'L'Enfant Secret': Film Review

Courtesy of The Film Desk
A welcome opportunity for Garrel's most fervent fans, but not an entry point for newbies.

Philippe Garrel's 1982 Prix Jean Vigo-winning drama gets its premiere U.S. run.

Made at the end of his decade-long relationship with Nico, Philippe Garrel's L'Enfant Secret (1979) borrows biographical details of the singer's life to recount a love affair plagued by loss, drugs, and mental illness. Though described as the transitional point at which Garrel moved from experimental to narrative work, it is not so conventional as to be easy viewing for most contemporary viewers: dare-you-to-complain silences and largely affectless performances make it something to be experienced by fans well acquainted with the later work in his 50-plus year career.

Borrowing "models" from the Bresson films The Devil, Probably and Au Hazard Balthazar, Garrel ensures his two lovers won't be too demonstrative of the emotions he loosely attributes to them. After the first eight or nine minutes, which are devoid of dialogue, ambient noise or Foley effects, we're just happy to find them speaking to each other.

Henri de Maublanc and Anne Wiazemsky are Jean-Baptiste and Elie, who have a one-night stand and almost offhandedly keep hanging out together. Sitting in a cafe, she tells him she has a child who is being raised by the estranged father's parents. (In Nico's case, the absentee dad was Alain Delon.) Would Jean-Baptiste wait for her while she travels out of town to fetch the kid, so they can meet?

The blond, mop-headed Swann (Xuan Lindenmeyer) is, for a film's title character, not a very active participant in its plot. But the scenes in which he tags along with Elie and Jean-Baptiste represent the closest thing to happiness in this muted melodrama.

When Swann's not around, things don't go well for the lovers, who often seem ready to drift apart. Garrel's turn-on-a-dime storytelling finds Jean-Baptiste having some sort of mental breakdown, then enduring a hospital stay and electroshock therapy; for her part, Elie grieves over her dead mother and then, at almost the film's end, turns out to be hooked on heroin.

Garrel gives viewers plenty of time to let each development sink in, sometimes re-screening scenes in flickering slow motion, sometimes just repeating them with a slight alteration. Repetition is certainly the watchword of Fatan Cahen's score, in which an electric piano and occasional strings rehash the same melodic themes so insistently that one might pray for the couple to just get it over with and break up for good.

Distributor: The Film Desk
Cast: Anne Wiazemsky, Henri de Maublanc, Xuan Lindenmeyer, Cecile Le Bailly, Elli Medeiros, Philippe Garrel
Director-screenwriter-producer-editor: Philippe Garrel
Director of photography: Pascal Laperrousaz
Composer: Fatan Cahen

In French
92 minutes