❉ We conclude our odyssey of oddities through Philippe Garrel’s allegorical mindfuck of sand, fire and ice…
In Part 2, we touched upon the possibility that the two halves of the film actually tell the same story, or at least mirror each other, and on repeated viewing, seem like the same narrative told twice over but through different eyes. This week, in the concluding chapter of our journey, we’ll explore this more.
As you will recall, Garrel undertook production of the film after undergoing electroconvulsive therapy, and experimenting with LSD. Either one of these might have changed his world view, but both combined almost certainly would have changed his perspective entirely. Let’s examine the two movements of the film with this in mind.
In watching the film closely, it becomes apparent that the two halves mirror one and other. The two most prominent examples of mirroring are both thematic and visual. In the first half of the film, during the My Only Child sequence, Ari is cut off from his Father by a ring of fire, and while the boy is rejected by the aloof Father, Ari, in turn rejects him and strikes out on his own (later leading his mother to possible salvation).
However, straight after the epic waterfall scene, where we left off last week, there is another instance of fire in the film; the Archer is seen taking a bowl containing a flame from a rocky ledge and carefully carrying it through black, rumbling lava fields and off into the darkness. The connection to the My Only Child sequence is made clear when the following scene also involves a child, this time an infant (played by Pierre Clémenti’s own son Balthazar), seen sitting on a soft fur rug in the middle of a freezing ice flow. Other than the rug, the child is naked and unprotected. Garrel holds his camera on the infant for some considerable time as the child expresses a range of emotions. The sequence draws to a close when the Archer arrives in his boat and delivers the bowl of fire onto the edge of the ice flow.
In other words, while Ari could not get close to his Father for fear of getting burnt, the Archer delivers the infant from the cold with the gift of warmth. If we are to run with the idea that the characters of Philippe and the Archer are one and the same, we could read Ari as the infant; vulnerable and unprotected, until this new paternal figure appears and imbues strength and warmth into the boy. While Philippe may have appeared depressed and introverted, even a victim (albeit a stoic one) of Nico’s bullying hysterics in the first half, the Archer provides support where needed. Perhaps Garrel is reflecting upon his inability to see what good he did both Nico and Ari, a truth only revealed to him after the combined psychological shocks of his LSD experience and ECT.
The second example of mirroring is the most conspicuous of all; there are two confrontations between Nico and the two men in her life. The first is the Janitor of Lunacy sequence, in which she has her child-like tantrum as Garrel wanders the desert in massive circles, always returning to her. The second is a meeting between Nico and the Archer on the Icelandic plains. This is much more subdued, and perhaps reveals the subtext of the first, more combative version of the event. The Archer approaches Nico with caution. Rather than bawling her eyes out, she simply kneels in a circle of stones with her hand covering her eyes. The Archer kneels before her expectantly as she intones, “He gave me my senses, he gave me my pride, but my eye must betray what I see through the light.” She then strokes the Archer’s face and says, “I beg you to stay! I will give you a name. A name you can remember me by.” They both stand, and Nico backs away as the Archer watches her go, and the camera assumes exactly the same position as it did at the end of the Janitor of Lunacy sequence. In both scenes, it is clear that Nico doesn’t really want to leave either of the men, but in the first, she doth protest too much; in the second, her reluctance is clear.
In the first version of the event, Philippe turns away from Nico as she rants and screams. In the second, the scene is much quieter. What if Garrel realised that his inaction was exactly what Nico needed; for him to remain still and silent as she expressed herself in the only way she was able at that particular time?
The scenes are followed by both characters walking together. In the first, Nico screams at Philippe, “Stay away from me!” yet continues to follow. In the second, she walks with the Archer silently, accompanying him to the shore where he sets sail, leaving her alone. It is only when he is on his way that she expresses herself verbally.
Finally, there is the counterpoint between the final acts that the characters of Philippe and Archer perform. While the last time we see Philippe, he is passively shepherding a heard of goats off into the distance, the film’s climax sees the Archer passing a sword up to Nico as she stands atop a cliff in a symbolic act of imbuing her with strength. Perhaps Garrel never realised what he imbued Nico with until he was literally a changed man.
By casting Pierre Clémenti’ as the Archer, Garrel doesn’t just avoid the accusations of narcissism that might have followed if he, himself, would have spent the latter half of the film meandering around in the nude; he allows himself a third person perspective, seeing things as they really were, albeit with an exaggerated white knight figure in his place. It also allows for an extra veil to cover over a deeply personal insight in an already cryptic film.
The other possibility (as I mentioned last week) is that the two halves mirror Nico and Garrel’s different views of their relationship; the first half with Philippe as a depressed, ineffectual yet stoic figure might have been Garrel’s perspective (what with him being plagued by depression), and the latter half being Nico’s (who might have seen Garrel as something of a savour. But this reading ties in with that of Garrel’s changed perspective; how could he have structured the film in such a way without seeing it for himself?
Garrel is still making his unique brand of idiosyncratic cinema today. Displaying a preference for black and white, and dark, personal stories, he moved on from his home made underground efforts in the mid-eighties to produce more accessible, though no less challenging films.
Nico, of course, is no longer with us, having died of a head injury as result of falling off her bike in Ibiza, an accident caused by a massive heart attack. In truth, her drug addiction and self-destructive lifestyle always marked her for an early death, and though a deeply troubled–and troublesome–figure, her talent is immortalised in her music, and her beauty preserved in films like ‘The Inner Scar.’
❉ About the author: Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became and actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.
❉ Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022