Here is a nice little celebration of low-budget filmmaking.
Tuesday night, I attended a screening of the 1979 film L’Enfant Secret as part of the 55th New York Film Festival’s Revivals Block. It is a feature narrative by French filmmaker Philippe Garrel, who was there to introduce the film to the audience. The film is about the relationship between a man named Jean-Baptiste and a woman named Ellie. Jean-Baptiste is a struggling independent filmmaker, as well as a self-proclaimed anarchist, and Ellie is a free-spirited theater artist, and both are treated rather poorly by society. The two characters meet during a retreat, and become so infatuated with each other, that they decide to move in together, with Swann, Ellie’s young son, joining them.
Despite the fact that neither has a steady job and they are living in poverty, they are happy, and Jean Baptiste even has Ellie acting in one of his films. One day, Jean-Baptiste attends a protest, is arrested, and ends up in a mental institution, receiving occasional sessions of electro-shock therapy. In the meantime, Swann is taken away to live with his grandmother, which devastates Ellie, and leads her to start doing heroin. Now, this once ideal love story turns into a revolting nightmare.
There are at least two things to know about this film, one being Garrel’s claim that it is autobiographical and relates the story of his relationship with German singer/songwriter Nico (who has, in fact, acted in a few of his films). The other is that Garrel shot the film with almost no budget, and took over three years to finish it. This can clearly be seen in the final product, because it is filled with awkward moments that were probably the result of a last-minute editing session. For example, conversations between the two leads are occasionally interrupted by the audio cutting off and being replaced with a song, turning the scene into a montage. Some scenes do not feature recorded audio at all; sound will appear at random, and footage is constantly being recycled throughout the runtime. Although the act of recycling footage in films was common at the time, it is done to a frustrating degree here, and sometimes it is just a still frame held for about a minute.
Though initially distracting and obvious, I do believe that there is an ulterior motive behind these editing tricks. I say this because the film feels like it is told out of sequence. In one scene, Jean-Baptiste and Ellie will appear happy together, and the next scene will show them practically at each other’s throats, only for them to be perfectly fine with each other right afterwards. If you turn away from the screen, even for only a few minutes, you will feel like you missed crucial parts of the story. French Cinema usually requires more patience from an average filmgoer.
It is possible that Jean-Baptiste’s electro-shock therapy sessions are happening in real time, and that the scenes are memories he uses to escape the pain, with the less- than -happy memories bringing him back to reality. In my opinion, Garrel used this method to reflect on his relationship with Nico, in both the good and bad times. I remember this style of storytelling being used in (500) Days of Summer, in which the male lead reflects on his previous relationship at different moments.
For all I know, I could be wrong in that interpretation. Maybe that is not how Garrel intended L’Enfant Secret to be interpreted. I do, however, see another way to interpret this film. Perhaps it represents Garrel’s struggle to get this film made. Both Ellie and Jean-Baptiste as characters are constantly struggling throughout the film, and have little support outside of their own circle. With such a low budget, Garrel had to use all sorts of tricks to realize his vision. There are a few interesting tricks that do stand out, such as the screen showing a mini flash of light during the shock therapy sessions, and the final shot, which makes a great use of a shop window.
Not everything in this film works, but at least Garrel was able to finish his film. One can see the editing shortcuts as a distraction in the way the film is structured, but on the other hand, it does provide a unique window into Garrel’s mind as an artist. If you can find this film playing in a theater or museum near you, I would say check it out. Just because a film has no budget, doesn’t mean it has no substance.