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In this black-and-white autobiographic film, austere film about a filmmaker and an unmarried actress who experience the clichéd rocky road to romance, the bumps and potholes fail to jar loose much expression, as though the protagonists' shock absorbers were especially efficient. Director and writer Philippe Garrel's manneristic style does not equally appeal to everyone, and he has been both awarded and attacked for this film.
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A man communicates that he has suffered. A filmmaker claims to be testifying for his generation. An experience struggles to become a story. A frozen narrative still burns. Is it a film? If so, then L’Enfant secret bears little resemblance to what passes today as French cinema. ‘Suffering’, ‘testimony’, ‘experience’, ‘narrative’ – ill-seen, ill said, old-fashioned words, words that frighten. Let’s start again.
The man has suffered but he doesn’t complain too much (he’s a dandy). His generation? Lost, of course, but there’s more to it, since it’s our generation. The experience? There’s no point in mourning. A man and a woman with biblical names (Elie and Jean-Baptiste), played by two Bressonian actors (Anne Wiazemsky and Henri de Maublanc) – shock treatment meets overdose under the rooftops of Paris. 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. And what about the narrative? They don’t make them like this anymore. Each moment, cut as finely as flint, fondled like a pebble passed from hand to hand, with a beginning and end, a before and after. In that case, let’s start again.
This isn’t the kind of suffering that’s proud of itself, but silent, contained, having few words and images at its disposal. What counts is that it’s there. In the place that he’s had to pass through. In a convulsive gesture (watch Wiazemsky’s hands in the final scene) or a toneless voice (listen to the man talk about his psychiatric confinement: the pain of ‘putting himself together again’ between two periods of absence from himself). It’s in the ugliness of hotel rooms in a freezing cold Paris. It’s on a blood-stained sheet, in the overdue smile of one character, in the grin that passes for a smile of another. There’s nothing to say about suffering. It’s every man for himself, shot by shot. The same goes for the spectator (it’s taken for granted that the spectator has also suffered).
As for the testimony, one can laugh for sure. One more lost generation! Of late (with the appearance of Mourir à trente ans), questions have been asked about which veteran will recount the fine tales of the generation that was twenty in ’68 (Garrel’s generation). Who will film the militancy, the drugs, the destitution, the trips and the flips? Which insider can do it? Now L’Enfant secret isn’t The Mother and the Whore but, ten years on, it’s the film that comes closest to it. In Eustache’s film characters spoke until they vomited, they never stopped judging, discourse might have killed them. Yet they clung on to a zone of mortal silence at the heart of a native language taken to breaking point.
With Garrel we have the inverse situation. Characters are too quiet, the words they use too awkward, no one knows how to judge anymore, they form part of a world where everyone must be good (Garrel’s angelism, no secret to anyone) and that must exist somewhere but never quite where one is. Garrel carves out a zone of ‘blank’ monologues at the heart of aphasia. Observe Elie and Jean-Baptiste talking to each other captured by a single aerial camera movement. ‘Have you eaten today?’ – ‘Wait, let me tell you about the film ... ’
Now to experience. It isn’t smooth communication. It’s a very poor conductor of ‘social phenomena’ but it leaves traces. Garrel thinks it necessary that these traces be as unspectacular as possible, because spectacle is tied to the other pole of experience, that of marketing. We are wide of the mark here in France wishing to sacrifice everything to spectacle (or to its hypocritical denunciation à la Yves Boisset), because French cinema is very strong on experience, on the existential, and quite weak on the spectacular. That’s the way it is. What makes French cinema unique is unsummarisable films, works that appear to be pages torn from logbooks or intimate diaries, and a preference for black-and-white and voice-over: Un chant d’amour, Pickpocket, Le Testament d’Orphee, Le Petit Soldat, L’Enfance nue, L’Amour fou, all of Eustache and now L’Enfant secret.
To finish, let’s look at narrative. This is where the film gets it most right, the place of this gruelling recovery à la Jean Paulhan. You narrate in order not to die or because you’re dead already (look out for the next Raul Ruiz!). You narrate to recover. It’s a sign of life to say ‘before’ and ‘after’, something that really intrigued Robert Musil. Garrel’s filmography sometimes has been like the desert in La Cicatrice intérieure, as flat as an encephalogram, with ascents to the Sulpician sky and camera-icon gazes. In this regard, the narrative of L’Enfant secret, so taut, so ‘impoverished’, is staggering. And since the question is one of childhood, I think of this Tom Thumb of modern cinema who, over the course of fourteen films, has learnt one thing: you must scatter crumbs of bread behind you and each one must be unique. The ‘scenes’ of L’Enfant secret are long inserts, playlets or (Jean Douchet has good reason to say) caresses. If they are sometimes arid (put it down to what remains here of amateur cinema), then they are also sumptuous (you have to remember that Garrel doesn’t at all deny beauty, that from an early age it had him on his knees).
It’s as if this autobiographical film has succeeded in holding its bearings without forgetting the trace of each stage of the journey it’s passed through. Fragments of pure sensory experience (touching, feeling cold), heartless acts (shock therapy), serene and furtive moments. I very much like the scene where Jean-Baptiste, now truly destitute, lights the butt he has just picked up from under a bench. I was fooled into believing that Griffith or Chaplin had returned for an instant. Garrel has succeeded in filming something we have never seen before: the faces of actors in silent films during those moments when the black intertitles, with their paltry, illuminated words, filled the screen.
© Serge Daney, "Libération" 19/02/1983. Translated by Fergus Daly and Adrian Martin.