Credit: Zeitgeist Films
by Patrick Preziosi Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Regular Lovers | Philippe Garrel

April 5, 2021

Under the guise of complacent nothingness, the characters of Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers manage to paradoxically enact and participate in sundry relationships, death drives, drug habits, clashes with authority, and everything in between. The events of May ‘68 sit at the center of the film, but its bookends are significantly more lopsided than that description would imply: beginning immediately before the protests, and then offering an approximation of The Night of the Barricades, Regular Lovers spends its following two hours (and change) surveying the aftereffects, no matter how diffuse. The vector for this dialectical broaching of the protracted corrosion of Garrel’s own youthful ideals is the romance between 20-year-old aspiring poet Françoise (played by Garrel’s own son, Louis), and the sculptress Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), who occupy the center of an unsteadily orbiting network of friends, many of whom traipse through the film like ghosts.

Garrel’s autobiography has been probed by its owner over and over (and over) in such a manner that he now has his own critical shorthand neatly prepackaged with each new release: elliptical, patient…boring. The films themselves — especially the hefty Regular Lovers — would be insufferable if their denizens didn’t embody those aforementioned descriptors, which they do. From the vantage point of these former idealists, you get the imparted sensation that life is passing them by in indeterminate dribs and drabs, which is both stultifying and mollifying: at certain times, the boredom is albatross; at others, it’s another excuse to disappear into the haze of an opium smoke-choked room and just lay out. Afforded an opulent mansion as home base from the obviously rich Antoine (Julien Lucas), Françoise, Lilie, et. al momentarily stagnate, any utopian notions tempered by the glacial pacing. By investing so much length in a group of friends who don’t ever seem to vocalize their interiority (which is what distinguishes the film from pontification-heavy forebears like, say, Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore), their inevitable unthreading is ingrained in the interpersonal dynamics early on; most notably, the class difference between the comfortably unmotivated François and the proletariat, aspirational Lilie.

Of course, such minutely tweaked developments can be initially difficult to parse, and Garrel and Lubtchansky’s visual schema remains steadfast over the three-hour runtime, never alternating itself to accommodate any event. The high-contrast black-and-white renders characters as if they were hewn from their surroundings, emanating organically from rich shadows into bleached-out sunlight, and then back again. This produces a discombobulating effect when, unceremoniously, Françoise and his fellow protesters are suddenly outfitted in dirt-streaked Jacobin dress, wheeling a cumbersome cannon. This venture into even deeper oneirism sidesteps ostentatiousness, maintaining a brevity that makes the plunge back into the present day just as reeling as our being transplanted back to the French Revolution. Back on the streets of Paris, Françoise is now alone, running across the rooftops, trying to avoid the gendarmes. The fervor has dispelled before we’ve even had a chance to bear witness, the eventual disbandment set in motion.

The film’s climax, then, isn’t one of protestors clashing with the police, but a quasi-surreal dance number at a house party set to The Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow,” which provides the film with its most eternal image. As François’ friends execute Caroline Marcadé’s choreography — which toggles between some casual herky-jerky flailing and subtly intricate coupling and recoupling amongst the participants — Philippe suddenly cuts to his son, pouting on a nearby couch, watching the party with an expression of blankness that could suggest disappointment, contempt, or some combination of the two. Moreover, Marcadé’s stylized choreography is expectedly fleet-footed, prioritizing an unpredictable sense of group movement over a singular viewpoint, yet another means of cleaving the distance between François and his friends. They’ve united into a relatively indeterminate mass of carefree dance; he’s resoundingly still, and more importantly, alone.

Regular Lovers plays like a capstone project to the preceding two artistic decades of Garrel’s career, where deconstructionist proclivities began to court more straightforward emotional beats, a development that continued with the inclusion and subsequent foregrounding of his son. Philippe’s later use of Louis has deftly balanced the confessional implications that come with such a casting decision, while not being entirely allergic to the ways in which it can skirt the parodic (Louis meets self-inflicted, attempted ends in almost every film of his father’s he stars in). There’s no guarantee to how viewers will react to the statuesquely beautiful Louis being front and center in such a durationally monumental film that functions as a study in youthful solipsism — which is precisely what makes it such a gutsy move. Manifold readings are encouraged, as one’s familiarity — or lack thereof — with the Garrel clan can project the performance beyond the filmic parameters of Regular Lovers. In 1985, in She Spent So Many Hours Under the Sun Lamps, Philippe wondered aloud to his peer Jacques Doillon what would be the best way to shoot his then-infant son Louis. In Regular Lovers, he unlocked the innumerable possibilities of doing so, armed with a sense of nostalgia-laced dignity that somehow strode apace with a perspicaciousness that has never dissipated.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.