❉ Unravelling Philippe Garrel’s painterly film ‘The Inner Scar’ starring Nico as his muse.
Partly inspired by Nico’s third solo album ‘Desertshore’, and partly a veiled biography of the singer, in the form of a painterly allegory, Philippe Garrel’s ‘The Inner Scar’ (‘La Cicatrice Intérieure,’ 1972) is film is riddled with meaning, but to uncover it in this 3-part essay, we must also examine the biographies of its principle auteurs; director Garrel, and his muse, Nico.
Just a note: Like the previously covered ‘Lucifer Rising,’ the IMDB lists inaccurate credits. Being user maintained, its reliability is sometimes questionable. For example, Garrel’s character is listed as “The Man / Devil,” when he’s addressed as “Philippe” in the film; Nico’s own son plays her son in the film, but the IMDB lists him as “Child / LittleBrother (sic); little brother of whom? The film itself only carries a title card with no cast credited. In the same way people will change details to qualify a film for review by their favourite internet critic, perhaps someone updated these credits to suit their own interpretation of the film?
The early sequences centre around Nico and Phillipe (we’ll assume both their characters share their names). Their journey starts with Nico sat amidst the dunes and foothills of a desert, with Philippe approaching from the background, constantly glancing over his shoulder, always seemingly aware of danger. He comes across Nico, who sits in a daze, as if in a drug-induced stupor. He puts his arms around her and guides her away from whatever approaching danger he seems wary of, but she seems indifferent to. “Where are you taking me?” she asks, but she gets no reply.
Perhaps he doesn’t know. When Garrel and Nico (born Christa Paffgen) first met, she was 30 and had already enjoyed some success as a model, singer with the Velvet Underground and Warhol star, but she was also a complete mess; addicted to Heroine, and unable to cope with mothering her son, Ari Paffgen, aka Christian Aaron Boulogne, who she claimed was a result of an affair with actor Alan Delon. He denied paternity. As a result, it was Delon’s parents who ended up spending the most time raising the boy. On the other hand, Garrel was just 20. He was a precocious young film-maker who financed his films himself and with the aid of patrons; he would shoot in piecemeal fashion on weekends, using film stock begged from other productions, a methodology that informs “The Inner Scar,” with almost every scene being played out a single, one-take tracking shot.
The young Garrel entered a relationship with a woman in a constantly spiralling state of self-destruction, triggered by a series of horrific life events during her formative years; her father died under mysterious circumstances, either in a concentration camp or in a psychiatric hospital, and she was raped at the age of 15 by an American soldier. By 17, she was a top model, and through the 60s, she was appearing in films by the likes of Fellini, later moving to New York to work with Paul Morrisey, resident Film maker at Any Warhol’s Factory.
The co-dependency of their relationship is illustrated by the next scene; Nico is suddenly sitting in the desert like a toddler having a tantrum in a super market, declaring she can’t go on, whilst Philippe is tugging at her hand and making a show of ignoring her screams. Philippe, like a parent giving a child an ultimatum, pulls away and walks off, trudging across acres of desert in a single, long panning shot as Nico’s Janitor of Lunacy plays. One can’t help but wonder if the title and lyrics like, “Tolerate my jealousy / Recognise the desperate need,” refer directly to Garrel both acting as Nico’s carer, and her enabler; the Janitor of her own Lunacy. As it turns out, he’s been walking in circles; he steps over Nico, still sobbing like a grumpy child, before describing a second arc, this time returning to her for good. He gives her an exasperated shrug, and she finally gets up, but the two fight, as she shouts, “I don’t need you,” and pushes him away, wondering off toward the horizon as Philippe broods.
It’s tempting to think that this is a true reflection upon what their actual relationship must have been like. The biggest reward Garrel received for his trouble was an addiction to heroine himself. One suspects that both of them needed to break away from each other for the sake of learning self-care, and yet found themselves constantly unable to live without each other. They had an addiction to each other as much as they had an addiction to drugs.
It was a productive addiction, though. During their 10-year relationship, Nico became Garrel’s muse and provided music for his films, starting with ‘The Virgin’s Bed’ (1969).
When we next see the couple (every scene ends with a long fade out to denote the passage of time), they are wondering down a trail across white salt flats. Nico calls Philippe, “The Devil,” which according to her means he doesn’t even have a chance in hell. This ends in a screaming fit as she tells him to get away from her whilst continuing to follow him. She finally breaks down, sobbing, “No!” Philippe tries to walk away, but falls to his knees, silently appealing to heaven.
After this, the films takes a different turn; we see Nico sitting in a cave (perhaps representing the womb) monologuing to the camera in her native German. Since Garrel has never subtitled the film, here’s an attempt at a translation, which is problematic given the lyrical nature of the dialogue; “Time makes me frightened, It appears like a trap without a grip, Like a sign without a light, Like moment through the crosshairs, That bends and breaks, Like the clouds at dawn that stumble through my breathless senses.” Only now, 15 minutes into a 59 minute film, do we learn the title as the words, ‘La Cicatrice Interieure’ appear on the screen, before the first appearance of Ari peeking out from a small pothole in the cavern’s wall.
The sequences that follow all focus on the mother-son relationship and start with possibly the most overtly autobiographical shot of the film; Ari, standing before The Father (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), sitting imperious on a horse, unreachable due to the ring of fire which surrounds him. Ari declares, “Je n’ai pas de pere” (“I have no father”) and walks off into the desert alone. Nico’s My Only Child plays on the soundtrack; the meaning of the image, and the inspiration for the song is obvious. It is the rejection and denial of the child by Delon.
Later, accompanied by All That Is My Own, (“Your winding winds did sow / All that is my own…”) Ari leads another figure on a horse across the wilderness, but this time the rider is his mother, who passively allows him to lead her out of the desert, as if he represents her salvation.
❉ Next Week: Ari grows up, Philippe takes charge of some goats, and we meet the naked Archer.