TIFF retrospective: From hippie filmmaker to revered 'underrated genius,' Philippe Garrel's dramas reflect life

By Liam Lacey

I’m embarrassed to have just "discovered" Philippe Garrel, a French filmmaker who has been working for 50-plus years, making nearly 30 feature films, winning international prizes and garnering admiration from his peers.

 Filmmaker Philippe Garrel in younger days.

Filmmaker Philippe Garrel in younger days.

But the fault's not entirely mine. His work has been hard to see in North America, especially in theatres. The current TIFF Bell Lightbox retrospective - In the Shadow of Love: The Cinema of Philippe Garrel - organized by New York's Metrograph, is the biggest ever mounted in North America.

“The proverbial underrated genius,” according to his countryman, Olivier Assayas, is now a 70-year-old who has been making films since 1964, when he was 16. A hippie experimental filmmaker, he was later the partner of Velvet Underground singer Nico for a decade when they shared an interest in films and heroin.

In the ‘80s, Garrel emerged as the creator of his own distinct genre. The films are often shot in black and white, and are autobiographical and fragmentary in their chronology. The protagonist is, typically, a male artist not unlike the director, who is passive, anxious and emotionally self-centered. He falls in love with women casually, and is then shocked and anguished when his romantic betrayals are reciprocated. 

The director acts in some of his films, as do his father, wives and children. His broodingly handsome son, Louis Garrel, has appeared in five of Garrel's films and has a separate acting career (Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers).  Characters in Garrel's films have conversations about art and love and the intersection between them. There are a lot of scenes in humble Paris apartments, cafes and bedrooms.

So where do you start? I'd go with two mid-career films. First, there’s the anguished and moving, I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991), based on the filmmaker's relationship with Nico, following the singer's death in Ibiza in 1988. In the late ‘60s, Gerard (Benoit Régent) falls in love with the alluring  Marianne (Johanna ter Steege) a compelling narcissist who holds the protagonist's heart, while his loyal, mothering partner, Aline (Garel's then wife, Brigitte Sy) saves his life. 

Shot two years before, before Guitar, the black-and-white Emergency Kisses sees the Garrel figure (now played by the director) living with his actress wife, Jeanne (Brigitte Si, again), and about to embark on a film project about his life, but not, to her misery, starring her.  He prefers another actress, which drives his wife to seek positive affirmations elsewhere. Midst the marital miseries, there are some droll explorations of the differences and similarities between love affairs and narratives.  As John Updike knew, an affair is not just about sex, it's a way to create a drama. 

Other films, like Jealousy (2013), about a young actor leaving his wife and child for another woman, explores similar territory of infidelity and regret. The director's most recent movie, In the Shadow of Women (2015) shows a more evolved, even feminist, perspective. As the title suggests, the philandering protagonist finds himself doubly trapped and seems to fade into dullness, while the women he touches and wounds grow more vibrant.

 Regular Lovers, the 1968 French riots invade the bedroom

Regular Lovers, the 1968 French riots invade the bedroom

All this, perhaps, suggests that Garrel repeats himself, which is not fair. One early film, 1969's The Virgin's Bed, is a gorgeously shot (if impenetrable) parable about a hippie Jesus (Pierre Clémenti) with model Zouzou, as Mary Magdalene. This was, after all, the era of the hippie Christs, in Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar

Fans of French political history can find a different side of Garrel in 2005's Regular Lovers, the director’s contribution to the catalogue of films about the May, 1968, French civic riots. The director’s son Louis plays François, a 20-year-old poet (the age of his father in 1968), falling in love, avoiding the draft and going to the barricades, portrayed, not as a moment of feverish excitement, but as an inky, agitated dream.

This austere three-hour-long film is novelistic and theatrical compared to Garrel's wistful vignettes of romantic entanglements but there is continuity: The disillusionment following the failed revolution was like an entire generation’s  love affair turned bitterly wrong.

In the Shadow of Love: The Cinema of Philippe Garrel, plays Jan. 25-Feb..25, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. For the full schedule of films, talks and ticket information, go to tiff.net.