The Naked Lens of Philippe Garrel

Jean Seberg is the main focus of Philippe Garrel’s Les Hautes Solitudes (1974).

In 1974 very few people outside of France knew anything about Philippe Garrel, an experimental filmmaker who had first attracted attention in Parisian film circles with his 1964 fifteen minute short, Les Enfants Desaccordes (1964). Decidedly non-commercial, Garrel’s abstract, often autobiographical ruminations on disenfranchised youth and the vagaries of romantic love appealed to a fringe group of European cinephiles. But Les Hautes Solitudes, which was first screened in Paris in December 1974, raised Garrel’s profile considerably due to the film’s cast which included model/actress/singer Nico (formerly of The Velvet Underground) and current companion of Garrel, French stage and screen star Laurent Terzieff, the stunning Tina Aumont (daughter of Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont and, most notably, American actress Jean Seberg, who had reinvented her screen career in France with Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960).

Nico and her son Christian Paffgen appear in La Cicatrice Interieure (The Inner Scar, 1972), directed by Philippe Garrel.

Nico, Terzieff and Aumont had all participated in earlier Garrel works but this marked their first appearance together in his films and with the added attraction of Seberg, Les Hautes Solitudes was destined to be more than just a curiosity. Produced on a miniscule budget, Les Hautes Solitudes is now considered an early masterwork of Garrel’s and an excellent introduction to the minimalistic style of the films he made between 1964 and 1979. More importantly, the film is a fascinating time capsule that documents a period when Garrel was making intense, self-exploratory personal films with friends.

Tina Aumont, daughter of Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont, is featured in Philippe Garrel’s Les Hautes Solitudes (1974).

You can’t really classify Les Hautes Solitudes as a documentary but there are aspects of it that resemble private home movies. The film also doesn’t quite qualify as narrative fiction though there are sequences that achieve a dramatic intensity. If anything, the movie comes across like a very loose photo/model shoot crossed with a rehearsal by actors for some unspecified project. It is also completely silent and was shot on outdated black and white 35mm stock without lighting or technical assistance.

French director Philippe Garrel

That might sound like a recipe for disaster but Garrel turned his liabilities into virtues. Like the best silent films, Les Hautes Solitudes draws you into its interior world and the cinematography, much of it focusing on facial close-ups in whatever existing light was available, has a soft, velvety beauty, occasionally punctured by bursts of overexposed brightness and abrupt reel change transitions.

The album cover for Chelsea Girl, Nico’s solo album after her stint with The Velvet Underground.

The movie opens with Nico lying down near a black cloth background amid what appear to be paving stones and she is staring off camera with a vacant, wide-eyed stare. (This is actually footage Garrel shot for an earlier film with Nico and decided to incorporate it into this project).

Nico makes a brief appearance in the opening scenes of Philippe Garrel’s Les Hautes Solitudes (1974).

Those expecting the blonde chanteuse of The Velvet Underground will be surprised by her appearance here which has a spectral-like quality with her dark hair and zombie-like demeanor. The rest of what follows are brief glimpses of Laurent Terzieff, bent over in a despairing posture with his face pressed against a mirror, and tantalizing shots of Tina Aumont sprinkling water on her face and hands or toying with a switchblade. But the main focus is on Jean Seberg, who is observed in various locations (walking along a street, at a café, in a darkened room, in bed) while displaying a wide range of emotions. She occasionally interacts with Terzieff and Aumont but mostly she dominates the eighty minute running time of Les Hautes Solitudes.

Jean Seberg exhibits a wide range of emotions including exhaustion and fragility in Les Hautes Solitudes (1974), directed by Philippe Garrel.

The film was shot over a two and a half month period at Seberg’s Paris apartment so most of the interiors are in her home. At the time Seberg was married to actor/director Dennis Barry, the son of blacklisted screenwriter/director John Berry, and was at the end of her career. She would only appear in three more feature films and one short, Ballad for Billy the Kid, which she also directed. But in 1974 Seberg was still looking for a project that could challenge her as an actress and Garrel was the ideal collaborator.

Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg star in Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964), one of Seberg’s finest performances.

Les Hautes Solitudes could just as easily be called the many sides of Jean Seberg since the camera captures an astonishing range of emotions and movements. It might be her greatest performance and further evidence of how her talent was mostly misused in Hollywood with the possible exception of Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964). Under Garrel’s direction, Seberg goes through a constant sea change. One second she can look exhausted and fragile, the next she is mischievous or serene. Many times she gazes directly into the camera looking at us as if trying to see what we see. The effect is mesmerizing but also emotionally devastating when her moods turn dark.

Jean Seberg in Les Hautes Solitudes (1974)

In one scene we see Seberg huddled against a door, looking like a mental patient. In another, she lies in bed in a highly agitated state, tossing and turning and unable to sleep. But the most disturbing sequence is when Seberg is sitting on the floor drinking wine and picks up what appears to be a handful of sleeping pills and swallows them. Immediately Aumont rushes into the frame and grabs Seberg and appears to discard the pills and take charge of the situation….but is it real or a performance? It’s a mini-psychodrama in a movie full of private moments that are may be re-enactments from Seberg’s own life.

French filmmaker Philippe Garrel is seen filming a scene from one of his early experimental films.

In the biography, Played Out: The Jean Seberg Story by David Richards, Garrel recalls this incident during filming. “All of a sudden I had a terrible premonition. I thought, She’s taken the real thing. I was frightened, and a chill ran down my spine. I stopped the camera and shouted, ‘Jean, what in the hell have you done?’ She looked up me, puzzled, and shouted back, ‘Merde, you’ve gone and loused up my big scene!’ She had only swallowed aspirin, but her acting was so persuasive that I was completely taken in. I repositioned the camera, and we shot the scene a second time until the film ran out. Afterward I said to myself, She’s done this before. She’s played this scene with other people.”

Maurice Garrel (far right) stars in Claude Chabrol’s The Nada Gang (1974) with Lou Castel (left) and Mariangela Melato as terrorists.

Garrel, who is the son of French character actor Maurice Garrel (The Nada Gang, Kings & Queens), remains the lone survivor of Les Hautes Solitudes. The rest of the cast is no longer with us. At the time of filming, Nico was making a comeback as a singer with the release of her album The End. She and Garrel had been together since first meeting in 1969 and had collaborated on some of his films. Unfortunately their mutual drug addiction played havoc with their professional lives and they lived a near-poverty existence in the early seventies. The couple split up in 1979, Garrel kicked his heroin habit and returned to filmmaking with a renewed focus, scoring a Cannes Film Festival award for his 1984 feature Liberte, La Nuit.

A scene from Philippe Garrel’s Liberte, la nuit (1984) starring Christine Boisson.

A major turning point for Garrel was in 1991 with the release of his semi-autobiographical drama, J’entends Plus La Guitare (aka I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar). The film was an international critical success and eventually captured the attention of U.S. film critics like Richard Brody of The New Yorker who wrote, “Garrel balances a hypnotic romanticism with the frightening lurch of unsteady emotions. Leaping effortlessly, audaciously ahead in time, the fractured form embodies Garrel’s themes: the speed of life passing, the inescapable burden of memory.”  Garrel continues to forge ahead with a new film every few years and his most recent work, L’amant d’un jour aka Lover for a Day, won the SACD (Directors’ Fortnight) prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Garrel’s son Louis is also a well-known actor and aspiring director, who first achieved notoriety for his role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) and more recently portrayed Jean-Luc Godard in Michel Hazanavicius’s Godard Mon Amour (2017), based on Anne Wiazemsky’s Un an après, her Roman a clef novel about her relationship and marriage to the legendary director.  As for the other cast members of Les Hautes Solitudes, Nico continued to soldier on with her music career after splitting from Garrel but her drug addiction took its toll on her productivity. She was actually trying to come clean while living on Ibiza in the late eighties. Unfortunately, she had a bicycling accident there in July 1988 and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. There is an excellent documentary on the singer – Nico Icon, which was released in 1995 – and currently there is a new movie about the last year of her life, Nico,1988 (2017), directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli and starring Trine Dyrholm in the title role.

Tina Aumont in the mid-sixties.

The exotic and sensual Tina Aumont was also plagued by drugs and the paparazzi for her hedonistic lifestyle but you wouldn’t know it from the angelic looking creature in Les Hautes Solitudes. Yet, at the time she appeared in Garrel’s film, Aumont’s career was already on the decline. While never recognized as a great actress, she was nonetheless a memorable presence in many of her roles for famous directors such as Joseph Losey (Modesty Blaise – her film debut in 1966), Bernardo Bertolucci (Partner), Federico Fellini (Satyricon, Fellini’s Casanova) and Mauro Bolognini (The Murri Affair).

Tina Aumont appears in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Partner (1968), a free form adaption of Dostoevsky’s novel The Double.

But Aumont’s partying and love of hard drugs set her on a self-destructive path and ushered in more dubious film offers such as Tinto Brass’s notorious Nazi porn epic Salon Kitty (1976). Her career never really recovered after she was busted in Italy in 1978 for smuggling 400 grams of opium into the country via tiny Buddha statues from Thailand. She was sentenced to three years in prison but had it reduced to nine months. After that she was deported from Italy and moved to France where she made few films, mostly in minor supporting roles such as her cameo as a ghoul in Jean Rollin’s Two Orphan Vampires (1997). Aumont died in her sleep in Port-Vendres, France on October 28 2006, age 60.

Jean Seberg in Les Hautes Solitudes (1974).

Jean Seberg’s demise was even more tragic. Sometime on August 29, 1979, she climbed into the back seat of her car, parked near her Paris apartment, and took an overdose of barbiturates. Her body was found ten days later but the circumstances surrounding her death remain murky. What has emerged in recent years is evidence that the actress was being targeted by the FBI in a character assassination operation that sent gossip columnists a false story from a fictitious person with claims that Seberg was pregnant from an affair with a Black Panther member. The sad details of this calculated persecution can be found in an article from The Guardian

French actor Laurent Terzieff in the late fifties.

The only actor in Les Hautes Solitudes whose life didn’t come to a sad end is Laurent Terzieff, who started as an assistant stage manager but eventually became an acclaimed figure in the French theater world. He first attracted major attention among filmgoers and critics for his rebellious, James Dean-like protagonist of Les Tricheurs (aka Youthful Sinners, 1958). But instead of falling into the trap of being typecast or settling for conventional leading men roles in commercial cinema, Terzieff took a risky but more rewarding career path that demonstrated his love for the avant-garde and the offbeat. Among his more famous films are Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo (1960), Robert Rossellini’s Vanina Vanina (1961), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Prisonniere (1968), Luis Bunuel’s The Milky Way (1969), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea (1969) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Detective (1985). Terzieff enjoyed a parallel career in both theater and film right up to his death at age 75 in July 2010.

Laurent Terzieff in Philippe Garrel’s Les Hautes Solitudes (1974).

In recent years Les Hautes Solitudes has shown up at various film festivals such as the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and repertory screenings like the Metrograph in Brooklyn but the film remains unavailable from any U.S. distributor. If you own an all-region DVD player, however, you can purchase a DVD copy of Les Hautes Solitudes from the French distributor Choses Vues via Amazon or some other internet source. 

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