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Like Jean-Luc Godard's films and videos since the 1980s, Garrel's cinema has more in common with painting and poetry than with photography and prose. The films linger on faces and exteriors so as to contemplate qualities that can't be absorbed by narrative. Consider one of the central scenes of Burning Hot Summer, a single-take medium shot of Monica Bellucci dancing at a party. Yes, the scene illustrates how Bellucci's character wants to appear like a flirt in front of her husband (Louis Garrel, the director's son and frequent leading man), with whom she's been fighting. But on a more immediate level, it's a portrait of Bellucci—how she moves to this particular song, how she responds to each of her dancing partners, how alternating feelings of sexual frustration and abandon register on her face. As Daniel Kasman recently noted at Mubi.com, the scene recalls a similar sequence from Garrel's Regular Lovers (2005); yet the similarities are less important than the specificity of Bellucci's presence and the emotional context in which she's working.
Emergency Kisses is as good an introduction as any to Garrel's parallel universe. It stars the director, his father (the veteran actor Maurice Garrel), his then wife (Brigitte Sy, who's become a noted director in her own right), and his son, all playing versions of themselves. It depicts the Garrel character's efforts to cast a movie based on his own life. He wants to cast an actress to play his wife in the movie; she sees this as a sign of distrust. Their marriage begins to suffer a gradual, exhausting breakdown (it would dissolve in real life only a few years later), enjoying moments of romantic passion before sliding again into doubt. On the page, this sounds like pure navel-gazing; on the screen, the conflict feels universal. Garrel's meticulously shadowed compositions, given added weight by his direct sound recording, register as studies of the fluctuating emotional states experienced under romantic crisis—or, as the critic Maximilian Le Cain titled an essay on Garrel for the website Senses of Cinema, as voyeurism of the soul. Most of the director's work can be reduced to such a description, and that's fine by me.