Film Review: L’Enfant Secret

Philippe Garrel’s brooding 1979 film charts the dissolution of a romance, as well as the birth of a new kind of narrative filmmaking.
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A 1979 feature only now making its U.S. theatrical debut, L’Enfant Secret marks a major turning point in both the life and career of Philippe Garrel, the erstwhile enfant terrible of French cinema. Made on the heels of the dissolution of the filmmaker’s decade-long relationship with German actress and chanteuse Nico, L’Enfant Secret sees Garrel adapting his earlier experimental film tendencies to a longer-form narrative structure, in order to chronicle the doomed romance between aspiring filmmaker Jean-Baptiste (Henri de Maublanc) and itinerant actress Elie (Anne Wiazemsky).

Although there’s a very real child on hand in L’Enfant Secret—Elie’s son, Swann (Xuan Lindenmayer), the illegitimate child of an actor who refuses to recognize him—the “secret child” of the title most likely refers to the film itself, especially given its often self-reflexive, deliberately opaque construction. Like other disaffected romanticists, Garrel seems to be searching for the almost alchemical transmutation of anguish into art.

Blending the unforced intimacy of home movies with the formalist conceits of early silent cinema, L’Enfant Secret is as moody as its monochrome cinematography. The camera registers, with the tensile sensitivity of a seismograph, Elie and Jean-Baptiste’s slightest gesture of desire or disdain. Garrel often plays with the duration of shots, holding on static tableaux of the lovers embracing (or at least tensely cohabitating) for uncomfortably long periods of time, seemingly in an attempt to preserve these moments of physical and emotional contact like so many insects in amber.

But Garrel’s formal games don’t stop there. Diegetic sound has a tendency to drop in and out, seemingly at random. So do the affecting surges of Faton Cahen’s score. Certain shots and scenes are reduplicated utilizing different film stock, as though supplying alternate takes to be decided upon later in the assembly of a work that will always remain in progress.

Garrel almost offhandedly introduces us to the twosome with a shot that largely obscures them behind some peskily proliferating foliage. Elie frequently appears framed in windows, wearing a trenchcoat like the revenant of a femme fatale from some 1940s film noir. Elsewhere, form cannily follows function in Garrel’s compositions, as with a protracted lateral tracking shot that follows Elie and Jean-Baptiste along a sidewalk, as he describes the storyline for a film he wants to make about a couple who just “walk and walk.”

The participation of the two leads indicates a certain debt on Garrel’s part to the minimalist cinema of Robert Bresson. Both actors had served as “models” for the notoriously astringent filmmaker: the late, always radiant Wiazemsky in the heartbreaking Au hazard Balthazar and, more recently, de Maublanc in The Devil, Probably. While there’s certainly a sort of Bressonian stolidity to many of their most intimate scenes together, this quality seems to stem as much from the protagonists’ fractured (and often fractious) mental states. Jean-Baptiste spends some time in an asylum; in thrall to a worsening dependence on heroin, Elie keeps reaffirming the analogy between her existence and the condition of internal exile.

The film’s final scene and final shot are stunningly coterminous: one bravura camera setup that reveals Garrel as an undisputed master at organizing cinematic space. The refractive use of reflective surfaces recalls Kiarostami’s final masterwork Like Someone in Love, while the fraught gestures toward tenderness bring to mind the coda to Bresson’s Pickpocket. As with many of the more radical products of the Nouvelle Vague, L’Enfant Secret is at times difficult to parse, but never less than fascinating to watch.

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