Monday, 2 February 2015

Reflections on ... Nico in Philippe Garrel's Le bleu des origines (1979)

/ Nico in the film Le bleu des origines (1979) by Philippe Garrel / 

“I film women with a soul.” Interview with Philippe Garrel

[I recently had the high honour of being referenced as a source on Dennis Cooper’s blog. OK he didn't mention me by name, but Cooper recently devoted a blog entry to uncompromising French filmmaker Philippe Garrel and the paragraph on Garrel’s ultra-obscure / rarely-seen 1979 film Le bleu des origines was lifted from my IMDb review. I saw the film at The British Film Institute in 2007. It prompted me to post it here in its entirety and make it look prettier than it does on IMDb.]

Le bleu des origines is an uncompromising example of old school avant-garde cinema at its most cryptic, enigmatic and inscrutable. Made by Philippe Garrel in 1979 using a hand-cranked silent camera, bleu represents absolute year zero in film-making, a return to the starkest basics of film's origins in early silent cinema, replacing any trace of narrative or even dialogue with an emphasis almost exclusively on close-ups of women's faces. The film is black and white and absolutely silent for its near 50-minute duration. 

The total silence feels oppressive: silent cinema, after all, was accompanied by music. The silence, though, serves to ensure the focus on the actresses' faces is absolute, with no distraction.

The faces in question belong to the former Velvet Underground German chanteuse, Warhol Superstar and cult figure Nico, and bohemian French starlet Zouzou. By 1979 Nico had been Garrel's lover, muse and collaborator for a decade. Le bleu des origines was the seventh and last film they made together and marked the end of their off-screen relationship as well.

The film's tone is intimate but mysterious and ultimately despairing. It is essentially a portrait of two women, Nico and Zouzou, who are offered up for endless existential contemplation. There is no hint of even the most basic narrative but it is human nature to try to construct one, to try to thread together scenes, which are alternately jagged and brief, and sometimes-long Warholian takes that frankly court boredom. 

Garrel offers hints of symbolism that are probably highly significant but remain opaque: Nico examining a jewel in her hand; many shots of both women reading manuscripts or poetry by candlelight; a glimpse of Nico's passport; Nico pointing at the sky; Zouzou writing; Nico folding a letter and putting it in an envelope; Zouzou wielding a knife; Nico as an angel of death with waist-length hair in a billowing black cape, filmed in high winter on the roof of the Paris Opera House among the stone gargoyles. Most strikingly, Nico in some kind of dungeon or prison slowly climbing a stone staircase, pausing on each step, in jerky zombie-like movements straight out of a lost German Expressionist masterpiece. 

/ Consider this a trailer for Le bleu des origines: eerie dirge "We've Got the Gold" from Nico's 1974 album The End providing a soundtrack to clips from Le bleu des origines /

Nico and Zouzou are mostly filmed alone but sometimes together. What links them? Both women were frequent collaborators with Garrel and had appeared in his films several times separately before. Nico was romantically linked with Garrel: I’m uncertain whether Zouzou was. Like Anita Pallenberg, both women had been involved with the doomed Rolling Stone Brian Jones. In the 1960s both Nico and Zouzou had been glamorous art-y girls of the moment, fashion models turned singers and actresses. By 1979 both women had hit hard times. Nico, Zouzou and Garrel are all known for their heroin addiction. (Later in her life Zouzou did jail time and was reduced to selling the Parisian equivalent of The Big Issue outside Paris metro stations).

Again and again Garrel films them in scenes that emphasise their alienation, anguish, distress, isolation, solitude. Both Nico and Zouzou were great beauties and there is genuine pleasure in lengthily scrutinising them in long silent takes; from shot to shot, though, depending on how the light hits their faces, both can look suddenly, startlingly ravaged, older than their years. Maybe the film is about the hell of heroin addiction? 

There is actually a third woman in the film who appears so briefly she is almost subliminal: Jean Seberg. (Seberg and Nico had already appeared together in the earlier Garrel film Les hautes solitudes in 1974). In some shots a barely glimpsed heavy-set but still beautiful older woman appears, standing behind Nico while Nico plays the piano like the phantom of the opera. Later, and shockingly, Seberg inexplicably slaps Nico hard across the face. Seberg committed suicide in 1979, the year this film was released. This surely represents her last-ever film appearance.

While Zouzou gets equal screen time and is certainly charismatic, it must be said the film belongs to Nico. In her haunting close-ups she suggests the post-punk Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich of underground art cinema. Even in the “talkies” of the 1930s some of Garbo and Dietrich's most mesmerising on-screen moments were silent close-ups of their faces (i.e. the concluding scenes of Queen Christina and Morocco). Their allure was non-verbal, not dependent on dialogue or voices – they cast a spell with just their eyes. In Le bleu des origines Nico does the same. 

/ The famous concluding close-up of Queen Christina (1933) in which the serenely impenetrable Greta Garbo stares into the horizon, her inner world sealed off to us. I’d argue this anticipates the lengthy, unfathomable close-ups Andy Warhol and then Garrel would devote to Nico in their underground art films  /

As the film continues, the mood of distress and impending tragedy grows more overt. Towards the end Nico is shown wrapped in a headscarf, crying genuine inconsolable tears, her breath visible in frosty night air, seemingly not acting. Her depression is tangible. For someone frequently lazily described as an ice queen who sang in a bored monotone, Nico here convincingly projects raw emotion: her presence aches with a heavy sadness. 

Sometimes hypnotic, sometimes catatonic, Le bleu des origines is as bleakly beautiful as Nico's best music and was obviously a heartfelt personal and artistic statement. If the film does represent the end of their relationship, it is certainly a last cinematic love letter from Garrel to Nico.

/ Portrait of Nico circa her 1981 album Drama of Exile /

/ You can watch Le bleu des origines in its entirety on the Youtube link above. How lucky I was to see it in an exquisite sparkling print at The British Film Institute: this is clearly a bootleg (I think someone filmed it sitting in a cinema!) but Garrel has never released it on DVD and for now this represents your best viewing source. For a soundtrack to this silent film I suggest you load your CD player with Nico's essential trilogy (her "gravest hits" if you like) - The Marble Index (1969), Desertshore (1970) and The End (1974) - and crank it up loud /

Further reading:

Read the Dennis Cooper blog for an excellent overview of Garrel's career

Fascinating 2002 interview with the then-58 year old Zouzou in The Guardian. What a life.

I've blogged about the ever-inscrutable Nico (“possessor of the most haunting wraith cheekbones of the 20th century” - thank you, James Wolcott of Vanity Fair) many times: her contemporary Marianne Faithfull reflects on Nico here; the historic encounter When John Waters Met Nico; Nico’s 1960s modelling days; how the old jazz standard "My Funny Valentine" (and heroin) connects Nico with Chet Baker; and  finally, When Patti Smith Met Nico.

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