There's a French movie I worship, Philippe Garrel's The Birth of Love (1993). It has a dinner party scene where the middle-aged hero, Paul (Lou Castel), sits very nervously among a bunch of his oldest friends. These friends all know why the dinner is taking place: it provides a fleeting, furtive opportunity for Paul, an unhappily married man, to spend a whole evening with his young girlfriend, Ulrika (Johanna Ter Steege). At an appropriate point of the evening, everyone else clears out of this room for a few minutes, leaving Paul and Ulrika still, silent and tense in their chairs. Then suddenly, without saying a word, they lunge for each other: a clumsy, awkward embrace, not so much passionate as desperate, as if they were teenagers grabbing a precious moment of intimacy before their parents come back into the dining room.
Every scene in The Birth of Love goes something like this: stolen moments, stolen kisses, a mad scramble for some tenderness to punctuate the cold, dark nights. In a Garrel film, love – the kind of love that is lived vividly, intensely, ephemerally – is what happens during hushed farewells at train stations, during intimate café chats or secret strolls through deserted streets, in hotel rooms or hastily arranged places of assignation. It is a difficult, impossible, fraught love. But it is new love, and it keeps Paul alive. It is the birth he seeks, over and over.
It would be easy – too easy, I think – to dismiss a character like Paul as just a pathetic older guy, suffering his obligatory, self-centred mid-life crisis – a desperate man fleeing the binding responsibilities and hard-won joys of his family home for the sake of a roll in the hay with some young, beautiful thing. But the keen, sharp pathos of Garrel's film comes from this: the necessary, vital, inescapable drama of what he called in another of his films emergency kisses – those fragments of intimate contact that wake you up, illuminate the world anew, and remind you of everything that you've been missing.
The drama of vitality – of life renewed, of a second chance at life achieved through love – is a cinema theme which unfailingly touches and draws me. It touches me in Stealing Beauty (1996), in Nelly and Mr Arnaud (1995), in The Bridges of Madison County (1995). I especially associate this theme of vitality with French cinema, although it can be found everywhere on the planet. In a lively discussion with Garrel back in 1991, the great critic Serge Daney once gave a list of what he considered the 'experiential adventures' lived by the generation who came of age in the '70s, the generation that includes himself and Garrel. Daney waxes lyrical about what he calls "all the dispossessions of the self", and here's his list: "Drugs, travel, mysticism, political engagement, the couple". (1)
To an Anglophone reader, the item in this list that may well jar is precisely 'the couple'. The romantic couple, the island of two, the monogamous prison ... what is that bourgeois construct doing alongside all those other radical journeys? Daney saw it differently; I believe he was simply being true to the mood of a whole slice of French cinema inaugurated by the Nouvelle Vague in 1960.
Garrel said it himself, in his way, years before: "The admirable thing about the Nouvelle Vague is that it's a cinema of love, not a cinema of marriage ... With just a man and a woman in a room, cinema can say everything". (2) Two people (it doesn't have to be a man and a woman, it can be any two people) who are attached, committed – not committed to a social contract, but committed to an adventure, the adventure of love and intimacy. It was in the same spirit that the Mexican poet Octavio Paz reflected, near the end of his life in his book The Double Flame: Essays on Love and Eroticism: "Almost always, love manifests itself as a rupture or violation of the social order; it is a challenge to the customs and institutions of the community. A passion that, uniting the lovers, separates them from society. A republic of lovers would be ungovernable." (3)
So, "in this very room" (as Leonard Cohen sang), in these furtive moments carved out of time, seized from society and its requirements, the self-made heroes of this mythic couple will go to the very end of their passion. They will prowl about, interrogate each other, run the whole gamut of moods and interactions and sensations. It's something we know in French movies from Godard's Contempt (1963) to Cyril Collard's Savage Nights (1992), via Jean Eustache's masterpiece The Mother and the Whore (1973).
So often – just about always – it will end badly. Maybe it is fated to. But does that matter? What matters – at least for these films, and their faith in a certain brand of amour fou – is the intensity of the emergency kiss, the small break-through, shake-up or self-knowledge it allows. Against all the odds, and sometimes with full knowledge of the costs and of the quick burn-out to come – here, in the eternal present of love, there will be, for something like a second, a moment of grace, of poetry and of oneness. At any rate, this is one of the particularly potent dreams or fantasies that the cinema gives us.
French movies about love and romance tend to offer a fairly constricted arena for intense, passionate action. I mean the arena of the extra-marital affair, and the eternal triangle that it agonisingly produces. Take, for example, Vernoux's Love, Etc, a curious, rather modest French movie (based on Julian Barnes' novel Talking It Over) that offers an admirable distillation of this kind of story. It's about a marriage that falls apart after the wife, Marie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) succumbs to the ardent, long-held advances coming her way from the best friend, Pierre (Charles Berling), of her more stolid husband, Benoît (Yvan Attal). For much of the film they are a merry, platonic Jules-and-Jim kind of threesome. But when the truth of the adultery tumbles out, things do get a bit ugly. And then the film has to race ahead years into the future, to see how this triangle of love and hate, deceit and betrayal, somehow resolves itself or plays itself out over time.
One thing I admire in French cinema – even in quite normal, mainstream French movies like this one – is the unashamed, very respectful way they take on the drama of the eternal triangle, as if it's indeed the most serious, universal drama in the world (something with which I tend to agree). I admire this attitude in French movies because, in strait-laced Anglo cultures the 'adventure of the couple' can sound like an odd, even loony concept. As a result, the story of adultery as depicted in movies is often dismissed out of hand as something boring, cliché, somehow not worthy of our attention or emotion. The whole business is rendered trivial: just some nonsense about mid-life crises, a bit on the side, errant randy males and women who'll fall for any old line. But there's got to be more to the immortal story of furtive, stolen love, than just that bit of base, fumbling misery.
It has fallen to certain movies to reveal to us the heartbreaking tenderness of an affair – where what is at stake is not simply a lustful itch but a bid to save a soul or two, an attempt to renew the life-force. François Truffaut's The Soft Skin (1964) is one of the most remarkable films of this ilk, and an obvious forerunner to Garrel's The Birth of Love. Truffaut's story poses a man – an extremely weak, cowardly and evasive middle-aged academic, Pierre (Jean Desailly) – between a passionate, fiery wife (Nelly Benedetti) and a younger mistress (Françoise Dorleac) who is an airline hostess. The film spares us none of the pain or confusion inherent in this triangle: the young mistress's embarrassment and awkwardness as she is shuffled around secretly and kept waiting, alone in dingy hotel rooms; the wife's rising hysteria level as she makes passionate love to her husband, suspecting strongly that he will simply slink off to his other woman immediately afterward. Much of the film's plangent poignancy comes from the fact that so little of what really goes on in the hearts of its protagonists is ever really avowed or discussed by them – there's a beautiful and breathtaking moment where Pierre writes on a piece of paper a message to his young partner (simply the words 'I love you'), and then instantly screws up the paper the moment he sees her coming towards him.
It's interesting to see how Soft Skin has invited, even from its specialist commentators, a certain condescending scorn. One widely read book on the director's career informs us with certainty that adultery is a "cinematically hackneyed subject". But why should we be more resistant to this subject than any other in the annals of fiction? Is it because the eternal triangle somehow reduces life to the level of a cheap, trashy soap opera? Well, I think we have to take that soapie dimension of love quite seriously. "Who wrote the Book of Love?": that old doo-wop song expresses both exasperation and admiration that someone, somewhere, foresaw so perfectly all the inevitable steps, stages, phases and levels of the 'typical' love relationship. But we ignore or disdain this age-old wisdom at our peril, because the story in that book is going to engulf and implicate us, whether we like it or not, no matter how atypical we think we are.
One of the messages taught, implicitly, by the Book of Love, and by solemn French movies about romantic attraction, is that you cannot ever imagine yourself settled in your life, in your marriage, in fact anywhere. The cycle of attraction, desire, waning, frustration, disenchantment and renewal is always turning, always overturning our lives. Our hearts are forever restless. That's what happens in Love, Etc, where it's as simple as a glance: Pierre looks through a camera lens at Marie and whammo, love breaks out, like a curse. This message is both reassuring, in its way, and unnerving – unnerving because happiness craves no greater illusion than that of stasis, permanence, forever-after.
Another Garrel film, Emergency Kisses (1989) has an ending that's all about this restlessness or malaise, what he calls in another of his movie titles the action and movement of the 'phantom heart'. In the final scene of Emergency Kisses, a wife sits at a Metro train platform. We have seen her and husband, throughout the film, weather a crisis of desire, and negotiate some new fragile understanding, a kind of remarriage. But in these last moments of the film, a train stops on the opposite Metro track; in it, the wife spies the woman whom she has suspected her husband of having an affair. This mysterious other woman appears to see the wife's gaze, but does not acknowledge it; she turns away slightly and the train just moves on.
In this simple but virtuosic series of looks – as tense as any suspense clinch in a Hitchcock movie – a drama of amorous malaise stirs, or rather it re-stirs. The final shot of the film shows the wife, still sitting but palpably agitated, gripped anew by the jealousy that previously threw her marriage into disarray ... And it in these tiny gestures and actions, in this most banal chronicle of everyday suspicions and doubts, that the cinema finds its highest drama, and also its greatest passion.
© Adrian Martin December 1997
1. Daney and Garrel, “Dialogue”, Cahiers du cinéma, nos. 443-444 (May 1991) back