Philippe Garrel’s LA CONCENTRATION (1968) – Seeing Rare Films In The Present
“Have you seen La concentration? Do you know where I can find it?” were questions I would periodically ask my peers and colleagues over the past few years leading up to the surprise one-time 35mm screening that Philippe Garrel granted to the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York on March 30th for their 2017 Jean-Pierre Léaud retrospective. Since its initial release in 1968, the film has been nearly impossible to see, and will remain so (for now?) following that lone screening that I was privileged to attend. My initial interest in this film came about from my own obsession with Jean-Pierre Léaud, but that it’s directed by Garrel was enough to warrant some additional interest in what this mysterious film could be.
Philippe Garrel was twenty upon completing his fourth feature film, La concentration, and was already being celebrated as a fresh voice in cinema. Just a year away from the release of his first four feature films (all four were released in 1968), Garrel shot a behind the scenes look at the making of Jean-Luc Godard‘s Weekend (1967). Soon after, it became clear that he was not only in amongst the in-crowd, but garnering their attention and respect on his own merits. Interviewed in Cahiers du Cinéma in September of 1968, Jacques Rivette mentioned Garrel amongst Bergman, Renoir, “the good Cukors,” Rouch, Cocteau, Godard, and Mizoguchi as examples of great directors who are “dealing with the truth of cinema” through theatre even when their films are not overtly about theatre. Garrel didn’t have to be mentioned in the same breath as those established auteurs, but he was. The very next year, Garrel’s Marie pour mémoire (1968) was programmed at an event to discuss montage in “a number of trail-blazing films from the last ten years,” as chronicled in the March 1969 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma in an article by Rivette, Jean Narboni, and Sylvie Pierre entitled “Montage.” Within the notes for that Cahiers article concerning the event centered around montage, some interesting details on the production of La concentration are recounted and are as follows:
“In La concentration, another process took place. Shut away with his actors and crew in a tiny studio, Garrel filmed for three whole days without interruption. At one point, with tension, fatigue and other imposed conditions all playing their part, he began to fear that the sequence of shots (which were also to form the chronological sequence of the film, since he had for the first time pre-planned his montage) might be overloaded with too great a charge of intensity. So he changed the order of shooting, first filming the end, then the penultimate section.”
Prior to the Lincoln Center screening of La concentration, the above notes on the film’s production were some of the most revealing as to what this film was like, aside from Gilles Deleuze’s brief mentioning of the film in his book Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Still, there was no description of the film’s aesthetic beyond a floor-plan, no posters, no production stills, and no stills from the film itself. In regard to rare films, descriptions of plot, aesthetic and aural choices, and other details that can illustrate the themes at work in a given film are vital – such information may be the only way to understand a film until it can be seen again. With that said, what exactly is La concentration?
La concentration is a daring film about a man (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and a woman (Zouzou) who are in a chamber without explanation (not that one is needed) and their confinement allows for a discourse on identity, thought, and desire. The futility of their actions in this chamber is accentuated by an oppressive melancholy that could perhaps be condensed to the image of a heroin needle taped to a wall in the form of a crucifix, but this film has many images and themes with a comparable degree of palpable despair. “What Garrel expresses in cinema is the problem of the three bodies: the man, the woman, and the child” (Deleuze 199), writes Deleuze. What could be more identifiably sad than that? In many ways, the film feels like an analysis of a relationship on the rocks, or love in general – plenty of thoughts of what could’ve been, but few legitimate sources of hope.
Evoking the soundscapes and imagery of science fiction films, the first thing we see is a dark room where forms cannot quite be made out, but we know there are two people in a bed. Their rhythmic breathing while sleeping has a reverb effect that amplifies the sound whilst distorting it. Once the bare overhead bulb is turned on, we see that our nameless protagonists are actually in a crib of sorts wearing matching outfits: white tank tops tucked into poofy white briefs (akin to diapers) with white socks on their feet. Wires are taped to their thighs that maneuver their way up to a necklace with an electronic device connected to it. As La concentration progresses, it soon becomes clear that the wires and the “necklaces” are in fact the actors’ lavalier mics for the actual film, but they’re also a device that the characters use and interact with as they are aware that it will make them heard. Utilizing the microphones becomes a way for them to visually communicate with their interior selves in lieu of voice-over (which would remove the potency of the visual sound apparatus).
One of the first actions in the film involves Léaud and Zouzou getting out of their crib (which will never be seen again) and making their way up to an actual bed where Léaud conveniently finds scissors. Ropes bind Léaud and Zouzou together by their waists, but Léaud severs this physical connection immediately. Now they are together spatially, but are no longer linked as one – the primary symbolic disconnect that this film can be read through. He then proceeds to take the rope and ties a noose out of it, which he hangs from the ceiling over the foot of the bed before gazing into the camera while saying, “This could be useful.”
Beyond breaking the fourth wall by addressing the implied audience (which is its own issue for this rare film) and openly wearing their microphones, which are just two of several Brechtian touches in La concentration, the camera’s dolly tracks are not only revealed on camera but become another device that the characters interact with. On screen and – more specifically – an integral part of the mise-en-scène, the dolly tracks are particularly eerie. Prior to the first sighting of the dolly tracks, the dolly’s movements were already a part of the texture of this film, as they are quite pronounced. La concentration is set in one location with three different areas for potential action. The left of the set (“stage right”, if we want to think of it in a theatrical manner) has white tile going up the wall and a bronze faucet for water – this is also where the crib was in the opening scene. Never leaving the “U” shaped dolly tracks, the camera can go from the shower-like area (“stage right”) around the bed where most of the film’s action occurs (center stage) to an area that Léaud ominously refers to as a “crematorium” (“stage left”).
Gradually, La concentration begins to evoke the Holocaust aesthetically in ways that may not be intentional (though who can forget the “I am Jewish” scene in Garrel’s 2008 film Frontier of The Dawn?). The “elimination” of an imaginary baby followed by the water from the faucet in the shower-like area turning into blood – which is meant to be understood as the baby’s blood – is pretty horrific in this film that is largely composed of neutral colors. Throw the rails of the dolly tracks into the equation, as they’re constantly on a path to or from the “crematorium,” and suddenly a pretty provocative reading of the film is attainable (the titular “concentration” being another word to consider). Still, nothing in this film is in bad taste (to be clear), and it becomes just another layer to consider within La concentration.
In addition to the possible Holocaust subtext, the setting is a place in which anything can happen, and that includes the death of imaginary babies and the repeated “deaths” and “ascensions” of Léaud. Further, the established potential for surprises works quite well with Léaud’s strengths as an actor. Pantomiming being “stuck” by a wall, delivering a monologue while blindfolded, or catching imaginary flies and wiping their guts on the edge of the wall beside him are things that he not only does with predictable passion and enthusiasm, but he does well. In a way, that’s the logic of the film – a purgatory for bad memories and actions that lack consequence. Like the infinity symbol that Léaud draws on the chalkboard, there’s a feeling that this film has no beginning, no end, and no in-between – the rules are invented along the way and can continue.
There are three key shots in La concentration that are supported by the idea of “montage” as a tool of construction that Narboni and his colleagues were contemplating in 1969. The first is a close-up of Zouzou’s white briefs; however, it’s not until the camera has fully zoomed out that we’re certain whose crotch the camera is coming out from. There may be no actual babies in the film, but the camera (perhaps even the audience) may have created one. This occurs after Zouzou requests that she and Léaud have a baby, and yet there is no sex in the film… or even tenderness. “He did things to my body and felt embarrassed by it,” says Zouzou as she recollects what may have been their past. There’s resentment and frustration where there could be hope and joy.
The second significant close-up is one of the most beautiful and surreal images in the film. Jutting out from between two iron bars, Léaud’s left arm has a tube running down to his wrist with blood pouring out from it. In his right hand, a strip of film approaches his left wrist like a razor blade, just barely missing the stream of vermillion. Leaning forward while sitting on the coal and ash on the floor of the crematorium, drops of blood lightly splash onto Zouzou from above.
The last of these significant shots has Léaud and Zouzou’s bodies posed as though they were one mass, but once the camera zooms out, Zouzou lashes out at Léaud and begins hitting him and even tears his microphone off from around his neck. All three of these images are formally approached in the same manner, as they begin in extreme close-up and zoom out to reveal the whole. They’re also each the beginning of a new idea, so they force the audience to resituate themselves within the film.
Near the end, Zouzou dies as a result of Léaud dismissing her affection, so Léaud places her on a white sheet that is draped over a dolly on the tracks in the blood soaked shower (as in the variety of Lamentation Over The Dead Christ paintings). “I want to play,” says Léaud, hoping that she’ll wake up from death… he wants her now that he can’t have her. Upon getting no response, he forcefully shoves the dolly away from him and she passes out of the frame triggering the sound of a violent explosion as she presumably enters the crematorium.
Without Zouzou, Léaud’s character loses the will to live, and he dies on his back with an arm hanging over the edge of the bed with the blood stained shower below. Suddenly, a violent gust of wind blows in with thick plumes of smoke from off camera, filling the frame at high speeds (not unlike the conclusion of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001)). Léaud’s long hair blows in the wind until he’s almost no longer visible, and then the film abruptly ends as the smoke continues to pour in.
One of the difficulties with La concentration, or any film just as rare, is that it’s being seen with a mindset that is antiquated amongst cinephiles in the twenty-first century. During the pre-video/home media moment in the twentieth century (the pre-streaming world), filmgoers who sought out rare films knew that they might not get another chance to see a film, so they went to the theater and saw it and did their best to soak it up and retain the film’s essence – it could be one’s only chance to ever see a given film! For Cahiers du cinéma in 1995, Luc Moullet wrote that “inaccessibility creates a sense of urgency, forces you to see films the moment they are shown.” Even with that urgency to see a film, one screening of La concentration isn’t enough to give it the attention it deserves, as it is a complex work and one that is displaced from film history.
As spectators in 2017, we naturally place our associations with films that we’ve seen Léaud star in since La concentration‘s production, or the films of his that have been most widely available since, and the same can be said of Garrel’s own films (or any film at all). This film’s absence from film history isn’t palpable, and yet it’s an extraordinary film text. La concentration feels like a product of its time (because it is), but is the film currently residing back in “1968” now that no one can see it? There are no VHS tapes or random video transfers online, and there are hardly any stills from the film available to gauge what the film actually looks like.
Philippe Garrel is an interesting case study for cinephilia, and he backs up Marc Vernet’s assertion that “cinephilia came about in the context of scarcity.” Regardless of Garrel’s still growing reputation as one of the great living filmmakers, many of his films from the first three decades of his career remain out of print and largely inaccessible for viewing. The surfacing of one of his early films online (on YouTube, temporarily streaming on Mubi, or elsewhere) becomes an event of sorts for his ardent supporters. The twenty-first century has been quite kind to Garrel, and perhaps it is the nature of the twenty-first century that has contributed to a heightened interest in his films. Being able to not only stream his new films, but the ability to discuss them online has increased his presence in the dialogue about the value of contemporary cinema in a time when film is challenged by so many other forms of “content” online.
What can a film like La concentration provide cinephiles in the present that they cannot get elsewhere? The experience of obscurity. There was no option to stream the film, and it could not be found anywhere else – it demanded to be seen in the theater because that was the only option. Seeing The Searchers (1956) in a theater is a different experience, and would’ve probably attracted a larger crowd than a rare film by Garrel, but that is the difference at its most basic level. Does one thirst for that which cannot be seen? For now, La concentration cannot be seen, which is in direct opposition to the “streaming culture” that expects availability as a given. In a way, La concentration does not inhabit the present of cinephilia, and like the wind and smoke at the conclusion of the film that renders clarity of vision an impossibility, the film’s details will soon be forgotten by those who saw it and will need to be rediscovered by a new audience the next time it is screened – God forbid, in another forty-nine years.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1989. 199.
Keathley, Christian. Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2006. 20.
Narboni, Jean, Jacques Rivette, and Sylvie Pierre. “Montage.” 1969. Cahiers du Cinéma 1969-1972: The Politics of Representation. Ed. Nick Browne. Vol. 3. London: Routledge, 1990. 21-44.
Rivette, Jacques, Jean Narboni, Jacques Aumont, Jean-Louis Comolli, and Sylvie Pierre. “Le Temps Déborde: Entretien Avec Jacques Rivette.” 1968. Cahiers Du Cinéma 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood. Ed. Jim Hillier. Cambridge, Massachusetts: First Harvard UP, 1992. 317-23.