2017 Film Essays

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? – On Philippe Garrel’s ‘Frontier of the Dawn’

François, the protagonist of Philippe Garrel’s 2008 feature Frontier of the Dawn, perceives love in terms of possession. He decides that he will devote himself completely to his lover Carole, and when he feels that his affection isn’t being returned in equal measure, he feels betrayed, emasculated and insulted. When François sees Carole talking to (or even so much looking at) another man, his thoughts become clouded with paranoia, and when she’s not in his sight, he goes crazy with hysterical fantasies of her unfaithfulness. If François’ suspicions become aroused, he will relentlessly scrutinize every word that comes out of Carole’s mouth, and search every nuance of her facial expressions for signs of duplicity. However, despite his desperate efforts to locate an essential truth that will “explain” Carole, thereby allowing him to possess her fully, Carole remains a fundamentally unknowable presence. The essential obscurity of the desired Other is what sends François on a downward spiral of self-destruction. Carole, for her part, is aware of the strength of François’ obsession and is willing to manipulate her image in order to drive him to suit her own ends. She’s a puppet master, turning the male gaze against itself, like a heroine in a Josef von Sternberg film. She realizes that to idealize the desired other is to objectify her. Their relationship is a constant power struggle, and the portrait of romantic relationships Garrel paints is pessimistic for sure, but it’s one that plunges into the metaphysical aspects of love with the precision and incisiveness of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s From Today Until Tomorrow.

François (Louis Garrel) is a photographer and Carole (Laura Smet) is a successful actress. They meet when he’s assigned to shoot a series of photos of her for a magazine spread. Carole is married to an older man, a successful film director, who is away in Los Angeles. It is ironic that François represents a large component of the system which transforms Carole into a public object of desire, a pure image that all men can project their fantasies and desires onto, considering that he becomes consumed by jealousy when he sees men leering at her first-hand, whether it’s a male fan who gushes over Carole in the street or a fellow actor who flirts with her at a dinner party in full view. François watches these situations impassively, then explodes at Carole when they’re alone, with his bruised ego and fear of sexual inadequacy expressing itself in rationalist masculine anger. He’s one of Garrel’s dandies who have unconsciously internalized the logic of patriarchy, as in A Burning Hot Summer and In the Shadow of Women. Although François is aware of Carole’s allegiance to another man from the outset, she will never truly belong to him. François claims his love for Carole is genuine and all-consuming, while Carole insists that all he’s feeling is childish infatuation. For François, a relationship is only valuable if it can be extended indefinitely. For Carole, their relationship is made all the more valuable because of its fleeting nature — the compressed timeframe means that the emotions become heightened.

Like Vertigo, which functions as a clear cinematic ur-text, Frontier of the Dawn is split into two halves, with the suicide of Carole functioning as the mid-point climax. The second part jumps forward a year. François, now dating a new woman and expecting a child, remains haunted by the memory of Carole. He drifts through his life with an air of casual detachment. The blank walls of the apartments and cafes he visits are infused with an impression of the overwhelming absence of Carole hanging over his head and colouring every space he enters and every move he makes; the city becomes a vacuum haunted by a lingering presence. François’ intoxication with her memory, her image, is so strong that his new lover cannot possibly live up to it. François’ attraction is largely rooted in the fact that, because of Carole’s early demise, their relationship never had time to grow stale or settle into routine; it exists in his mind only as a bipolar series of extreme highs and extreme lows. The relationship he has with the sweet, faithful Ève (Clémentine Poidatz) is, in comparison, too steady and domesticated to satisfy a masochist like François, who unconsciously longs for pain and uncertainty.

The second section switches gears from literalist drama to out-and-out magic realism, as François begins to see visions of the deceased Carole, which may or may not exist only in his head. Garrel stages these leaps into the extraordinary with the matter-of-fact presentation and low-key in-camera special effects reminiscent of silent film fabulists like Louis Feuillade and Georges Méliès. When Carole appears in the mirror, the set lights dim and a spotlight appears on the mirror — an incredibly simple effect that is nevertheless a powerful indicator of the narrative transitioning between realms while still remaining grounded in emotional realities. In a stand-out sequence, the deceased Carole appears to François in a dream. A close-up of a sleeping François fades into darkness and then opens in an iris effect to an idyllic cottage in the woods — a pastoral scene composed with the stripped-back elegance of one of D.W. Griffith’s Biograph films. The frame remains static as François and Ève, abstracted by the lighting into silhouettes, cross from the background to the foreground and enter the hut; a collapsing of visual planes that marks a significant break from the established visual language of the film, which tends to keep characters located on the same visual plane within one shot. The camera lingers on the exterior of the cabin, the wind moving through the leaves. Garrel cuts to the interior, and forward in time, to show François and Ève asleep in the hay, bathed in inky shadows. Garrel cuts again to an exterior tracking shot of Carole, a spectre reminiscent of María Casares in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée.

Garrel’s low-key romantic framing and materialist abstraction transform everyday environments and objects into a rich expressionistic mise-en-scene, weighted down with a sense of brooding, loss and regret. In lieu of a linear, cause-and-effect narrative, Garrel constructs a deeply elliptical stream of vignettes. Many central events occur off-screen: the fire that sends Carole to the mental institution, François meeting and subsequently courting Ève, the aftermath of Carole’s suicide. Garrel’s cutting resembles that of Yasujirō Ozu and John Ford, using gaping structural absences to conjure the sensation of recalling past events. Each cut marks a significant leap forward in time, but it’s always difficult to tell exactly how much time has passed. Garrel’s straightforward edits make no distinction between an hour and a month.

This is a love story expressed through gaping structural absences. At first, Carole is connected to her husband only through a phone line, through which he leaves lengthy voicemails about his longing for her. When Carole is admitted to the mental hospital, this is mirrored in the lengthy letters she sends François; the entire second half sees François struggling to forge a new relationship while haunted by the literal absence of his deceased lover. Late into the narrative, Ève confesses to François that, while on vacation, she fell into a short-lived, unconsummated love affair with another man. More than any other Garrel film, Frontier of the Dawn is an exploration of the subjective nature of relationships; a reminder that simply by knowing somebody, we forge an imagined image of them in our mind that becomes a separate entity from the real person. To not occupy the same physical space can create suspicion, yet it can also lead to idealization, as in François’ rose-tinted memories of Carole, who, once she exists only as an immaterial spectre, lingers in his mind as an idyllic force of passion rather than dangerously volatile, vindictive and damaged.

James Slaymaker (@jmslaymaker) is a filmmaker and freelance journalist from Dorset, UK. His writing has been featured in MUBI Notebook, Senses of Cinema, Film International, Little White Lies, Sound on Sight, Popmatters, Alternate Takes, Bright Lights Film Journal, College Humour, The Vulgar Cinema and McSweeney’s, among others. He’s also contributed a chapter to the upcoming book ‘Hard to Get: The Films and Female Characters of Howard Hawks.’ His first book, ‘Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann,’ is due for publication early next year. 

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