Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Head Against the Wall

Thoughts on the final scene(s) from Philippe Garrel's 
She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps (1985)

The final moment.  The image of a window.  Or more specifically, the image of a building, viewed through a window.  The room surrounding this frame (within a frame) is in total darkness.  The building on the other side of the street, no doubt lit by an adjacent streetlight, appears like a theatrical projection; like an image directed onto this imaginary screen, created by the darkened silhouetted of the room.  In the film, as in life, everything is cinema.

This image is literally the final frame; a moment, empty and secluded.  A dead end?

The image that precedes it is similar, but not identical.  Another window, again, looking out onto the side of a residential building - a familiar backdrop to many French drama films where the 'action' is localised to a single setting (usually a spacious but sparsely furnished apartment building) - only here, the window is open.  A subtle variation perhaps, but one that suggests something entirely different if we look at the two images together, as a progression.  The two 'shots' - these moments that bring the film to its necessary conclusion - seem to evoke something that is true to the emotional development of the characters and of the filmmaker himself; what was once open is now firmly closed.

She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps [Philippe Garrel, 1985]:

For now, I don't want to dwell too much on these images.  As I mentioned earlier, they're simply moments, redolent of a particular emptiness or a feeling of "ennui."  They imply tone, a sensation; a mood more consistent with the rest of the film, where these characters shuffle through cold rooms and vacant streets, meeting and departing, colliding (momentarily), before slowly drifting apart.  They evoke the spirit of something lost, an ideal or even a person, though more truthfully, an ideology; something that haunts the very bones of these characters and provides a better understanding  as to why the film, as a work, as an object, feels so fragmented, if not genuinely incomplete...

These images provide closure, but closure to what?  To answer this question we need to look back at the film in more detail; to study Garrel's continual blurring of fiction and reality, performance and actuality, and the various semi-autobiographical (or even fully autobiographical) threads that run throughout his films, from the earliest, more avant-garde works, like Le révélateur (1968) and Le lit de la vierge (1969), to the personal (to the point of invoking privacy) confessionals of Les hautes solitudes (1974) and L'enfant secret (1979).  In looking at Garrel's work as an on-going narrative, we can better understand the context of this film, which on the surface is both vague and emotionally disjointed, but beneath the surface speaks very candidly about the great episodes of Garrel's life; from the turbulence of the Paris riots of May 1968 and his tortured relationship with Nico, through to the stability of marriage and the birth of his son.

These events shape the film as much as they shape the perspective of the filmmaker, who appears on-screen, both physically - as himself, as the author of this work - and as a character played by the actor Jacques Bonnaffé.  Bonnaffé isn't so much acting out the part of Garrel the man, as playing 'himself' playing 'Garrel' as avatar; a continuation of that relentless blurring of the line between the film, as a reflection of reality, and the reality itself.  It's an idea also found  in the presentation of the narrative, where we continually see the making of a film (this film?) in contrast with scenes that are perhaps the result of that particular production, but with no clear identification between the two.

Regardless, the entire film feels wounded by fear and self-loathing, as these characters - looking for a way to move forwards without losing the need to look back - exist in the twilight.

As the film reaches its suffering finale - not so much tying things up as just ending, abruptly, on a moment of absolute horror and distress - it is not the memory of things or an ideology or even a sense of failure that haunts the film, but the emotional uncertainty of its director.  This, as an idea, finds its most startling and disturbing expression in a moment towards the end of the film, which, in its mood and presentation, seems to exist outside of the recognisable boundaries of the previous narrative, instead offering a fascinating (if somewhat troubling) glimpse into the tortured psyche of the film's 'auteur.'

This short sequence of shots follows the final image of Bonnaffé - again, playing himself as actor, playing a facsimile of Garrel the director, smoking a cigarette in the half-light - and is a prelude to those windows, which again, seem to suggest a representation of the makeshift cinema of the everyday through which life itself can be viewed as spectacle, or as scene from a silent movie.  As these fragments of a scene unfold, Garrel, as himself, stalks the frame; appearing, first from off-camera, as a silhouette - like the phantom menace of Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) - then as a figure, awkward and alone.  He stands pensively by the window, looking out into the bright illumination that projects radiance onto the wall behind him; passing through him, as if the man himself is already a spectre, trapped between two worlds.

During this sequence, Garrel smokes his cigarette, opens the window, puts on his coat and occasionally throws a discomfited, self-conscious glance towards the camera, as if acknowledging - with some contempt - that he is the subject of this film; this self-portrait.  When he pulls open the window we fear the worst.  The suicide scenes of several of Garrel greatest films are recalled and create a feeling of trepidation.  So too does the character's earlier references to the legendary filmmaker Jean Eustache; author of the colossal masterpiece The Mother and the Whore (1973) and a close friend of Garrel's, who took his own life in 1981.

What follows  is startling.

As the scene continues, Garrel - a crumpled mess of nervous energy - pounds his head against the wall in resignation, before a jump-cut removes him from the frame.  He returns, repeating the same action in a different variation, as if several takes of a scene have been edited together to draw attention to the repetition of the form.  As the shot continues, Garrel - still physically shaken by something - begins clutching his stomach in distress.  A look of confusion enters his face as he doubles over in what we assume is genuine agony.  His body hardens, shrinking into itself.  He gestures towards the camera with his hands as if urging the film to stop.  The camera goes on recording - without sound, without pity - until the moment of the cut.

She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps [Philippe Garrel, 1985]:

This final scene, in its entirety, is both sad and unsettling.  Alarming for its unguarded vulnerability, the honesty of its emotion and the statement that it creates.  The performance - or the act itself - seems to encapsulate that feeling of frustration or personal disappointment that hangs above every facet of the film; creating an overwhelming sense of desolation or an air of despondency that chips away at every fragmented interaction, unfinished movement or sketch of a scene.

It's an ending perfectly suited to this film, this work of personal reflection.  A film, like most by Garrel, which risks alienating a potential audience so as not to compromise the integrity of its emotions or the sincerity of its approach.

When we look back at Garrel's scene, we think back to those windows, first open, then closed, and what these images might suggest within the context of the work.  Do we view these images as an unsettling suicide fantasy - the director's own potential death, figurative or not, imagined on film - or do see it as being suggestive of a new beginning; the past and the pain now behind us, excluded and locked-out?