It’s easy to forget that, years before cornering the market on a certain brand of talky, psychologically incisive French drama, Philippe Garrel operated in a far-less reserved manner, balancing an aggressive narrative primitivism with a classically minded, often wordless, visual approach. These odd early efforts contain similar thematic elements to those of his later work, breaking down failing relationships into a series of signpost moments to better chronicle love’s decline; bearing a marked expressionist influence with strong avant-garde leanings, they’re devoid of proper plots but still narratively propulsive. Starting with Le Revelateur, the young French upstart conceived of distinct ways to complicate cinematic glamour with raw, challenging content, constructing spare, Warhol-inspired tableaux of lo-fi disaffection.
The peak of these experimental projects might be 1974’s Les Hautes Solitudes, a landmark work of post-’68 ennui, now getting a much-needed re-release courtesy of the Film Desk. Along with 1976’s Le Berceau de Cristal and 1979’s
Following his start as the leader of the Zanzibar Group, the youthful no-wave response to the French New Wave’s epochal punk revolution, Garrell attempted to reduce cinema back to its essential elements, identifying a few core fixations and then striving to isolate them in as expressive fashion as possible. Les Hautes Solitudes continues that endeavor, depicting solitude as a kind of contemporary stations of the cross, chronicled via tight close-ups on female bodies—a style notable for the duration of its takes and complete lack of accompanying background music. Foremost among these subjects is the iconic Jean Seberg, who provides a riveting performance that communicates a huge range of feelings within a sparse minimalist context, at times matching Maria Falconetti in terms of sheer emotional intensity.
Defined by these intimate confrontations, with radiantly lit faces glimmering through obscure backdrops, the film represents the flipside of Garrel’s other stylistic landmark from this era, 1972’s The Inner Scar. While that film streamlines its domestic struggles into guttural cries of distress, balanced out by louche readings of unsubtitled European poetry, this one opts for pure silence, the removal of sound employed as both a tool of dislocation and connection. The Inner Scar is all long shots of its players wandering barren landscapes, reflecting frosty emotional conditions by staging a pageant of dysfunctional adulthood akin to Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is a Gun, released the previous year. Les Hautes Solitudes, on the other hand, rarely departs from its barely visible interiors, with the few trips outside a blessed reprieve from the stifling darkness that swathes most of the shots.
The limitations of black and white both point to the director’s silent-era influences and identify a way forward, one which would allow Garrel to pioneer the mixed palette of deep shadows and high-contrast whites and grays still used in his contemporary work. The effect is at times reminiscent of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, both in its focus on accessing the internal emotional states of characters in compressed spaces and the visual concept of windows and mirrors as potential portals and vessels for reflection. As with that film, the use of silence as a tool for illustrating isolation results not only in an iconic depiction of personal pain, but one that allows for moments of striking beauty and an ample air of mystery.
Those qualities are amplified in Les Hautes Solitudes by the supplementing of Seberg’s central role with two counterpart characters, whose performances comment on hers both narratively and metaphorically. The result is a triangle of interlinked exhibition, each part founded on reaction to mostly unseen stimuli. While Nico is steely and impenetrable and Tina Aumont exudes a measured, sloe-eyed sensuality, Seberg presents an open conduit to the soul, immersed in an intensive gestural dialogue with the camera. What emerges is a form of intimacy that locks into an emotional headspace rarely accessed in traditional drama, the tight compositions forcing a direct engagement with loneliness that becomes impossible to look away from.
Although low on concept and information and consistently challenging, Les Hautes Solitudes is ultimately more memorable than a high-wire stunt like that carried off in the recent Kate Plays Christine, achieving a gradual but intense severing of actress from filmed subject. Watching this strange fusion of a blank-slate character and the person playing her attempt suicide with pills is a uniquely painful viewing experience, one further deepened by the sad story of Seberg’s final years. That outcome has nothing to do with the content of these scenes as originally set down on celluloid, but it nonetheless lends serious frisson in retrospect, a fact that’s hardly coincidental. Trading on the already-resonant associations engendered by a famous face, Garrel’s film responds by forging a new, deeper connection between an actress and her public, resulting in that rare moment of cinematic alchemy where the line between fact and fiction has not only blurred, but ceased to matter entirely.