In his text “Garden of Stone“, Adrian Martin writes about the “eternal stillness and internal repetition” of a scene happening 15 minutes into L’Enfant secret (Philippe Garrel, 1982): “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.” This text has a special place in my heart, not only because it was one of my first translations into Spanish, but also because it taught me a certain way of watching the films by this director. What happens in a scene is not just a matter of plot, but of the combinations effected and the forces at play.
The cinema of Philippe Garrel is made of everyday, humble situations (encounters, separations, conversations, walks …) that repeat from film to film, acquiring the status of figural motifs. There’s the family resemblance of the same series and the uniqueness of each variation. Liberté, la nuit (1984), set during the years of the Algerian war, has a scene – two minutes and twenty seconds, filmed in one single shot – depicting the crisis between two lovers: Jean (Maurice Garrel), a widowed revolutionary helping the FLN, and Gémina (Christine Boisson), a young French-Algerian woman.
It starts with Gémina giving her back to the camera, desperately pitting herself against the house’s façade. For most of the scene, her gaze is directed downwards, her body turned toward the wall and curled in like a shell. Her hair falls over her face; her face is buried in her hands. Occasionally, she pats her chest and stomach as if to say: here is my heart, here are my guts. Such is the figuration of pain, locking it all in. Except for the overflowing tears. Except for the sudden, reaching-out gestures. Except for her staggering speech that oscillates between inward compulsion (“How could you think that it wouldn’t hurt me?”) and outward expression (” … but I love you”).
Christine Boisson’s ball of recoiling and opening-up drives the scene. Her physical anxiety contrasts with Maurice Garrel’s (no less affecting) containment. Like an elastic band, the couple approaches and detaches, furls and unfurls, embraces and lets go. The camera angle turns the open space into a charged field of entrapped affects, reducing the exterior setting to a narrow triangle where the characters are boxed-in (the house’s wall and the clothesline intersect, forming two of its visible sides; the third is an absence – the terrace’s missing railing – that, once noticed, adds a sense of menace to the scene). The distant and almost motionless camera set-up is in friction with the closeness of the sound and with the internal movements, both of the bodies and of the hanging garments.
Blown by the wind, a white sheet enters the frame, like a candle swelling and shrinking. Its hypnotic and unpredictable movements obliterate (sometimes partially, other times entirely) the action in the background. It is a spectacle of heightened, Epsteinian poetry that demands to be read under the lens of Jacques Rancière’s “thwarted fable”. For it is precisely this combat between background story and foreground excess, between the characters’ dramatic conflict and the object’s sensory inscription of its forms, that gives this passage its tension, its intensity, and its lyricism.
It is as if the cinema screen – the tense, expectant, white sheet – is revolting against its condition of mere support for the projected images. The backdrop comes to the fore as a tongue of fire, fluttering and flickering in violent whips, spitting and splattering white strokes. White of the origins that, in its liberated movement, threatens to tear apart the scene and cut open the very unfolding of the narrative – extinguishing the film, like a burn-hole in a strip of celluloid.