Caution, this post deals in explicit spoilers.
French filmmaker Phillipe Garrel has every right to replay the feelings and emotional complications he surely experienced during France in the 1960's. His well documented affairs with high profile beauties (namely singer and avant garde artist Nico) have been the foundation for several films now, including his latest "Frontier of Dawn". Starring his son, Louis Garrel, the film is a mood piece that languishes in black and white cinematography and dreamy pieces of mind as Louis first falls in love with an actress named Carole (Laura Smet) then another woman (Clementine Poidatz) when that relationship dissolves under jealousy and a stint in an insane asylum for the volatile Carole. Like most 'amour fou' tales, "Frontier of Dawn" deals in sudden shifts of emotion with little back story. There are hints of Carole's troubled past as possible ex-lovers show up on her doorstep at 1am in the morning, or in the way she openly flirts with another man at a dinner party in front of Louis, but the progression from sour love to electro shock therapy seem few and rushed. In most of Garrel's work, he's clearly battling with the bitter loss of loved ones (see his 1991 film "I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar" which is a ponderous exploration of relationships), and for the most part of "Frontier of Dawn", Louis Garrel gets to swagger around beautiful women and photograph them as if he's in a Calvin Klein commercial, which is supposed to quantify a tortured existence I suppose.
In essence, it's your usual French love story! But after Carole is released from her stay in a mental hospital, she goes off the deep end, drinks a fifth of vodka and overdoses on pills. Louis moves on with his life, this time with Eve, a dramatically different type of girl than Carole. Brunette, unworldly and motherly, she soon announces she's carrying his baby, in which the spoiled Louis bracingly states that "I can't have a child". Eve breaks into a fit of crying, in which Louis embraces her and apologizes, wherein they move to her country estate house and meet the family. If one looks like Louis Garrel, I guess he can verbally gut punch a woman and get away with it.
If my subtle contempt for "Frontier of Dawn" is shining through, then point taken. With the exception of "Regular Lovers", I've never been that much a fan of Garrel's insipid personal love tales. But in "Frontier of Dawn", it's only after the death of Carole and the seemingly comfortable family harmony that Louis settles into that the film morphs into something interesting. While getting up in the middle of the night, Louis finds himself speaking to the image of Carole in a bathroom mirror. She tells him she still loves him. He listens. It's here, in the final five or six minutes, that Garrel reaches at something striking. Is this simply guilt on Louis' part for abandoning Carole when she needed him the most? Or has Garrel pushed himself past the facile gestures of young love and tapped into something primordial?
Like the best of Kiyoshi Kurosawa or Jacques Tournier, "Frontier of Dawn" transforms into a horror story where atmosphere and static camera shots infuse a sense of dread into everything. For the first time, Garrel is punishing his playboy leading man- and ultimately himself- for leading a whimsical, care free existence. Louis just listens to the reflection of Carole, leaning on the sink, all the weight giving out of his body. It's a brave move, made all the more horrifying by what comes next. The image of Carole talks him into joining her, wherein Louis (off screen) jumps out the window. Cut back to the mirror where this image slowly blurs into view:
Make what you will of it, but this ending completely shifted my perception of the entire film. Meta-cinematic to the nines, I have to quietly applaud Garrel for peeling away the brutish exteriors of his psyche and going here, essentially formalizing and visualizing guilt in such a tactile way. We all have moments in our lives that are embarrassing or shameful... moments we wish we could take back... relationships we wished had ended in different ways... or people we hurt. "Frontier of Dawn" confronts these moments in their good times and their bad, and its an apt title for a film that steps up to a precipice and dares to look into the past with unflinching honesty.