Le Vent de la Nuit bears little resemblance to the first film in our series, Les Amants Réguliers, made only six years later. The latter, with its rich, fathomless depths of black-and-white photography and insular, period setting stands in stark relief to the former’s auburn-tinged, deep-focus, wide-angle lensing of modern-day Paris, Naples and Berlin. Even so, Le Vent is unmistakably a film by Philippe Garrel, with its deliberate pacing, recurring themes of bitter regret, lost love and longing across generations and relentless focus on the emotional landscape of its three central characters, all which immediately connect it to his other work. There’s a memory-suffused beauty and extraordinary purity to the film, a careful attunement to the passage of time and an underlying pressure that swells beneath the glossy surface of its cross-country sprawl: a road movie and travelogue buttressed by John Cale and his wonderfully attuned soundtrack, the journeyman singer-songwriter-composer formerly of the Velvet Underground also responsible for scoring Garrel’s earlier, 1993 masterpiece, La Naissance de l’Amour, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud and Lou Castel, and whom Garrel first met on the set of his 1968 film, Le Lit de la Vierge, along with Nico, the director’s perennial muse and the woman to which the German sections in Le Vent directly relate.
The first scene of the Le Vent de la Nuit unfolds in characteristically indirect and allusive fashion. A middle-aged woman, Hélène (Deneuve), ascends a staircase to a third-floor flat, surreptitiously unlocks the door with a hidden key and opens it quickly, trying not to be noticed. After entering the room, she surveys the sparsely furnished space, and then begins to make the bed, spraying it with wisps of perfume. It is only later that we realize that her actions in this non-descript setting are in preparation for a secret tryst between the unhappily married woman and her much younger lover, Paul, played by the great, young French actor and director, Xavier Beauvois. It is especially important to take into consideration the backgrounds of the actors Garrel chooses to appear in his films, since many of them write much of their own dialogue and contribute liberally to the script, Le Vent being no exception. Their real-life biographies tend to influence the fictional universe of Garrel’s stories, turning the films’ scenarios into something strikingly intimate and personal. For instance, Xavier Beauvois’ working class upbringing is drawn on implicitly in the story. Beauvois grew up in the Pas-de-Calais, an out-of-the-way province of France subsisting primarily on the steel and mining industry, and owes his career to a number of benevolent mentors, like Jean Douchet, the filmmaker and critic who gave a lecture at his school, and the professor who helped enroll him at La Fémis. A class there at the time happened to be taught by Marc Cholodenko, the screenwriter with whom Garrel has collaborated on virtually every project since Les Baisers de Secours and J’Entends Plus la Guitare. Another mentor of Beauvois’s who championed his work early on was the late Serge Daney, an influential critic for Cahiers du Cinema, the famous French-language film journal responsible for the birth of the nouvelle vague, who became disenchanted with the publication’s political failings following the events of May ’68 and perhaps not so coincidently shares the same first name of the aging architect who befriends Paul in Garrel’s story. A further credit of note is Arlette Langmann, the wife of the late Maurice Pialat, another titan of French cinema whose slice-of-life films, particularly L’Enfance Nue, A Nos Amours and Le Garçu, mirror much in Garrel’s oeuvre.
Following the clandestine liaison that serves as a kind of prelude to Le Vent de la Nuit, Paul, a struggling young art student, explains to Hélène that he must leave Paris for a few days to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for a new building in Naples which features one of his sculptures (a surprise announcement which his partner initially protests and then accepts with anxious resignation) and it is there, in Italy, that he is first introduced to Serge, a wealthy architect who might be able to help further his career. The character of Serge has an aloof, wearily forlorn look about him, but there’s also something more deeply wounded in his dour mien which immediately connects him to Deneuve’s character. He’s played by the French character actor Daniel Duval.
The majority of Le Vent’s second act is devoted to following Serge and Paul as they travel cross-country in a cherry red sports car, Hélène’s damaged psyche hovering like a phantom over the two men as they drive on French and Italian motorways and endless autoroutes, stopping occasionally to eat, drink and critique the banal décor of roadside stands, rest stops and gas stations. They take detours to abandoned cathedrals and survey unfinished frescoes adorning the interior walls. They speak of philosophy and politics, and the architect’s background, particularly his participation in the riots of May ’68, an autobiographical touchstone for the director and the beginning of a series of further revelations regarding this lonely, suicidal character’s past. At one point in the journey, Paul awakes to find the car pulled over to the side of the road and Serge gone. He discovers the absent driver crying and shouting out at the trees alongside the highway. Towards the end of the film, Serge visits a woman’s grave in Berlin, an allusion to the director’s ten-year relationship with a German chanteuse from which he, like Duval’s character, never quite fully recovered. Eventually, some two-thirds into its running time, the story circles back to its central Parisian milieu for a fated meeting between Serge and Hélène. But their fleeting nighttime embrace, rendered simply and elegantly, provides only a brief respite before the tragic, inevitable denouement. (Jameson West)