Philippe Garrel’s L’enfant secret (1979)

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I first heard about Philippe Garrel through Adrian Martin’s introduction of L’enfant secret (Garrel, 1979) for Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time 2012 poll. The film was made in 1979 but not shown until 1982, as Garrel needed the time to prepare it in the lab I think. I would guess that Garrel and the Cinematheque Francaise hold the only prints of this film. Martin, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Fergus Daly and nine others attended a screening of it in the IFI Cinema, Dublin (my local) in June 2001 as part of a Garrel conference, entitled Garrel Eternal (which according to Rosenbaum maybe the only Garrel conference in existence), the screenings were curated by Fergus Daly. To my knowledge one of the few other cinemas to show L’enfant secret is the Melbourne Cinematheque, Garrel holds the screening rights. Martin said of the film “I dreamed it in my mind of what it would be… It turned out to infinitely greater than anything I had dreamed’. I am lucky enough to have seen this film which has only a Japanese DVD release.

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It concerns a man and a woman in their early thirties, he is a filmmaker, Garrel’s alter-ego. She is an actress, Nico’s (of The Velvet Underground) alter-ego, (Garrel and Nico had a long and intense relationship around 1969 to 1979). The semi-autobiographical details concern the man, Jean-Baptiste (Henri de Maublanc) who goes thorough severe depression leading to electric shock treatments. The woman Elie (Anne Wiazemsky) has a child named Swann (Xuan Lindenmeyer) by another man. The film is a structure of vignettes conveying the many feelings expressed by the characters.

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Characters often say goodbye to each other in Garrel’s films, as Martin (2012) notes ‘this is one of the absolutely central human moments for him’, such moments are portrayed with such intimacy through the actors and mise-en-scene. After the IFI screening in 2001, Adrian Martin walked to the back of cinema to find Fergus Daly trembling, Daly asked ‘have we just seen the greatest film ever made?! Martin replied ‘yes, we did’. A nearly tearful Martin in 2012 adds ‘and I still believe this’.

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My main critical sources of Garrel include Martin’s aformentioned 2012 introduction and his three texts, Garden of Stone: Philippe Garrel’s L’enfant secret from Senses of Cinema (2001) (now available through a 2011 revised version from Transit), A Cinema of Intimate Spectacle: The Poetics of Philippe Garrel from Cineaste (2009) and Jealousy: Terms of Endearment from Transit (2014). Also of great passion and interest are Kent Jones’ 1997 essay from Film Comment entitled Sad and Proud of It: The Films of Philippe Garrel, Review: A Burning Hot Summer (Film Comment July/August 2012) and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 2006 review for Sight and Sound, Voluptuous Defeat: Philippe Garrel and Les amants réguliers. I have previously seen three Garrel films; Regular Lovers (Garrel, 2005), Frontier of Dawn (Garrel, 2008) and Jealousy (Garrel, 2013) all are in black and white (like L’enfant secret) and star Philippe Garrel’s son Louis as his father’s alter-ego prowling the streets of Paris as a poet, a photographer and an actor respectively. Louis Garrel’s emotional turmoil of love and loss are at the centre of these films. Two of them end in suicide, one in a failed suicide attempt, L’enfant secret is almost optimistic by comparison, one character considers suicide or self harm but knows better. Kent Jones (2012) notes Garrel’s ‘intensive focus on a limited set of preoccupations and obsessions—suicide, drug addiction, the tension between individual freedom and responsibility, the memory of May ’68 [the violent demonstrations of workers, intellectuals, and students in Paris], and above all the ghost of his relationship with Nico.’ Jones continues: ‘the passage from romantic love to domesticity and its ongoing negotiations and niggling adjustments’

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Until last night L’enfant secret was my ‘holy grail’ of films to track down, I could not believe my eyes when it was in front of me. Even though it was not the best quality it still communicated all of its feelings, silences and incredible beauty. Jones (1997) states that these moments ‘have the tough beauty of poetic fragments in a quietly devastating film of almost unbearable alternations between tenderness and the harshest truths’. I could not be but taken by the silences in L’enfant secret, silences with such immense power from the actors and mise-en-scene. I wondered what I had missed in other ‘slow films’ like Jeanne Dielman (Akerman, 1975) and Tropical Malady (Apichatpong, 2004). This subtle emotional intensity is heightened by the incredibly poetic music by Faton Cahen with Didier Lockwood (only 22 at the time) playing a mournful and haunting violin accompaniment. Wiazemsky and de Maublanc give absolutely stunning performances based on their characters’ strong emotions which we feel but can never truly know. Each vignette, each close-up bears witness to a film which as Martin (2012) notes ‘nearly didn’t exist’ like Philippe Garrel, a survivor who got through his depression to make this film. Garrel uses 16mm, 35mm and a moviola to make you feel as Martin notes ‘as if the film is going to disintegrate before your very eyes’, this is the power of the film. It is a truly unique experience which bears the signature of Garrel, ‘Garrel eternal’ in the hearts and minds of every cinephile who shared a similar revelatory experience to those people who saw it unveiled on the screen in the IFI Cinema 2 on that day in Dublin in June 2001.

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