THE BIRTH OF LOVE

Directed by Philippe Garrel

Written by Muriel Cerf, Marc Cholodenko and Garrel

Starring Lou Castel, Marie-Paul Laval, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Dominique Reymond and Johanna ter Steegee

Distributed by Noon Pictures

***1/2

I first saw THE BIRTH OF LOVE in the spring of 1994, during the Walter Reade's annual series of new French films, then programmed by the editors of CAHIERS DU CINEMA. Three years later, it finally found an American distributor. Furthermore, it's only the second Philippe Garrel film to be released in the U.S. in the past 30 years. When CAHIERS and the Walter Reade put on a Garrel retrospective this spring, they were met with deafening silence on the part of every New York paper. Not even the VILLAGE VOICE or NEW YORK PRESS could get around to publishing anything more than a capsule review about the series. It's a shame that a film as stunning as THE BIRTH OF LOVE has had such a hard time reaching American audiences, but I'll spare you Rant #65 about the evils of American distribution. Garrel isn't exactly a household name anywhere. Even in his native France, most of his 60s and 70s films went undistributed. One of CAHIERS' editors conducted a Q&A session after the 1994 screening; when a seemingly baffled spectator asked about Garrel's popularity in France, she said something along the lines of "They play for a few weeks, we write about them and the few thousand people who care go see them."

As Mike D'Angelo has suggested, critics (the good ones, at least) and cinephiles often tend to be attracted to difficult or unusual films. Unfortunately, this attraction can lead to a certain snobbery: the convicton that people who don't share such a preference are infantile Philistines. Even a critic as astute as Jonathan Rosenbaum sometimes writes about difficult films as if they'd easily reach a large American audience if not for the crassness of institutions like Miramax and THE NEW YORK TIMES. If he found it impossible to write more than a capsule review about Hou Hsaio-Hsien's CITY OF SADNESS, how can he lambaste American audiences, critics and distributors for paying more attention to John Woo than Hou?

For his or her part, the "average filmgoer" often treats films that stray from linear narrative as, at best, arcane esoterica and, at worst, pretentious bullshit: just take a look at the countless Usenet posts complaining about films like RED and EXOTICA (or more recently, CRASH) having "no plot." Faced with these attitudes, defending difficult films becomes more than a little...um, difficult. And I'm not sure that it would be any easier even if distributors were more adventurous. Even if the Weinstein brothers suddenly decided to buy the rights for the complete Hou Hsaio-Hsien oeuvre, spent $500,000 promoting GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE and released all his earlier films on uncut, letterboxed videotapes and laserdiscs, the chances of GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE outgrossing RUMBLE IN THE BRONX would still be pretty slim. THE BIRTH OF LOVE is the most moving "new release" I've seen in the past few months, but it's not an easy film to love.

First of all, Garrel's approach to narrative is elliptical, far more interested in capturing peak moments than telling a story. Additionally, its central character, Paul (Lou Castel), is a selfish, immature man. He probably should never have gotten married; he certainly should never have become a father. THE BIRTH OF LOVE doesn't just center around an unattractive character. It requires an audience curious about observing his inner life. Even when he behaves cruelly and irresponsibly (and he often does), he's far from being a villain from whom we can safely distance ourselves. Consequently, some people are likely to see the film as an apologia for Paul. (Most of this description also applies to Maurice Pialat's excellent LE GARCU 1995; it may explain why that film still hasn't found American distribution , despite the presence of Gerard Depardieu.)

Even at his most abrasive, Garrel isn't just trying to baffe the audience. One particularly flagrant example is worth citing: it cuts from a close-up of Paul's pregnant wife Fanchon (Marie-Paul Laval) in a hospital, about to give birth to their daughter, to a scene of Paul walking around outside pensively to a shot of a nurse holding the baby. Another, even more startling cut takes us from a shot of Paul in bed with a new girlfriend, beginning a story about a woman he once loved, to a shot of him standing outside a Chinese restaurant with his son the next day. The ellipses speak volumes about Paul's ambivalence towards fatherhood and tendency to compartmentalize his life. The general outline of THE BIRTH OF LOVE could pass for melodrama; Garrel's deep committment to the emotional flux of day-to-day life transforms it into something edgier and far more unique.

He's often used himself, his father and his wives and girlfriends (including Nico) as actors. I don't know enough about his personal life to judge whether THE BIRTH OF LOVE is autobiographical, but it's obviously personal: an analysis of Garrel's generation, the French baby-boomers who came of age during the political revolts of the 60s. The film begins in 1991, during the Gulf War, which ends around the time Paul and Fanchon's daughter is born. (Garrel pointedly follows the birth with TV footage of dead Iraqi soldiers.) The malaise his characters suffer from isn't entirely personal; it belongs to anyone who's given up struggling against the intractability of power. To fully understand what Garrel's up to, one has to remember Castel and Jean-Pierre Léaud (who plays Paul's friend Marcus, a writer) as callow, energetic young men. They've aged (badly) on film; they seem to have gone straight from youth to a burnt-out middle age. Léaud, in particular, has become a kind of French equivalent to the pre-rehab Dennis Hopper. Garrel is a master at framing faces; he films Léaud and Castel with tenderness, but without hiding the ravages of age.

Were it simply a portrait of middle-aged inertia, THE BIRTH OF LOVE wouldn't be quite so impressive. The ending is typically abrupt and inconclusive, but it nevertheless sends Paul on a tentative step towards a new beginning. The title isn't meant ironically. But I can think of two equally appropriate titles, both taken from films I'm sure Garrel appreciates: AND LIFE GOES ON and FACES. Life goes on, even if we have to wait another 4-30 years to see the rest of Garrel's work.