the young child in Le Cœur fantôme (a disturbing moment that Dowd rightly sees as central to Garrel’s work). There are also, in this family of apparitions, Garrel’s own odd, exclamatory insertions, such as the graphic signs whose words point over-obviously to the scenes they frame in Baisers (the final ‘alarm’ sign on the métro platform) and Le Vent de la nuit (the Durex ad that closes over Duval in the chemist as Deneuve watches and smiles). Finally, there is material that goes beyond the merely cryptic into the outrightly unassimilable or incommensurable (as the other must always, primally and ultimately, be in philosophic terms).


It is easy to forget or censor the moments in Garrel that come from nowhere, and receive no explanation other than the  fact that he has chosen, for secret reasons, to put them there, like the drawing that begins Liberté, la nuit. Garrel’s films sometimes start with either a prolegomena (as in Le Vent de la nuit) or a swerve (as in the portrait study of the prostitute at the start of Le cœur fantôme) – Baisers is exceptional, by contrast, by plunging us into the fiction in its first gesture and line, Sy’s “Why am I not in the film?”. The opening of L’Enfant secret is extreme in seeming to start in another film altogether, a silent film of teenage love (it is hard to avoid the speculation that these figures are, symbolically, the main characters in a mystical, younger incarnation). This gaze upon another couple who will not be the subject of the rest of the film is part of the autobiographical reference to Garrel’s years in Positano (where two couples co-habited) – it returns as material in both J’entends plus and most recently Un été brûlant (2011), which is dedicated to the memory of his painter and close friend Frédéric Pardo – but it is also an emblem of the essential form of his work, breathtaking and disconcerting, beautiful and chilling in equal measure, like a disenchanted forest or a garden of stone.


One device recurring throughout L’Enfant secret is particularly captivating – the refilmed imagery of Elli’s child, stopping, starting, freezing, flickering. The haunting power of these images is impossible to describe. Partly this is a matter of theme: more brutally than in any other Garrel film, this child simultaneously incarnates the troublesome other who drives adult lovers apart (as in the almost comic scene where they cannot sleep together in the kid’s presence), and the lost boy who is inevitably and hopelessly abandoned by his biological guardians in this cruellest of worlds (this is where Garrel meets the Cassavetes of Love Streams [1984]). On another level, the refilmed imagery of the child provides a gateway into the deepest level of the filmic unconscious. Using a trick that may have already been becoming clichéd and hackneyed in the late ‘70s, Garrel sets in train a film within the film – directed by Jean-Baptiste and starring (it seems) Elli and her child; at one point he describes a project (called “The Disenchanted Forests”) which was one that, in reality, Garrel planned but abandoned.


But, as usual, Garrel gives us only the barest bones of this fictional conceit. What matters is the radical, contagious confusion in status this film-within causes to every single image in L’Enfant secret. In a giddily surreal sequence, the central trio go to a movie theatre to see a silent comedy; Garrel passes from a shot of them in their seats to the hall plunged into darkness and traversed by an odd light-play, as talk continues and rinky-tink screen music begins. Soon, we will see images of the threesome, accompanied by the same music, as if they were themselves the image on that screen. And from that point, literally anything goes: a repeated shot (separated by black frames) of Wiazemsky at a window – is that Garrel’s rushes, or Jean-Baptiste’s? This is not meant to be a solvable puzzle (as films-within-films so often are); rather, it opens forcibly the domain of cinema as a realm of indecidable mental images, neither entirely subjective nor objective. In this film which is so militantly concerned with states of mind – from depression to hallucination – we can no longer draw the dividing line between real shots, fabricated shots, and inner picturings. Nor can we easily draw a line between the film in its finished state (although that is surely what we are watching) and the many in-process, experimental layers of its ragged, driven, swirling incompletion.


These qualities come to affect the very constitution of the story and its nominal verisimilitude (a pathetically inadequate word in the context of this film): are those painterly smears of blood in Jean-Baptiste’s bath and bed evidence of actual suicide attempts, or something altogether more conceptual? Genre (another weak word in the context) also becomes impossible to fix: for a while, in the electro-shock scenes that are both serene and terrifying, L’Enfant secret becomes the most mysterious Val Lewton production ever made.


Reading about L’Enfant secret all these years, I had preserved a special memory of two particular citations. In The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze describes (in the course of a magisterial few pages on Garrel) the moment in the film where “we see the café window, the man with his back turned, and, in the window, the image of the woman also from the back crossing the street and going to meet the dealer”. (8) At the time of the film’s first release in Paris , Alain Philippon (an extremely gifted critic who died in 1998) concluded his review thus: “I know few films, today, in which the simple shot of a man’s hand in a woman’s hair could carry an emotional charge of such intensity”. (9) I spent years imagining, dreaming these two screen moments! There was no way for me to know that both are, in fact, part of the same sequence-shot – and that this shot is in fact the ending of the film.


Garrel comments respectfully but matter-of-factly on Deleuze’s analysis of the shot in question: “One can naturally interpret this way of doubling Elli into two images, real and virtual, but objectively the reason for this was the poverty of resources: I had to film through a window to avoid yet more camera noise…” (the scene uses focal shifts in relation to this reflective surface that, in the context of the whole film, register as virtuosic). Garrel adds: “Always, when I shoot, I’m solely preoccupied with technical problems”. (10)


Garrel is too modest, because this is one of the most shattering endings to a movie I have ever seen, with a masterly sense of dramatically accumulating duration. It leaves the story at a completely unresolved moment: Jean-Baptiste now knows of Elli’s addiction and she knows he knows, so they have merely reached a moment that is both impasse and mutual exhaustion. She collapses onto his hand, kissing it sweetly but desperately (a little as Catherine Deneuve will smother her lover’s hands with kisses in Le Vent de la nuit), he strokes her hair in brutal silence, she says over and over, “don’t lecture me…”. And then the lights go up; there are no credits (neither at the start nor the end, beyond the title and intertitles), not even a black screen. This is one Garrel film in which his alter ego does not get that fragile island of fleeting, intersubjective redemption; there is no saving angel, no rebirth of love with another woman. Thierry Jousse sees it as a film “traversed by a sort of fatigue, in the sense that Blanchot speaks of fatigue as a constitutive element of a certain type of modern literature, or Deleuze describes Antonioni as the filmmaker who inscribed fatigue in bodies”. (11) There is existential weariness in the film, yes, but also an incredible sense of artistic renewal and inventiveness; and a solemn, ultimately sublime bearing witness to interior experience.


I am keen to find out how many prints of L’Enfant secret exist in the world, and what state the negative is in. Garrel, who was his own producer on the project, still needs to give special permission for its rare screenings; and a briefly available Japanese DVD release is now a true rarity. Never in my life have I been so seized, during the projection of a film, by a desire to protect and preserve it. I was struck by an intimate sense of the fragility of the celluloid itself, as even its birth pains carried this same aura: according to Garrel, it was completed in 1979 and remained locked up in the lab until he could afford to get it out. L’Enfant secret is a film that should belong to every Cinémathèque of the world, because – quite simply – it seems to me one of the greatest and most monumental works in cinema history.

© Adrian Martin July 2001/November 2011

MORE Garrel: Lover for a Day, The Salt of Tears



1. This essay is dedicated to Fergus Daly, who organised the memorable and groundbreaking Garrel éternel event at the Irish Film Centre. back


2. Philippe Garrel and Thomas Lescure, Une caméra à la place du cœur (Provence: Admiranda/Institut de l’image, 1992), p. 83. back


3. See, for example, the splendid interview by Stéphane Delorme and Nicolas Azalbert, Cahiers du cinéma 671 (October 2011), p. 73. back


4. For an excellent account of the ‘70s work, see Stéphane Delorme, “Désaccord majeur. (Quatre films de Philippe Garrel)”, in Nicole Brenez and Christian Lebrat (eds), Jeune, dure et pure! Une histoire du cinéma d’avant garde et expérimental en France ( Paris : Mazzotta/Cinémathèque Française, 2001), pp. 311-4. back


5. Alain Philippon, “L’amour en fuite”, Cahiers du cinéma 472 (October 1993), p. 31. back


6. As David Ehrenstein notes, “Any one of [these titles] would serve for an earlier Garrel film”. Film – The Front Line 1984 (Denver: Arden, 1984), p. 80. back


7. Raymond Bellour, “Pour Sombre”, Trafic 28 (Hiver 1998), p. 8. back


8. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 200. back


9. Alain Philippon, “L’Enfant-cinéma”, Cahiers du cinéma 344 (February 1983), p. 31. back


10. Une caméra à la place du cœur, p. 95. back


11. Thierry Jousse, “Garrel: là où la parole devient geste”, in Jacques Aumont (ed.), L’image et la parole (Paris: Cinémathèque Française, 1999), p. 199. back

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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