Credit: Rectangle Productions
by Patrick Devitt Featured Film Spotlight

The Salt of Tears — Philippe Garrel

January 19, 2021

The Salt of Tears is a pensive film that finds the aged director again reckoning with notions of parenthood, permanence, and familial legacy.

Over the course of his half-century career behind the camera, 72-year-old French master Philippe Garrel has traversed a multitude of styles. From his 1964 debut project, Les enfants désaccordées alone, one can already see the idiosyncrasies and trademarks that would define his career. But even before the film’s premiere on French television, Garrel was already made to feel like an outsider when the station declined the teenage filmmaker an interview. In a later discussion with Cinema Scope Magazine, Garrel explains, “I was told they were not going to interview me since I was so different and just too original… So this forced me to make cinema outside of cinema, so to speak. It was only when I met Andy Warhol in 1969 … that I realised it was not so bad to be an outsider.”

Garrel’s rejection from the industry at such a young age cemented his status as a resilient and uncompromising filmmaker. The films he produced in the first two decades of his career, during which he frequently worked with small budgets, evoke a sense of intimacy characteristic of an artist in a constant state of self-reflection. In the 1970s, Garrel’s work became consumed by his relationship with singer and actress Nico, with whom he first worked on the 1969 picture The Virgin’s Bed. The pair’s decade-long entanglement was filled with as much passion as calamity — inevitably leading to drug addiction, depression, and eventually shock therapy. His first collaboration with Nico during their relationship was 1972’s The Inner Scar, which is comprised of poetical images that give off the impression of raw improvisation, and operates as a shared dream between the couple: The tenderness that they shared during this period presents itself through an assemblage of arresting photographs that establish a space conducive for self-reflection.

Following the end of this relationship in 1979, Garrel’s work changed drastically. He immediately started collaborating with renowned screenwriter Annette Wadamant (Lola Montès) on L’Enfant Secret, which recounted the many trials and tribulations of his tumultuous decade and paved the way for his now-trademark monochromatic tales of sorrow, regret, and romance. The birth of his son Louis in 1983 with the actress and filmmaker Brigitte Sy, would push his work into even more confessional territory. As he adjusted to his newfound family unit, his films became canvases that allowed him to scrutinize and further understand the ubiquity of temptation and the anxiety of indecision—themes that soon became intrinsic to each new project. This wasn’t an abandonment of his radical origins as a filmmaker but rather a reorientation of his priorities.

Boasting one of the more polarizing Parisian hairstyles to come out of the 1980s, Garrel took on the role of a filmmaker in Emergency Kisses (1989), casting himself alongside his wife, their son, and his own father, actor Maurice Garrel. Evidently self-referential, the film is the story of a director preparing to shoot a movie based on his life, its conflict arising when he refuses to cast his wife, who is also an actress, in favor of Minouchette (played by Anémone). For Garrel, this blending of his public and private spheres was unprecedented, and one can see his progression from L’Enfant Secret (a film that reflects on the past) to Emergency Kisses (a film modeled after his life, at the time) as a persistent attempt to escape his past demons. Yet, Garrel also uses the medium as a method to solemnize the present. He refuses to present an insincere portrayal of his idealistic desires, while still recognizing the beauty of a romance within the sacred bonds of family.

I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991) acts as a Hegelian synthesis between L’Enfant Secret and Emergency Kisses. While the latter opened up a new chapter in Garrel’s oeuvre—its fixed narrative and family-centered catharsis moved away from the poetic imagery of his relationship-focused ’70s works—Guitar is the director’s late ode to Nico, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1988. Accordingly, it returns to Garrel’s anxieties from an earlier period. While recognizing the necessity of moving on to a new chapter of life, this elegy towards his great love is filled with remorse and self-doubt; it asks what the remaining years might have been like if they had stayed together. While Garrel employs Benoît Régent to act as his stand-in (instead of casting himself in the role, as he did in Emergency Kisses), the character clearly regrets abandoning his youthful idealism for a traditional family unit. As the film’s narrative progresses, we see Régent grow more resentful of renouncing his past: he recognizes his youth is over, and sees that everyone from his past has remained stagnant with nowhere to go but down. 

Garrel’s ’90s films continue to follow a similar trajectory, and it’s not until Regular Lovers (2005) that the next major transformation in his work occurs. Now casting his son (Louis Garrel) as his stand-in, Garrel makes use of his character as a means of transferring his lived experience — in this case, of the May ’68 riots. Cinematographer William Lubtchansky’s breathtaking black-and-white photography seems almost indistinguishable from Garrel’s thought-to-be-lost 1968 short Actua 1, which was filmed during the actual riots. Beginning with the strong sense of camaraderie amongst the people of France that started the revolution, Garrel slowly depicts the disembowelment of their idealistic vision. The second act then follows the aftermath of the revolution as bourgeois complacency sets in while sex and drugs run rampant. 

Garrel’s following work, Frontier of the Dawn (2008) continues the trend of presenting his traumatic experiences through his son Louis. While the film has no direct partisan throughline, its focus remains on idealism as it exists within a social fabric reinforced by the state. There’s a deep fear that lingers within each frame of the film, which chronicles the tragedy of losing an ex-lover. Incorporating his own real-life pains, it stands as one of the director’s most individualized works, even as his son’s presence communicated a critical distance from the narrative. Louis Garrel remained the stand-in for his father’s onscreen persona up until 2015’s In the Shadow of Women, where he merely features as the narrator.

The Salt of Tears, Garrel’s latest work, returns to the foundations of family and relationships. Another monochrome drama, it positions its narrative amidst transitional phases of life, telling the story of a young man named Luc, who prepares to attend the renowned furniture-making school École Boulle in Paris. He is affectionate towards his elderly father, who wants his son to have a life that he never had. While Garrel’s work has always ruminated on past relationships, The Salt of Tears is less about the romantic encounters that shape one’s life and more of a reflection on the past and the struggles that come with the search for “meaning.” 

The Salt of Tears can thus be read as a kind of generational confrontation. As the aging director reorients the narrative around a younger man, he analyses the presumed causality of life’s transitional stages. “You always urge your son to do better than you,” says Luc’s father late into the film, “maybe we’re too close, that’s the problem.” Rather than regurgitate his ideologies and experiences, Garrel provides a deliberate critical distance from his own life in order to examine the role that parents play in their children’s state of becoming. There is a sense of urgency within the narrative, used to convey the desire that parents have that their children will rise above the expectations placed upon them. Never appearing as a controlling force, the elderly patriarch sincerely yearns for the success of his son, who is following in his footsteps. By effacing his own presence within the film’s framework, Garrel preserves the essential nature of the familial bond, and thus points to the dearest concerns of an older generation attempting to steer the lives of their children away from the difficulties that once befell them. 

Originally published as part of Berlin International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 2.