Les Hautes Solitudes opens on Friday, February 24; tickets available here.
In 1974, Philippe Garrel was a 26-year-old film veteran, the director of five features and a handful of shorts, some shot in a single night under the influence of LSD, others in the desert of Morocco, many featuring his muse the German chanteuse Nico, and all devoted to a form of poetic image-making that blazed an unprecedented path through the underground by using the freedom of the French New Wave to create timeless allegories of the couple and the family.
Jean Seberg was a 36-year-old American movie star living in Paris, discovered by Otto Preminger, already legendary for playing Patricia, the gamine in Jean-Luc Godard’s debut Breathless, but now best known to the masses for a role in the blockbuster Airport. As Garrel would describe in a journal entry published after Seberg’s death, the unlikely pair developed a relationship after a chance encounter. Together they made Les Hautes Solitudes, a 35mm silent film in black and white, nearly entirely composed of close-ups, and an utterly unique cinematic experience. As a magnificent and haunting record of the female face, Les Hautes Solitudes reaches the same heights as Dreyer’s work with Renée Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Yet Garrel goes beyond the typical scheme of the powerful artist and the passive model: in this portrait, the actress calls the shots and the filmmaker stands behind the camera and watches. The modus operandi was for Garrel to carry his camera to Seberg’s place every day and film her improvising dramatic situations of her choosing, sometimes with other performers—the bewitching Tina Aumont and, fleetingly, Laurent Terzieff and Jean-Pierre Kalfon—but most often alone. The resulting psychic portrait is unarguably painful—all the more disturbing in light of Seberg’s suicide by barbiturate overdose five years later—but profoundly ambiguous. For this is primarily a film about performance. Method actress Jean Seberg decides what we see, and we must decide what is real: what she feels and what is true. Anyone inclined to think a film about performance is a thin meta-exercise might reflect on what took place when Seberg and Garrel agreed to shoot a scene in which she would commit suicide. The scene unfolded as they had discussed, with Seberg getting into bed and taking a fistful of pills. But as she began to writhe in pain, Garrel panicked, dropped the camera, and rushed to help a woman who was rehearsing what would five years later be her end. Heartbreaking, yes, but anything but gloomy: Seberg’s face is uncommonly alive with the vast range of emotion she expresses, the hypnotic swarming of the film grain, and the power she holds when she looks into the camera and speaks directly to the man filming her. This camera gaze picks up where Patricia left off at the end of Breathless when she looked into the lens and defied the viewer to judge her for betraying her lover Michel. In Les Hautes Solitudes, the camera gaze is addressed solely to the filmmaker, and there is no defiance. Nor is the audience excluded: on the contrary, by inviting us to witness the intimacy between an actress and her director, from one side of the camera to the other, Garrel generously reveals another facet of his lifelong exploration of the relationship between men and women.
“I made a film with Jean Seberg”
I was an artist. I was not yet thirty. I lived alone most of the time, in a messy room.
My films did not do well. I wrote screenplays for films I produced with nothing.
I met Jean, a movie actress who was no longer making films.
She chose to kill herself.
A woman with Jean’s face appeared to me in a dream.
(The room was empty, the door was open. Through the door frame, one could see the wall of a church. The ghost’s face was pallid. The ghost said: “I have to leave now. I’m going over there, behind this church. You will always be able to find me there.”)
Like in Théophile Gautier’s Spirite, in which the woman who committed suicide appears in the mirror and leads the young man to death, Jean was calling me into the next world…
But this is how the story took place in real life.
I was in my room that day, smoking hash with the precision brought by habit.
The winter sun was setting behind the curtains. I fell asleep wearing all my clothes. I woke up and cried into my pillow in the middle of the night. At noon, I went down into the street. I ran into Elizabeth, a friend, who dragged me to the home of a couple she was supposed to have lunch with. I bought a lily along the way, to give to this actress I did not know and to whose home I was being brought unannounced. I was to see her again.
I would meet her in my room, at her place, and in a café.
Through the window I watched the snow fall over the courtyard.
I made a film with Jean.
I filmed her face. Sometimes Jean cried.
I stood behind the camera. Jean was an Actor’s Studio actress and she improvised psychodramas. I only filmed her face, keeping secret the conditions of the shoot. Once I finished this portrait, I submitted a first cut of her film to Jean, who thought the film was very good. Jean had been in many films, but she took pleasure in a film entirely devoted to her. Also, in this film, you could see her soul, which was very beautiful. Jean wrote a screenplay: “And now, I want to talk about Aurélia…” She also wrote poems, which were published. She alternated between identifying with Nerval’s Aurélia, whom she wanted to play in a modern style, and Joan of Arc, because she had played the Americans’ Joan of Arc.
Jean had a nervous breakdown. She was hospitalized. The electroshocks Jean was subjected to led to a tragic development.
I was walking home from the cinema labs in the suburbs. I was walking along the river. It was the end of summer.
Fishermen stood out against the setting sun.
I was crossing the flea market by the Porte de Clignancourt, a new film was finished, and I exuded the happiness of being relieved of it. When suddenly, on a random sidewalk, I came upon Jean’s photo on the front page of an evening paper.
“Jean Seberg has committed suicide”…
Philippe Garrel, 1984
Translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott