Anne Wiazemsky in L'Enfant Secret

For decades the greatest film by French writer-director Philippe Garrel has been one of the hardest to see. Garrel completed L’Enfant Secret in 1979 but didn’t exhibit it until 1982, because, according to legend, he couldn’t afford to pay the lab that had processed the film. Despite winning France’s prestigious Prix Jean Vigo (an annual award for movies exhibiting an original vision), the film has seldom been screened and was released on DVD only in Japan (even there it’s been out of print for a while). The rareness of L’Enfant Secret has heightened its reputation as a precious object, a movie so intimate that watching it makes you feel as though you’ve been let in on something private. Nakedly autobiographical, the film plays like a confession; moreover, Garrel elicits such sensitive performances from his actors that they too seem to be baring their souls.

On the page L’Enfant Secret reads like a routine backstage melodrama. A filmmaker named Jean-Baptiste (Henri de Maublanc) enters into a romance with a singer called Elie (Anne Wiazemsky). She has a son, Swann, from a previous relationship, and even though the boy is raised mainly by his paternal grandmother, Elie still considers him “the man in her life.” During a period apart from Elie, Jean-Baptiste suffers a nervous breakdown that results in his being institutionalized. When he’s released, he goes back to making films and resumes his relationship with Elie, but after her mother dies and she spirals into depression, the romance sours. She and Jean-Baptiste stay together anyway, but both start engaging in self-destructive behavior; in the final scenes, Garrel reveals that Elie is using heroin regularly.

This description can hardly convey the film’s hallucinatory power or the elliptical manner in which Garrel relates the story. L’Enfant Secret focuses not on plot—Garrel keeps many of the details obscure, and various important events take place offscreen—but on the intense emotional states the narrative engenders. The first scene, mostly silent, shows the shooting of a film in which an unidentified woman and man embrace in the doorway to a barn. From there, Garrel cuts to a series of shots, also silent, showing another man and woman in bed. Only later does the director reveal that this second couple is Jean-Baptiste and Elie—before they emerge as characters, they register as vessels of emotion. (It’s worth noting that Maublanc and Wiazemsky were both discovered by director Robert Bresson—for Au Hasard Balthazar and The Devil, Probably, respectively—who used performers in a similar manner.) The shots of the couple in bed are mesmerizing in their intimacy, which is heightened by Garrel’s use of natural light and black-and-white 16-millimeter film.

The director maintains a sense of ambiguity even after he confirms who the protagonists are. In one early sequence, the couple take Swann to the movies and, after a shot of a darkened room illuminated by a single flashlight (an especially poetic moment), Garrel cuts to a shot of projected film that shows the three characters walking on a bridge. Are they watching a film about themselves? Or does the scene represent Jean-Baptiste’s dream, with his personal and artistic lives intermingling? Garrel never reveals the exact nature of this scene, though it conveys a vivid emotional warmth. That it develops according to an intractable dream logic draws attention to its personal nature.

Though much of L’Enfant Secret is shrouded in mystery, it was the most lucid film the director had yet made. Garrel directed it after a decade of making experimental features (The Virgin’s Bed, The Inner Scar) that abound with cryptic allusions and symbolic imagery. These films can be ravishingly beautiful and maddeningly opaque, sometimes simultaneously, suggesting a personal aesthetic that isn’t meant to be fully understood. By tying this style to memories of his on-again-off-again relationship with the pop singer Nico (who appeared in some of his 70s films), Garrel grounded his images in direct and relatable experiences. By the time he made L’Enfant Secret, Garrel had also become a master of photographing faces; like his great experimental feature Les Hautes Solitudes (1974), much of the movie transpires in close-up, and Garrel inspires a Warholian fascination with his subjects as they exhibit various emotions and subtly change their expressions. The film’s details may be obscure, but the materiality of the images is palpable and the emotional content unmistakable.

L’Enfant Secret is not just confessional but self-reflexive, as Garrel notes how the filmmaking process affects the way he presents events. The film features several shots taken from an editing machine and from projections onto walls; other scenes end with abrupt whiteouts, suggesting that Garrel had run out of film during shooting. Such effects create the impression that the director is assembling L’Enfant Secret as you watch it. For critic Adrian Martin, writing about the film in 2001, this effect “brings us very close to a dream-image that has long animated a certain discussion of cinema, especially experimental, animated, underground and Super 8 cinema: the idea that certain works, certain forms, can take us close to the ‘unconscious of film’ itself, a severe, primal, baroque place where language (of whatever kind) is still piecing itself together in the maelstrom of pre-signification, all the drives are superimposed in their impersonal intensity, and the very materiality of the cinematic medium is exposed at its rawest nerve-ends.”

In other words, Garrel wants to convey how emotions feel before we can articulate them, which is why he refuses to explain the motivation for so much onscreen behavior. We may not know the cause of Jean-Baptiste’s nervous breakdown, but we certainly recognize his shock when he shows up in a mental institution. Similarly, we may not know when or why Elie starts using heroin, but we share in Jean-Baptiste’s sadness and resignation when Garrel suddenly and straightforwardly presents her shooting up. Most importantly, we recognize the affection these characters feel for each other and the isolation they experience when that affection ebbs. The film’s power is heightened by its experimental structure; Garrel makes us feel that we are witnessing these things as he’s remembering them, the elisions and digressions suggesting the shape of thought.

L’Enfant Secret may lend itself to cerebral discussion, but its chief pleasures are sensual. Garrel contemplates the material qualities of celluloid much as he explores faces, reveling in idiosyncratic details and the interplay between objects and light. At the center of this quiet spectacle are the expressive faces of Elie and Jean-Baptiste, which convey an astonishing range of emotion. Watching the film, you may get swept away by the multitudes they contain—and, by implication, the richness within us all.   v