Dec 2, 2012

La cicatrice intérieure

Contrary to popular belief, it was not so much the supremely popular yet wholly untalented hack Andy Warhol but rather fellow hack director, the largely unknown outside of France, Philippe Garrel, who journeyed with the statuesque Nordic beauty and 60s icon, Nico (aka Christa Päffgen) on her downward spiral—a path which would inevitably lead to her tragic descent into self-imposed uglification and heroin abuse, as well as her appearance in several of Garrel’s mediocre, if not altogether uninteresting films. The father of French mainstream actor, Louis Garrel of The Dreamers (2003) fame, and director of such undistinguished, avant-garde but cherished Francophile classics as Le berceau de cristal (1976) and Liberté, la nuit (1983), Philippe Garrel has become something of a cult figure in his native France, which comes as no surprise seeing that his distinctly French films—copiously characterized by plot-less, nonsensical, black and white vignettes featuring up-close shots of not just Nico but Jean Seberg and various other malnourished muses’ faces as they pretend to be suicidal with their taut, nude bodies starkly sprawled over barren floors, along with sappy, unlikely sob stories of romantic love gone awry—could only appeal to that haughty collective of pretentious, posh and prissy poofers who also apotheosize perverse visionaries like faux-French Jew musician-turned-director Serge Gainsbourg (who quite sordidly cast his own daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg in the lead role of the incestuous, pretentious and pointless Charlotte for Ever (1986), in which the budding pubescent girl traipses about the house half-nude while her father looks on wantonly, seemingly salivating at the sight of his daughter’s burgeoning bosom). Indeed, while Garrel, like his equally pompous and pretentious poofer countryman Gainsbourg, is much acclaimed in the Gallophile world, it was not until his collaboration with the flaxen-turned-scarlet-turned raven haired Nico in the lead role of The Inner Scar aka La cicatrice intérieure (1972) that he had his first stab at international fame as a seemingly bona-fide (yet ultimately rather artistically vacuous) surrealist visionary auteur, while also successfully documenting the early beginnings of the beautiful Aryanness’ coup de grace.

 A far cry from her youthful, sumptuously attired supermodel self as seen in her debut film, Fellini’s undoubtedly most famous picture, La Dolce Vita (1960), in which she only played a minor but memorable role (if not for her Aryan good looks alone) and in great contrast to the starry-eyed, flaxen-haired bohemian chanteuse universally known from her days with Lou Reed in the Velvet Underground—of which, Paul Morrissey once noted, “the group needed something beautiful (Nico) to counteract the kind of screeching ugliness they were trying to sell, and the combination of a really beautiful girl standing in front of all this decadence was what we needed”—Nico brazenly shuns all that is beautiful in then boyfriend, Philippe Garrel’s The Inner Scar starring as a rather dowdy giantess donning a drabby frock, innately unfitting dyed dark crimson hair and a presence so unpleasantly child-like and perpetually grating that it continuously impinges upon the audience in a most discomfiting and unsettling way (a dream role for Nico, as director Paul Morrissey once remarked after getting to know her better, “She liked being perceived as ugly”). Shot on location in various exotic locales, including a noisy, actively spewing volcano in Iceland, a desolate wasteland in Death Valley and near the craggy foot of Mt. Sinai in Egypt, the film begins with Nico curled into a fetal position on a rock, rhythmically rocking herself back and forth as if to sooth against some unseen, supernatural violence being perpetuated against her (perhaps the mysterious “inner scar” that the film’s title alludes to?!) Philippe Garrel (apparently rather unfittingly playing the devil, as Nico goes on to refer to him) appears from out of nowhere, a decidedly unattractive, scrawny man who takes on the likeness of a strangely dull and unfestive nutcracker—having a very stiff, almost robotic gait, sporting an unkempt unfurled mane of hair resembling that of a care-free drug addict coming down from one too many acid trips, and wearing perhaps the most ill-fitting pair of pants I have ever seen on a man (indeed, those brown leather trousers hugged his scrotum so tightly as to render him a eunuch). The next ten minutes or so entail Nico ceaselessly harassing this odd, mentally and nearly physically nullified male, and idling around the barren landscapes with him, alternating between dramatically falling to the ground in a fit of rage or yelling at him intermittently, at times seeming like an insufferable toddler in the grips of a temper tantrum, or like a petulant adolescent girl grappling with a pathological case of psychosis-stimulating premenstrual syndrome (“You’re the devil! I hate you!”). Garrel, in rather less than devilish fashion, acquiesces quite sullenly to this barrage of puerile verbal abuse, only looking down at the ground, and continuing to walk, seemingly meandering as if on a path to nothingness—in essence, representative of the direction of the film as a whole. 

 In the next scene, a somewhat more passive Nico delivers a somber soliloquy, entirely in German, in a dark, otherworldly underground cavern, with spires of stalagmites and stalactites stabbing at the air around her, inexplicably ending with the screen panning to the right to reveal the visage of a young, dark-skinned boy, seemingly of some Amazonian (or other nebulous third-world derived extraction) hidden among some rocks, staring penetratingly in Nico’s direction, fixed in time in what seems to be a catatonic state (this is one of many affronts to the senses and to logic, in that here, and for the remainder of the film, he continually casts characters who seem racially alien to their surroundings save for the decidedly Aryan Nico, of course). What immediately follows is perhaps one of the most memorable, surreal scenes of this all at once seemingly nonsensical, frustrating yet captivating film: Nico, atop a white horse, being led on a leash through the desert by her very own son, Ari Boulogne (then 8-years-old, the product of Nico’s affair with France’s very own James Bond, Alain Delon, who adamantly denied the child as his own) navigating around rings of flames (a most memorable scene indeed, as it is has been heavily utilized as a clip for use in pretentious, amateur home-made Youtube music videos). One of the rare highlights of this film—aside from the overall National Geographic feel driving its entire mise-en-scène—this particularly surreal flaming desert presentation is accented by music from Nico’s very own and perhaps most famous, avant-garde solo album, Desertshore (1970), in which the scene is paired with “All That is My Own,” which, much like the other songs on the album (also appearing at varying points in the film) sounds a bit like a medieval funeral dirge with subtle tinges of psychedelic, kraut-rock influence, which could be most aptly compared to fellow German act Popol Vuh -- whose dreamy, melodic psychedelia fueled sound provided ambiance in several of Werner Herzog’s films, most notably Nosferatu the Vampyre aka Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) and Aguirre: The Wrath of God aka Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972). 

 The next scene cuts to a prissy (but again, dowdily dressed) Nico, seemingly having another premenstrual bitch fit, on some rocks in what appears to be the craggy desert environment of Mt. Sinai. Nico looking every bit like some world-weary, wizened pagan prophetess waxing philosophical, loudly screeches, “There is no mercy! There is no justice! The seas shall rise over your heads and drown you all!” after which, a somewhat more Mediterranean in appearance Philippe Garrel look-a-like, played by Daniel Pommereulle, wearing equally ill-fitting, sterility-inducing leather pants, makes his way toward Nico by way of a jagged, winding path, guiding an overflowing procession of goats and sheep with each step. In the background, a man on a white horse is seen, inexplicably waving a white flag, as if to signify that he is surrendering, but to what is never made known. 

 The remainder of the film, appearing to have been shot entirely on location in the naturally paradoxical fairy land of temperamental, ever combating fire and frost, Iceland, is perhaps the most revealing in terms of delivering any semblance of a plot to this otherwise, “art for art’s sake” direction-less film. Starting off in its typically aimless manner, this segment introduces a series of vignettes featuring a rather limp-wristed, decidedly un-Icelandic, pathetic waif of a man played by Pierre Clementi, an archer—and a dead ringer for that thoroughly haughty and annoying British attention-seeking actor, Russell Brand, only about 50 pounds lighter—who traverses the dreary island via boat and horseback, most often appearing fully nude with his wang rendered so flaccid by the frigid temperature that its barely able to wave in the wind. This dark-haired, scrawny and seemingly impotent character—which appears to be an archetype of sorts, perhaps representing man’s immortal, unshakeable impetus toward self-discovery and fulfillment in spite of his futility and weakness (or perhaps I’m giving Garrel too much credit here), who obviously possesses no Scandinavian genetic make-up whatsoever—is a tremendous mismatch against the traditionally Nordic background of Iceland, as seen in this film with its frothy, frigid waters, unnaturally vibrantly blue glaciers, and fire-spewing volcanoes, all of which, at least in the schema of my mind, evoke images of flaxen-haired, muscle-bound Viking berserkers arriving as the island’s first inhabits with kidnapped crimson-haired, freckled Celtic maidens in tow. The archer (who would be a much more appropriate fit as a loin-cloth wearing or nude, dick-dangling Indian—interchangeably of dot or feather derivation—in some remote jungle of South America or the Indian subcontinent) has a series of strange interactions with the fitting indigene, Nordic Nico, who appears in one scene at the foot of a waterfall, where she brashly and peculiarly proclaims to him, “We can never be here until we’re gone.” In the subsequent, typically disjointed scene, the archer is seen standing, with his weakly muscled, bare-assed and pathetic physique shown in the foreground, against the mighty and entrancing background scenery of the booming bellowing of a vociferous volcano which, actively spewing flaming emissions, conveniently plants a flaming drop of fire at his feet, which he somehow picks up and carries with him through the darkness. And in yet another discordant cut, the proximate scene depicts a dark-haired toddler (Clementi’s son) intermittently grinning and then wincing for about five minutes while drifting afloat on a small glacier, in a bed of feathers (indeed, it is terribly difficult to make any sense of these scenes, if there was ever any intention for any kind of sense to be made of them). Toward the end of this particular segment, an unusual link between scenes is made with the archer appearing adjacent to the child, screaming in French, and then running over to Nico, who appears initially to be in an almost catatonic state, bedecked with flowers surrounding her on the ash-covered earth. She caresses the archer’s face, while uttering in an uncharacteristically softer, more passive manner, “He gave me my senses, he gave me my pride…I beg you to stay. I will give you a name, a name you can remember me by”; after which, she stands up and walks out and sluggishly walks into the distance, never giving him a name. 

 In the final act, and perhaps the only segment that seems to make any sense, the archer, riding a dark horse, again comes upon a spaced-out Nico, still donning her drabby pre-Christian Mesopotamian era vestment and overall look, who is gazing across the barren, ashen Icelandic wilderness, while a volcano sputters in the background. They walk together somberly and silently to the seashore, where he boards a boat and sets adrift; she subsequently begins screaming seemingly caustic remarks at him in German, like a mentally deranged adolescent girl in desperate need of a double dose of depakote. The next cut reveals Nico, once again, delivering a frustrated German soliloquy, and holding a rock in one hand; she comes upon the burnt out husk of the boat from which the archer had set adrift just minutes prior. Seemingly fearful that the archer is dead, Nico drops the rock, and is presumably frozen in a state of shock; however, her fears are assuaged in the next scene when the archer makes his final appearance. Another song from Desertshore begins at this juncture, titled “König” which helps the ending to make a little more sense. Nico, perched atop some volcanic rocks, stares felicitously over the frozen, ashen earth below her, as the archer, holding a sword, with his legs spread out so that his frozen, shrunken member is still on full display, slowly and ceremoniously raises the sword above his head, to which Nico triumphantly grabs it, signifying that she has become the king, the ultimate ruler of the cold, dreary domain, and perhaps, hopefully that she has come to have some control over her fiery, frenetic feelings. It is this final image of the film that is perhaps one of its most beautiful and entrancing, and perfectly befitting an archetype or Tarot card illustration: a Nordic ice goddess, finally exercising complete control over her frosty, yet fiery chaotic dominion, both that which exists outside and within herself. 

 Admittedly, even at only an hour in length, The Inner Scar initially made for a very difficult film to sit through in its entirety. On the surface, like many of Garrel’s films, it is an idiosyncratic, nonsensical piece and one can only arrive at the conclusion that it only makes sense to its creators, decidedly poofy French director, Philippe Garrel and the self-loathing, lover of all things weird, Nordic beauty Nico, who at ten years his senior, was involved in a lengthy and tumultuous personal and professional relationship with Garrel, a point at which she became heavily and inescapably addicted to heroin (seemingly almost counterintuitively, as Warhol’s Factory was well-known for its raucous excess in terms of ‘sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll’, it was not until she met Garrel later on Nico that she really became hooked on heroin, and began a slow and steady decline in terms of deterioration of her health, overall looks, and artistic output). However, upon a subsequent viewing, and having read a great deal about Nico and her brief, tragic life (which was sadly cut short in the most pathetic way imaginable, after she had attempted to wean herself off of heroin, and suffered a minor heart attack while riding a bicycle in Ibiza with her son), the film’s odd, incoherent non-message is somewhat more decipherable: as the daughter of a German soldier who died in a concentration camp after sustaining serious brain injuries during World War II, and after having allegedly been raped by an American GI at just 15 years of age, Nico, although incredibly beautiful, was clearly afflicted by serious mental trauma during the more formative years of her life, leading her to having a proclivity for hooking up with a variety of unsavory and unsuitable male characters: Lou Reed, lead singer of the Velvet Underground who, according to Paul Morrissey, dissolved the band out of jealousy toward the eccentric German songstress, French playboy Alain Delon, who fathered a son with the erratic and unstable Nico, and who subsequently rejected the child (and whose parents eventually took the boy in so that he would not be given up to child protective services), and Philippe Garrel, who utilized her distinctive beauty and idiosyncratic nature as a focal point of one of the many chapters of the nonsensical celluloid diaries he crafted about the many women he miraculously bedded. It is clear that Nico was a terribly tortured soul, a woman—who in spite of her immense beauty and the promise of fortune, fame, and happiness that could spring out of it—could not let go of the tragic, traumatic experiences that pervaded her life, and that reinforced the unquenchable thirst to pursue ugliness and weirdness at all costs, a seemingly nonsensical process of self-deprecation that is beautifully and surreally illustrated in Philippe Garrel’s The Inner Scar, a title which very likely alludes to kind of indelible inner anguish propagated by the enemy within. 

-Magda von Richthofen zu Reventlow auf Thule

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