Phillipe Garrel's extraordinary 1991 film J'entends Plus la Guitare, currently enjoying its American theatrical debut in New York, is a work of a singular strangeness. This strangeness, dictated by the film's unique narrative and aesthetic strategies, follows directly from Garrel's collapsing of both time and space, an approach which forces the viewer to seek out fresh means of orientation. And yet, by substituting an elliptical open-endedness for a time-sensitive narrative and a relentlessly focused visual aesthetic for a defined sense of place, the film offers a certain heightened sensitivity that brings us in more intense contact with the people fixed by Garrel's camera than would be conceivable in a more familiar cinematic framework.
Garrel builds his film from a series of isolated sequences - generally confined to one or two characters - each separated from the next by a temporal gap of indeterminate duration. What limited narrative the film offers details the on-again off-again relationship between Gerard (Benoît Régent), a Parisian artist and Marianne (Johanna ter Steege), his heroin-addled German girlfriend (based on Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico). They talk about love, split up, reunite and separate again before Gerard gets married and fathers a child in a half-hearted stab at domesticity. But the film is not really concerned with the actions of its characters; it's focused instead on the moments in between. The characters, all given to a certain intellectualizing, prefer to talk through their situations, and Garrel gives us a lot of heady disquisitions on love, happiness and success, enlivened with a penchant for subtle wordplay and graced with a certain melancholy by the sense that for all their talk, the characters have come no closer to solving the basic problem of how to live.
Garrel's most consistent narrative strategy is to confine the bulk of the film's linear development to off-screen space. We learn of Gerard and Marianne's latest separation or reunion as a matter of course: in one scene, they've broken up, in the next they're back together. This elliptical structuring grants each sequence a certain self-contained insularity, but viewed consecutively, the individual moments give the impresion of comprising a remarkably vivid continuum. The film may end shortly after Marianne's death, a likely point of conclusion for a story focusing on her relationship with Gerard, but as the latter proceeds with his daily affairs, pursuing another romantic encounter, engaging in domestic quarrels, the film proposes a continuance for its characters' lives well beyond the scope of the film's plotting, a continuance which makes any narrative endpoint seem arbitrary. By eliminating any sense of a calculable time-frame, Garrel offers instead a string of individual moments which produce a certain cumulative potency in a way that would be impossible in a film presenting a smooth progression of temporally connected sequences. Separate, the scenes may seem disconnected, but taken as a whole they add up to something like an unusually concentrated mass of life.
Garrel matches his atemporal narrative structure with an aesthetic approach that seeks to eliminate space from the viewer's perception. The director films nearly the entire picture in medium-close and close-up, shooting against largely neutral backgrounds, a gray wall, a white bed, an out-of-focus window. His deliberate withholding of visual information makes it impossible for the viewer to orient himself spatially. Within any given scene, our visual framework is largely restricted to faces, with Marianne's half-wounded smile, her pale, freckle-spattered skin and the wild red frizz of her hair registering with a singular capacity for expressiveness. In dialogue, Garrel often positions his two speakers in a standard over-the-shoulder reaction shot, but then leaves the camera on only one figure for the duration of the exchange. Rather than cutting up the scene for maximum ease of comprehension, he forces us to focus intensely on one individual face. Then, too, the characters speak very quietly - occasionally inaudibly - and when they're not speaking, the film is often silent, refusing the comfort of audible ambient sound. (Although the silence is periodically interrupted by Faton Cahen's powerful score, employed more as occasional punctuation than consistent background).
By removing any familiar aesthetic reference point, either visual or aural, Garrel forces us to bring new reserves of attention to the individuals he's placed in front of us. That we never learn anything more about these individuals than what we glean from surface impressions hardly matters; in the surface is their essence. In watching them interact, attempt to intellectualize their problems, endure loss and ultimately give in to a certain solipsistic cynicism, we get an unusual sense of these suffering figures as extraordinarily human individuals, an achievement which marks Garrel's film as a work of art of the highest order.