Filmed in 1979 but not screened until 1982 (according to Ben Sachs, because its director could not afford to have the footage processed by a lab), Philippe Garrel’s L’Enfant secret is what critics call “a transitional work,” acting as a bridge between the experimental underground films preceding it and the relatively mainstream narrative features that would follow. The film starts out in the mythopoetic mode of Garrel’s Le Révélateur (1968) and La Cicatrice intérieure (1972) with a mostly silent sequence of painterly tableau shots of a hippy couple in ragged clothing occupying an old farmhouse that resolutely refuses to cohere into a story. In one shot, the camera pans back and forth between the woman lying in bed, apparently nude under the sheets and with a frustrated expression on her face, and the man sitting next to her and looking equally sullen. Assuming we’re meant to take them as a countercultural Adam and Eve, it would appear that in Garrel’s version of Genesis the original sin is impotence. In any case, this couple is abruptly dropped from the film soon after and replaced with an even more flawed bohemian couple, Jean-Baptiste (Henri de Maublanc) and Elie (the late Anne Wiazemsky, in possibly her greatest performance), at which point the film develops — insofar as it can be said to develop at all — into a choppy, episodic, and finally inconclusive chronicle of the lives of two people who, from the start, seem incapable of being happy with one another, or anyone else for that matter.
Jean-Baptiste is especially unlikeable, drifting through the film like a chunk of inexpressive deadwood over a placid river. (Like Wiazemsky, de Maublanc got his start as one of Robert Bresson’s models but was not able to make the leap to professional acting, appearing in only one more film after this one.) Early in the film, he overdoses on LSD and winds up in a hospital psych ward in a catatonic state, although only the most astute observer could detect any change in his personality. (In a scene reminiscent of Roy Andersson’s films, the doctors attach electrodes to his temples and then stand around as if waiting for something to happen.) Shortly before entering the hospital, Jean-Baptiste approaches a streetwalker (Elli Medeiros), who tells him she has a young daughter. In response, he solemnly declares, “I won’t have children. I prefer revolution,” to which the streetwalker tactfully says nothing. Like many Garrel heroes, Jean-Baptiste is in revolt against the nuclear family yet he does not seem to have a clear idea of what should replace it. Similarly, Elie seems to oppose on principle any sort of stable relationship. Several years earlier, she had a son with an actor who refused to acknowledge the child and who now lives with the actor’s mother because Elie moves around too much to look after him herself. In one scene, she and Jean-Baptiste are having an argument in a park when it starts to rain, but rather than running for shelter, they remain sitting on a bench, as if avoiding pneumonia were hopelessly bourgeois. Ironically, this is one of the few scenes in the film in which Elie is not wearing a raincoat. In the end, for no apparent reason, she becomes a heroin addict.
In what may be the least convincing self-portrait of a director yet committed to film, Jean-Baptiste is making an autobiographical movie about his relationship with Elie and her son, Swann (Xuan Lindenmeyer), called, coincidentally, L’Enfant secret. Anyone who knows anything about the filmmaking process knows that it is exhausting, time-consuming work involving considerable organization, yet for the characters in this film, it appears to be a sort of hobby, like knitting, that can be picked up and put aside at any moment while they get on with the important business of sitting in cafés and talking about their relationship. The real purpose of the film within a film is to facilitate an overt, self-conscious narration in which the reality of a given event is frequently ambiguous. At one point, Garrel shows us the three leads walking together on a bridge during a day out and then replays the same shot as a flickering image projected on a wall, revealing that it is part of Jean-Baptiste’s film, while in another scene, Jean-Baptiste films Elie while being filmed himself by a second camera. Garrel also flaunts technical imperfections (overexposed frames, jarring axial cuts) so that it sometimes feels like we’re looking at dailies rather than a finished film. Occasionally, a tinkly piano theme drowns out the dialogue or the audio cuts out completely, foregrounding Garrel’s manipulation of the soundtrack, and throughout the film, titles flash on the screen — “The Caesarian Section,” “The Last Warrior,” “The Ophidian Circle,” “The Disenchanted Forest” — that are startling for their irrelevance. This is not to say, however, that the film lacks technique. Indeed, Garrel’s staging of the final sequence is masterful in its activation of offscreen space. Garrel films the characters through a café window in an over-the-shoulder composition that seems to align us with Jean-Baptiste’s point of view. But when Elie steps outside for a minute, we see her reflected in the glass buying some smack from a dealer across the street while Jean-Baptiste, who has his back to the window, continues sipping his coffee obliviously. L’Enfant secret is a beautifully crafted film about two profoundly uninteresting characters.