Beyond Realism : The Films of Philippe Garrel

 | Director Profile |

  BY Rahee Punyashloka

Cinema to Philippe Garrel is ‘Freud plus Lumière’. This goes on to validate the psychosexual realism that seemingly pervades his entire oeuvre. In spite of having made films consistently over the past five decades, almost thirty feature films, Garrel has never become a regular fixture in the international auteur circuit, thereby registering him in the partially self-proclaimed position of an outsider. However, Garrel has garnered for himself, a limited but dedicated following of cinephiles and critics from across the globe, most famously the “Movie Mutants” which include Nicole Brenez and Adrian Martin [1]. These critics explore the dynamics of Garrel’s films while praising his intense portrayal of intimate moments between lovers, friends and families.

Only with the release of his 2005 film Regular Lovers did Garrel find some widespread distribution and subsequent recognition, partially boosted by the star power of his son Louis Garrel, whose first acting credit appears in Philippe Garrel’s Les Baiser de Secours (1989), the film in focus in this paper. Garrel has since then been widely touted as making a move to relative mainstream filmmaking in his subsequent films, The Frontier of Dawn (2008) and That Summer (2011), which had an elementary gloss and personal distance previously unseen in Garrel’s universe.

The various thematic and aesthetic tropes of Garrel arguably manifest themselves to the maximum extent in Garrel’s masterpiece Elle a passé tant d'heures sous les sunlights... (1985), as well as Les Baisers de Secours. This paper is intended to explore the dynamics of the themes and tropes that pre-occupy the Garrelian universe.

Paris, 1968

Les Amants réguliers (2005) – Clotilde Hesme and Louis Garrel.

According to Michael Atkinson, Garrel is “semi-famous for being semi-obscure, even in France, though he remains one of the last stragglers to have fallen under the New Wave umbrella.”[2] At 20, Garrel exemplified the political fervour that had pervaded the Parisian intellectual class in 1968. He, along with Godard, explored the Latin Quarter student demonstrations of May 1968; recording, with his camera, the gradual rise and fall of the intellectual utopia that the Student Revolution sought to achieve. Godard would subsequently go on to claim Garrel’s ferociously personal and self-exploratory films to be ‘eternal cinema’. The events surrounding Paris in 1968 and the subsequent nostalgia involved therein form an integral part of Garrel’s films.

 Le lit de la vierge (1969) – Pierre Clementi as Jesus Christ.

In his early years Garrel, along with fellow artists Daniel Pommereulle and Jackie Raynal came to be known as a ‘Zanzibar’ filmmaker and made films that firmly represented the intellectual liberation of the movement, supported primarily by a rich heiress who acted as a patron for their art [3]. Garrel’s Le Lit de la Vierge (1969) which was made immediately after the weakening of the revolutionary fervour is a desperate allegory about the impossibility of a socialist political economy to prevail within the tumultuous conditions of the present day.  Since then Garrel’s cinema has become less outwardly political, instead concentrating on self-introspection of relations and powerful intimate moments through the prism of romantic nostalgia and the nascence of a radical political upheaval. By the late ‘80s, the ideological utopian possibilities had given vent to more existential conditions; the radical students of 1968 now had to struggle to keep up with banal financial and familial crises.

Les Baisers de Secours typifies the existential universe that lies at the centre of the personal. The apparent softening of Garrel’s political idiom within his films to concentrate instead on personal examination has led to critics insinuating that Garrel has detached himself from the socio-politic. Jonathan Rosenbaum points out [4] how Garrel’s aesthetic trope of shooting his actors in extreme close-ups often alienates them from their surrounding and therefore signifies a relative un-involvement with the political. However, one wonders whether the inability to contain the tragic romances of the characters within the given frames is an indication of the volatile political nature of the world that surrounds the lovers and therefore a political statement in itself. The politics of Garrel’s universe can be therefore argued, in a Marxist fashion, to be constitutive rather than constituted by the lovers.

The post-mortem nostalgia for revolution and the disconcerting fervour of it which, as represented in Regular Lovers, was reduced to scant sexual liberation, drug abuse and political inactivity with the lovers, “basking or drowning in the banality of bourgeois comforts”. The very banality of their bourgeois existence is what haunts the characters as they hopelessly try to juggle their artistic fervour (which formed the basis for the ideological fervour that was established and continued for the subsequent years following 1968) and their existential needs in Les Baisers de Secours. The need to fulfil their existential concerns, “to feed the family”, as a lead actor points out, pits the on screen couple of Jeanne and Mathieu in a position where they have to negotiate with their familial and artistic authority in order to survive. The constitutional comforts of Paris in 1968 in which they once indulged while debating about socialist equality have indeed become elements of distant nostalgia.

Cinema as a Child

“And between them Swann, the child, a badly kept secret. The Swan, a sign of life and mutual survival: the child of children, a fragment of trembling celluloid.”-Serge Daney on Garrel’s L’Enfant Secret (5)

The child is “a fragment of trembling celluloid” for the legendary Serge Daney. This metaphorical equation is thoroughly manifest in Garrel’s personal films (films that coincide with the real life conception and birth of Garrel’s son Louis) and often determines the outcome of the cinematic meta-space in a composite manner. Given the intense personal portrayal of intimate moments that Garrel is primarily known for, we can assume that every film for him is similar to the birth of a child; a trope which perhaps he consciously uses to further his meta-cinematic concerns. Each film of Garrel’s which coincides with the real life birth and growing up of his son Louis Garrel is determined by the presence of a child - physical or otherwise. This child is the one, who decides, who looks(and exists) beyond the cinematic space, who constantly forms and is formed along with cinema, not as an author, but as a badly kept secret.

 The metaphor of cinema as the child is explicitly explored in Elle a passé tant d'heures sous les sunlights... which is as much about the birth of a film as it is about the birth of a child. This child, perhaps, is the 5 year old Lo in Les Baisers de Secours, a continuation of a cinematic exegesis that has come out into the world, but is yet to be completely formulated. He is the proof of their love, captured on the ontological spaces of celluloid and yet he undermines this relation when each of his parents tries to project his/her aspirations unto him, trying desperately to cling on to this souvenir of a love that may be lost. He is also the signifier of a meta-cinematic family that they try to imitate in the film, Garrel’s family, which through its endless similitude to the screen family, determines and undermines the film. The child walks into the room where his parents are making love, rendering them inactive, forcing them into a stasis. The child is a void, an all encompassing void that is nothing but empty formless space. And as much as the audience (and Garrel perhaps) would want it to exist as a token of wish-fulfilment, it spurns out of control; it is both creation and destruction. It is an elegy. It is Cinema.

Ontologies of (non)fiction

Nicole Brenez points out that Garrel’s films of the ‘70s and ‘80s “constitutes the most advanced point of cinematic research” [6]. This stands in direct contradiction to the conventional realism that is ascribed to Garrel by most critics. Brenez’s conviction undermines this conventional realism in Garrel and a critical observation reveals that the realist trope is merely a tool in the hands of Garrel in order to achieve a far more complex postmodern ontology. Garrel achieves this ontological result by rupturing the strict boundaries between the real and the fictive at many meta-cinematic as well as sub-cinematic levels. This continually textualises the characters and the events within the film until they are presented as real surfaces devoid of all depth coming closest to the true ontological identity that Lumière brothers sought to preserve and Bazin talks about. This self-reflexive, postmodern trope promulgates to the maximum extent in Elle a passé tant d'heures sous les sunlights... and Les Baisers de Secours.    

Les baisers de secours (1989) – Brigitte Sy and Philippe Garrel(back) and Louis Garrel(front)In Les Baisers de Secours, a filmmaker (played by Garrel himself) tries to make a film about his family as his wife (Garrel’s real life wife Brigitte Sy) insists on playing herself in the film. The filmmaker points out that he needs a distance from his ‘real’ life in order to reproduce it cinematically, and this leads to a series of arguments between the husband and wife, who seem to be genuinely in love with each other. Within the ever shifting rifts that develop between them exists their child, Lo (played by Louis Garrel in his first film) who functions as a metaphor for the formless epistemology involved in the creative process of making a film. Garrel’s character (Mathieu) wittily points out that there is always one person who does not know the outcome of the film at all, and he himself wants to be that person. Yet as the audience we know that it is Garrel himself who endlessly determines this indeterminacy. Thus, the distinction between the real, the meta-cinematic, the cinematic and the sub-cinematic is continually exhausted in the clash between each of the levels, resulting in the formation of pure ontological surfaces and themes that are examined through the course of the film.

This post-modern knottiness is not merely limited to the cinematic in this film, but extends to other aesthetic discourses like editing and acting as well. Brigitte Sy, a theatre actress who is acting in the film, plays Jeanne, a theatre actress who wants to play herself in the film-within-the-film. In short, the actors in the film are acting as if they are not acting while trying to act as themselves, but they themselves are enactments of ‘real’ people who, for them, exist in a hyper-real space. This extremely complex self-reflexive trope which is reminiscent of Rivette, aids Garrel in his constant pursuit of ontological issues like the false dichotomy between art and life, the unavailability of a true reality and, even the perversely dynamic nature of the celluloid itself as a window to the ‘real’. Garrel seems to be alluding to Baudrillard, to the simulacral phases that reality undergoes through the prism of cinema. Aesthetically as well, Garrel provides an exhaustive amalgamation of theories from Bazin, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Deleuze among many others, clearly practicing tropes that are way too radical even for today’s “art” filmmakers and therefore constitutes “the most advanced point of cinematic research”.

The ontology of the image, however, is further complicated by Garrel’s due importance to Freudian psycho-sexuality and constitutive epistemological concerns. Garrel’s films, albeit fragmented and elliptical, also concern themselves with the psyche of the characters and the psychological perception (often constituting of signifiers such as language, speech and mannerisms of the characters) forms a vital part of the wholesome aesthetic perception of his films. It can be speculated that while Garrel’s concerns are clearly post-modern, his usage of the modernist elements which pertain to Freudian epistemology is meant to dialectically clash with the surface textuality of his cinematic form and thereby result in a further de-stabilized meta-space that does away with any semblance of structure and meaning. This meta-space is the purest and the most abstract entity that cinema (or any other art form) can synthesize, making Garrel one of the greatest and most ambitious artists to have ever lived.  


Religion finds a way into Garrel’s films and the religious convictions are constantly challenged and re-formulated through the aesthetic perception of the cinematic medium. This goes on to validate his artistic flourish of challenging his own identity as the author, the God who decides what events are to transpire in his films. While constantly de-stabilising the dichotomous relation between the real and fictive in his meta-cinematic universe, he explores the dialectic exhaustibility of the many opposing god-heads, perhaps to arrive at a nihilistic non-existence propitiated by man’s (the lovers’) futile existence in a chaotic world.

Emergency kisses

Garrel’s cinema is not real- it is hyper-real. It exists in a meta-cinematic space that is at once in front of us, yet endlessly difficult to grasp. At a time when most “art-house” filmmakers resort to desperate faux-pragmatism, Garrel ferociously conceives his films beyond them. Perhaps, with more financial support and widespread distribution, he has a better chance now at getting the recognition that he truly deserves, but the aesthetic perfection and post-modern knottiness will always place him as what he chose for himself-an outsider. 


1) Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin. 2003, BFI Publishing. Other international Garrel enthusiasts include Kent Jones and Alexander Horwath. 2) Point of No Return, Michael Atkinson. 3) For more information on Zanzibar, read Subterranean Cinema, Chris Fujiwara : 4) Voluptuous Defeat : Philippe Garrel and Les Amants Réguliers, Jonathan Rosenbaum: 5) Philippe Garrel’s ‘L’Enfant secret’ (1982), Serge Daney, ROUGE Issue 1 (2003): 6) “The Body’s Night: An Interview with Philippe Grandrieux”, Nicole Brenez. “Philippe Grandrieux is the director of numerous documentary-essays and two features...These features constitute the most advanced point of cinematic research, representing for today what the films of Jean Epstein were for the 1920s and ‘30s or Philippe Garrel’s were for the ‘70s and ‘80s.” ROUGE Issue 1 (2003)