Les Hautes Solitudes (1974)
Directed by Philippe Garrel
Febraury 24-March 2 at the Metrograph
Philippe Garrel’s 1974 silent film Les hautes solitudes is 80 minutes, overwhelmingly of interior close-ups and medium shots of four people. Primary focus Jean Seberg dictated the terms of her own footage, suggesting scenarios to play out, sometimes to Garrel’s alarm: a scene in which she gobbles pills in a suicide attempt so spooked the director he stopped filming. Seberg would indeed kill herself in 1979, so it’s not an easy scene to watch, but her presence is also a metatextual reckoning with Garrel’s obsession with Godard; here, the former follows in his master’s footsteps to once again re-present a much-abused performer.
The film was shot over two and a half months, primarily in Seberg’s apartment. She’s joined by her friend Tina Aumont, who was herself friends with Garrel’s decade-long girlfriend/obsession Nico (here incorporated via rushes originally shot for an earlier project), and actor Laurent Terzieff; all three had appeared in Garrel’s earlier films. One way Garrel’s described the film is as a series of outtakes from a film that does not actually exist about Seberg’s life in which she’s routinely joined by pals, but the trajectory isn’t particularly important. One 2002 screening in Japan had the reels screened out of order, but no one in the audience noticed and Garrel was pleased: “The film impresses the audience with its non-constructed style. So even if a projectionist screens the reels in the wrong order, it works.”
As a work of silent portraiture, it has affinities (of which Nico is not the least) with Warhol’s screen tests but with entirely different ideas about screen performance. For years, Garrel has made his living as an acting teacher; in his words, his task is to “unblock” performers so that they can be most themselves. Smiles turn on a dime into tears, but there’s rarely a sense of “performance” as such. This skill at capturing and embedding shots of stillness or non-verbal response is crucial to Garrel’s non-experimental work from 1979’s L’enfant secret onwards; here, you can see him developing ideas about screen presence. The film is perhaps best viewed as the refinement of a lifelong technique and theory of performance in its embryonic stages.
The closeness of the camera, combined with intense grain, is reminiscent of Peter Hutton’s approach to black and white: you’re watching a real space being thoughtfully and deliberately abstracted into an expressive, abstract, often quite grainy black-and-white palette. There’s great drama in a woman turning suddenly away from a blown-out window and moving into the near total darkness of a room, snuffing out all light in one quick violent pan. The subject may be suffering and loneliness; there is, nonetheless, a sense of intense adoration. Even if you weren’t aware of Garrel’s tumultuous history with Nico, you’re obsessively staring at and trying to parse some very photogenic, dangerously attractive people, mostly women. You don’t need to share Garrel’s unapologetic gaze to feel its intensity; in its ambitious visual language, despite the modesty of means and methods, Les hautes solitudes comes off as an attempt to show objects of personal love in a way so transfigured that viewers themselves could begin to feel the same adoration.