The theater was full last week at the annual Film Comment Selects series for the advance public screening of Philippe Garrel's 1991 film "J'entends plus la guitare" ("I Don't Hear the Guitar Anymore"), despite the fact that, on these shores anyway, he's not a widely recognized director. If the audience was sometimes perplexed, the poetry and the atmosphere of Mr. Garrel's universe offered a peaceful respite. Starting today at Cinema Village, New Yorkers will get a second chance to catch the 59-year-old French filmmaker's story about the survivors of the Parisian political uprising of 1968, which won the coveted Silver Lion at the 1991 Venice Film Festival.
In more than 40 years both behind and in front of the camera, Mr. Garrel has managed to craft a single coherent view that often centers on love and youth in Paris, and in the process has developed one of the most versatile careers in modern cinema — actor, director, producer, writer, screenwriter, photography director, editor. A child prodigy, Mr. Garrel directed his first short film, "A Feather for Carole," at 13. Few have seen this auspicious debut, however, because the young Mr. Garrel destroyed the film shortly after completing it. Three years later, in 1964, he finally made something he didn't want to destroy, the 15-minute short "The Disaccorded Children." In 1967, his first feature film, "Mary for Memory," garnered attention for its sophisticated take on alienated Parisian youth in the mid-1960s. Forty-one years later, Mr. Garrel hasn't slowed his pace, having recently completed his 28th project, "The Dawn's Board," which is slated for a May release in France.
Mr. Garrel's career has taken the form of a breathtaking quest to resolve an obsessive question: How is love born, and how does it die? Those familiar with his career know the answer has often bisected his personal and professional lives. His 10-year relationship with the iconic German singer and model Nico, who performed in six films he directed between 1972 and 1976, including the masterpiece "The Inner Scar," informed his view on lasting love and splashed his private life up onto the screen with unyielding style. "The Inner Scar" is a strikingly beautiful film, more like an art video or a visual poem than a feature, but brilliantly filmed, composed, and written, original and innovative.
Years after Mr. Garrel's relationship with Nico ended, her presence in his films remained, haunting the filmmaker's work and life. "I Don't Hear the Guitar Anymore," which was released three years after she passed away, is explicitly dedicated to Nico, who is marvelously interpreted by one of Mr. Garrel's favorite actresses, Johanna ter Steege. An obscured portrait of Mr. Garrel, the protagonist, Gerard (Benoît Régent), flits from one woman to another in a quest for the perfect mate, who, of course, can never be found. Gerard's love rises in bursts of passion and dies quietly — so quietly, in fact, that he doesn't even notice it. When he hears of the death of a former flame, he is forced to re-evaluate his relationships, and he realizes that the great love of his life has come and gone.
In reality, Mr. Garrel's debilitating passion for Nico was only quelled by her death. "I love you deadly. It means I could love you until death. It means that I love you, that I will love you until death. Stronger than death and beyond death," Gerard says of his lost love in a final cathartic declaration.
Considered as one element of Mr. Garrel's oeuvre, "I Don't Hear the Guitar Anymore" might appear perplexing in a narrative sense when compared with his other films. But it remains a remarkable examination of the youth movement in Paris, a moving homage to Nico, and a beautiful dance around the elusive meaning of love.