Un Ange Passe translates, literally, to “an angel is passing.” The French often use this idiom for moments when a conversation inexplicably falls silent, humorously spurring the speakers out of an awkward rut, as they refer to the imaginary figure above them. An English equivalent is difficult to find, though, perhaps, a combination of the tumbleweed image and the phrase “silver lining” comes closest. In Philippe Garrel’s films, at times so tender as to be ascetic, moments of conspicuous silence abound and achieve a resonance not unlike that of the use of negative space. It’s hard to think of another filmmaker in recent memory who can make the soft white buzz of a room sound so compelling—and clarifying. In the case of Garrel’s eighth feature, from 1975, this clarity materializes in the figure of his muse and lover, Nico. Fittingly, the film begins with her, alone, sitting outside on a street bench, deep in thought, while her live rendition of “Frozen Warnings” plays on the soundtrack.
Like many of Garrel’s other films from this period, Un Ange Passe works on a model of long, uninterrupted takes on the faces of its characters, subdued and wistful. There’s no discernable plot or recourse to the characters’ backstory, as usual in a Garrel film—only said faces and their manifold expressions. The scenes, more like blocks of time, are composed of casual snippets of dialogue between Maurice Garrel (the director’s father), Laurent Terzieff, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, and Bulle Olgier; they’re strewn together with no apparent motivation, the opposite, you could say, of traditional cross-cutting methods. Maurice, the oldest and most haggard of the group, and Terzieff, young and handsome, share the most screen time. The two sip drinks and chain smoke out in the cold, joking about, among other things, Albert Camus wanting to be Humphrey Bogart. Later, there’s talk of going to Morocco. The frame is snug around their faces, and one can just imagine Garrel tightly holding the camera, trying to focus.
These are austere scenes of characters whose backstory we don’t know, and yet they’re hardly boring in the way that Warhol’s screen tests—a point of reference for Garrel’s brand of portraiture—are and intend to be. Instead, Un Ange Passe is rife with poignancy so natural that it’s unclear if these are actors are playing characters or if they’re merely being themselves. This could be a documentary, were it not for the otherworldly, non-sequitur cuts to Nico and abrupt switches in the soundtrack to her singing voice. If any semblance of structure can be gleaned from this film, it’s that Nico occupies a different plane than the other characters; Garrel isolates her from the conversations held among the quartet, and inserts her whenever they lapse into deep silence. She’s his necessary angel.
The film’s most intimate scene, however, goes to Maurice and Terzieff, who’re beautifully positioned by Garrel. Reclining on a sofa, Terzieff smokes his pipe, his face petering above the bottom of the frame, while Maurice sits straight in the background, his head hovering over Terzieff’s. Terzieff speaks of dreaming, of angst, chuckling as he goes. Maurice listens like a good psychiatrist and stares off inconsolably, before he invokes some lines from Henri Michaux’s “Clown”: “One day/One day, maybe soon/One day, I will tear away the anchor that holds my ship far from the seas.” For characters that wade through their mistakes, it’s poetry, in the end, if only a few verses of it, that provides the timeliest respite.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 20—March 5.