Circa 1974, Amos Vogel wrote that Philippe Garrel was "one of the most unknown important new directors" but "like Werner Herzog, he is too original and self-willed to become popular." What a difference thirty years makes: Herzog's the self-promoter of his folk-art persona, so successful that anyone with a passing interest in cinema knows him, though his work dropped off two decades ago. Garrel's fulfilled Vogel's prophesy - and while nobody's been paying attention, he made one of the Nineties' best movies ("J'entends plus la guitare") and, with "Regular Lovers," constructs something that spires over this sickly decade in film.
"Regular Lovers," a 178-minute, druggy-sensual odyssey into the Paris of May '68, would be the movie to "break" Garrel in a better world (it's his first film to get a U.S. run since 1967). Nobody deserves a little commercial recognition more; trenchantly incapable of exposing film over anything but his own preoccupations, he's had a hardscrabble career of bumming short ends. His latest is a eulogy for lost revolutionary ideals - personal and political - recalled at their most beautiful twilight hours. Garrel's work has always borne him back ceaselessly into the past, revisiting lost girlfriends (a decade-long affair with Nico haunts his oeuvre) and stillborn utopias: "It's a loser's film, really."
The Kinks's "This Time Tomorrow," used to perfection, is the film's theme; the lyrics are about the out-of-time sensation of transcontinental air travel, but here refer to the transient outpost of Trotskyite Dandies closing rank against the inevitable adult crash (a prediction of domestic surrender? "What will we see? / Fields full of houses, endless rows of crowded streets"). Like many of us, Garrel had a harsh time acclimating to the world as it is; he was 20, the age of his characters, in '68; he had their dreams. Unlike most, he never seems to have fully resigned himself to disappointments; this fidelity is usually called maladjustment, but it helps Garrel look backwards without a filter of condescension.
The film's axis is the love of a poet, François (Louis Garrel), for a student sculptor of working-class stock, Lilie (the wonderful Clotilde Hesme), but though Garrel and Hesme are foregrounded, "Regular Lovers" is more broadly occupied with their place within a communal living experiment in the house of a well-to-do peer, where the idealism of May is kept on life support. The accretion of incidents covers crises specific to underground living - an opium score, ferrying somebody to the hospital on a bad trip, acting nonchalant while a partner takes advantage of free love doctrine - alongside banal philosophy, lovers' snits, and browsing a pack of dirty playing cards. Throughout Garrel uses patient close-ups with I-can-hear-your-heart-beat intimacy that has no equivalent outside the melodramas of Frank Borzage (Garrel's 1974 "Les Hautes solitudes" is a series of female faces in repose, languorous and utterly hypnotic). His movies offer a whole education in seeing women; watch Hesme at the right moment for the greatest sublimity that silent film acting can offer: experiencing someone changing their mind with a wince of the soul.
Shot by William Lubtchansky, "Regular Lovers" is a dressing-down to contemporary indies that make budgetary restrictions an excuse for aesthetic laziness - "All the film I used is up there on the screen," Garrel says, and you'll believe it; some scenes evaporate into exposure rather than ending. It's a film of gorgeous charcoal-and-chalk black-and-whites - "Regular Lovers"' desolate street fights might've been storyboarded by Leon Spilliaert's solemn monochrome drawings.
Filmgoing too often gives me the feeling that I'm getting a rip-off trade for the value of my time, but for this I only implore that anybody please please please just try this film. If someone can use this for an ad: "A Masterpiece! 4/4 Stars!"
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]