French experimental film maker Philippe Garrel’s 1972 allegorical mindfuck La cicatrice intérieure (The Inner Scar) lays on the symbolism with a trowel as it winds its way through the deserts of our mind (or somebody’s) in pursuit of Garrel’s lover Nico, actor Pierre Clementi and some elusive deeper meaning. It’s a gorgeous looking folly that, despite its abundant tracking shots, is so inert it makes L’Avventura look like The Fast And The Furious.
Filmed in North Africa, Iceland, and Death Valley, La cicatrice intérieure has its moments of haunting beauty that suggest a better movie, or at least a more emotionally engaging one. The soundtrack features five songs by Nico and they contribute to the film’s other-worldly weirdness and existential despair.
Garell seems to want to echo the feel of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mystical western El Topo. Unfortunately, Garrel doesn’t have Jodorowsky’s nerve or wisdom.
Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico and French avant-garde film director Philippe Garrel had a ten-year romantic relationship between 1969 and 1979. Garrel, acclaimed in his youth as being a sort of cinematic Rimbaud, was much admired by Jean-Luc Godard, but is almost completely unknown in the English speaking world. Nico appeared in seven of his films and sometimes gave him music for them that has not been heard elsewhere. Stills from his films appeared on the covers of her Desertshore and The End albums, which show how interested she was in promoting his work. Garrel made his own clothes at the time and began dressing Nico, encouraging her to dye her hair crimson and cut her bangs.
During their relationship, the pair became hardcore heroin addicts resorting to petty thievery from friends and acquaintances to support their habits. According to Richard Witts’ biography, Nico: The Life & Lies of an Icon, their Paris apartment was a “garret” that lacked gas, electricity, hot water, furniture and housed a gargantuan mountain of cigarette butts. The entire apartment was covered in two coats of glossy black enamel paint. Their bed, apparently, was Garrel’s overcoat.
To call Philippe Garrel’s films “tedious” and “self-indulgent” is a bit of an understatement. They’re preposterously tedious and self-indulgent—I believe the Monty Python “French Subtitled Film” sketch was directly inspired by Garrel’s work—but no more so than Matthew Barney’s movies, if you ask me. About half of her Desertshore album (and one otherwise unreleased song, the mind-blowing “König” see below) is used as the film’s soundtrack. (This again seems worth comparing to Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9, a collaboration with his wife, Bjork, herself a big Nico fan.)
To some, Garrel, who is still making films today, is an under-rated, visionary genius, whose work must be seen in the cinema to be fully appreciated. To them he is revered as some cinemaphiles worship John Cassavetes. To others, his films (the ones made during his relationship with Nico at least) look like what two junkies with a camera might get up to…
Phillipe’s Garrel’s early films are very difficult to see and he refuses to release them on DVD. I’ve only ever seen one of them, La Cicatrice Intérieure (“The Inner Scar”) which I found a bootleg of at Exene Cervenka’s general store in Silverlake maybe fifteen years ago. It’s a bit hard to watch. The dialogue, mostly made up right before they’d shoot it by Nico, consists of existential bitching, basically, as the pair walk around in barren, yet gorgeous landscapes shot in Sinai, Death Valley and Iceland. Garrel uses LONG static and simple linear tracking shots with minimal editing during scenes. Visually, the film is quite stunning—again think Matthew Barney—but the director forbade subtitles so unless you speak French, German and English, you’re bound to be confused. (A bootleg DVD popped up in 2005 with Japanese subtitles).
Nico does most of the speaking in La Cicatrice Intérieure, moaning throughout the film in her humorless, stentorian voice, at times coming off like some sort of prophetess of doom. As the Time Out reviewer said of the film when it was released in 1972: “You need a bloody big spliff to enjoy this. A miserable couple who you would not wish to meet at a party [Garrel, Nico] are joined by a naked weirdo [Pierre Clémenti, best-known for his role as gangster lover of Catherine Deneuve’s prostitute in Buñuel’s Belle de jour] with a bow and arrow and a desire to set everything on fire. That’s about it, frankly, unless I fell asleep, which is likely.”
Nico described the film like so:
“[It’s] an important film, a great film. It concerns the fragility of life. The film treats the story of a lunatic who starts to kill all of his sheep. It is not clear if he is a shepherd or a prince. He has no identity until I show up [of course!]. I am a queen on a journey. A queen finds a kingdom wherever she goes. There are more songs than dialogue in the film which I think is a good idea [of course!].
In the case of La Cicatrice Intérieure, she’s probably right about that, although the film does have its perplexing, often gorgeous, merits. But don’t take my word for it, La Cicatrice Intérieure is now in the public domain and a kind soul has uploaded it as a gift for Nico fans to download and watch. Yet another absolutely M.I.A. film that you can see without getting up from your seat. La Cicatrice Intérieure was once the litmus test case for obscure, nearly impossible to see movies, but obscure no more, eh?
Below, Nico and Garrel walk across a barren landscape as she yells weird stuff at him in La Cicatrice Intérieure:
“My Only Child” and “All That Is My Own” are heard in the following two sequence. The child is Nico’s son, Ari Boulogne.
Nico has some sort of freak-out while Garrel herds some animals. Then we hear “Abschied.”
In the closing moments of Garrel’s La Cicatrice Intérieure we hear “König,” an amazing song Nico recorded during the sessions for Desertshore with John Cale. This version of “König” can only be heard in the film, although Nico re-recorded the number for her 1985 Camera Obscura album.
Bonus clip: Nico and Philippe Garrel met when she contributed this gorgeous (and heard only in the film) version of “The Falconer” to his 1969 film Le Lit de la vierge, which starred Pierre Clémenti as Jesus: