Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 28, 2009 8:17 am 
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LOUIS GARREL, 'La Frontière de l'aube' (Film Comment Selects)

Another victim of love-longing

Philippe Garrel's films exist in a gloomy romantic limbo. They hover somewhere between now--in his last two, the star is his young son Louis--and the Sixties or Seventies. They draw heavily upon autobiographical elements. Parisian intellectual and artistic spirit sinks under the weight of irresistible but unhealthy sexual entanglements. Here again his new film, La Frontière de l'aube, is a lush sensual pleasure to watch, shot in gorgeous contrasty black and white by the director's twenty-year collaborator, William Lubtchansky. No cell phones in view, only wine glasses and candlelight. When the two lovers need to communicate over a distance they use not text messaging, but pen on paper.

Louis Garrel, whom a French commentator on IMDb dubs "the raven-haired prince of the cinematheque," indeed is a gorgeous, quintessentially photogenic young man whose uniquely dreamy Mediterranean looks make him the perfect romantic hero. He is the Young Werther and all his avatars. Ironically, Christophe Honoré's frequent uses of him have gradually revealed (in Dans Paris and Love Songs) that in person the dreamboat is full of puckish humor. But in his father's masterful 1968 evocation, the 2005 Regular Lovers and here, on the edge of a tragic dawn, he looks into the mirror and a dead lover appears to him and calls to him to join her in the grave and he jumps, again, out the window. Here, his name is François and he is a photographer.

They whistled at this in Cannes. Is is it an elegant and genuinely scary genre horror movie? A laughably corny evocation of the cinematic surrealism of Jean Cocteau? "A risible slice of pretentious hokum," as Variety's unmoved (Cannes) reviewer proclaimed? There are elements of self-parody, but this is too beautiful a film to dismiss just because of a little silliness. A romantic sine-curve trance like this demands that you give yourself to its mood utterly. If you do, this is a very nice long swoon. As the wise IMDb commentator suggests, "to make the phantasmagoria perfect" you should "have a bottle or two of cheap red wine before you dive into this one." Though not nearly as memorable as the contextually richer Regular Lovers, this, whose intimacy and less period-specific style sets it closer to Garrel's 1990's film J'entends plus la guitare, is also less exhausting to watch than, and just as hypnotic as, Regular Lovers.

Surrender herself to the mood is what Louis Garrel's co-star Laura Smet herself clearly does, in a compelling performance that includes one of the most detailed and unnervingly real of filmed pill-suicide sequences. Smet burst upon the world of French cinema five years ago in the intense Les Corps impatients/Eager Bodies. More seasoned now and reportedly herself recently out of rehab, she plays an unstable star, Carole, living in a big empty apartment while her husband Ed (Eric Rulliat) is off in Hollywood neglecting her. François comes, timidly at first, to do a photo shoot. She shoos out the usual gang of Garrelian kibitzers, and she and the respectful camera-boy soon become lovers-- after moving into a hotel another day where they can focus better. François's shoot never quite ends. We never quite see the results of it either. (But the whole film is a photo shoot; and Lubtchansky's eye is indistinguishable from François'.) The young photographer falls in love. They talk about revolution and madness. She asks him if he'll still love her if she goes crazy.

He laughs off that question, but it becomes a serious one. Carole drinks too much and uses too many pills. She loses control and is taken to a sanitarium where she is given shock treatments. François drifts away. Released, she commits suicide.

A year later, François meets and prepares to marry a richer, more normal, more conventionally bourgeois girl. But as he becomes seriously involved with her, he begins having supernatural experiences (or disturbingly real-seeming delusions). Increasingly when he looks in the mirror, he sees Carole glowering at him out of the darkness and, as time goes on, she begins calling to him to join her.

In Garrel's film, everything is made hyper-real, and therefore unreal, by Lubtchansky's cinematography. François's meeting in the country with the family of his fiancée, the mythically named Ève (Clémentine Poidatz), could be a voyage through an enchanted forest. François's chat with a bohemian friend suggests perhaps the film's position is that suicide is fine but marriage a trap to avoid. Passing references to socialism and the Holocaust add to the impression, though, that this film's ideological content is only skin-deep. What isn't superficial or silly or shallow is the consistency of Philippe Garrel's unique cinematic style. It's both true that they don't make them like this any more, and that he still passionately and beautifully does. While I wouldn't want to miss a Garrel/Garrel collaboration, this one hasn't the magic of Regular Lovers, and Honoré's work with Louis has been more fun, and allowed him, and us, to breathe more as well as explore more of this young leading man's casting possibilities.

Shown at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the series Film Comment Selects of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, in February 2009. Released October 8, 2008 in Paris to good reviews in some of the best journals--L'Humanite, Le Point, Cahiers du Cinema, Le Monde, Liberation, Les Inrockuptibles.

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