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When art imitates the director’s life

Although he is barely known in the United States, the filmmaker Philippe Garrel is the subject of a devoted cult in his native France, where he’s considered a Rimbaud-like Romantic, a major figure of post-French New Wave auteur cinema.

Garrel, now 61, made his first feature, “Marie for Memory” (1967), when he was a teenager, earning the attention of his idol, Jean-Luc Godard. His work can be divided between avant-garde and narrative phases, but almost every Garrel film is a home movie of a sort. There are few other filmmakers for whom art and life are less separable.

Most of his early films are experimental tone poems, often starring the German-born Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico, his partner for many years. The ‘70s took a toll on Garrel: heroin addiction, a deep depression, electroshock therapy. He emerged on the other side a more introspective artist, a maker of intimate dramas that double as brutal examinations of his own life.

In many of these films, the male protagonists are barely disguised alter-egos, sometimes played by Garrel, acting opposite his real-life romantic partners as well as his father, Maurice, and his son, Louis.

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A new double-disc set from Zeitgeist Films, featuring “Emergency Kisses” (1989) and “I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar” (1991), brings to three the number of Garrel films out on DVD in this country. “Regular Lovers” (2005), also a Zeitgeist release, is the only other currently available title.

“I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar,” which received a belated theatrical run last year thanks to the new art-house distributor Film Desk, is widely deemed his masterwork. It was made in the wake of Nico’s death, even featuring a scene shot at her grave in Berlin, and the film itself is a kind of tombstone: for Garrel’s ex-lover, for their relationship and ultimately for an entire generation.

The film’s lovers, Gerard (Benoit Regent) and Marianne (Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege), brood, fight, make up, spiral into addiction, take turns leaving each other. It’s hard to measure time precisely in this ellipses-filled film, but Gerard moves on, cleans up and settles into a life of apparent domestic stability (his new partner is played by Garrel’s then-wife, Brigitte Sy). Still, he can’t escape the traces of the past.

Despite what the title claims, the symbolic strains of that old guitar -- a Velvet Underground track accompanies a key scene -- haunt the movie to its final frame.

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“I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar” is an elegy to a love indistinguishable from oblivion. In the depths of their addiction, searching for the next fix as unpaid bills pile up, Marianne asks Gerard: “You think love can heat us, light us, feed us and get us high?” His response: “You’ve just given a precise definition of love, the most precise I’ve ever heard.”

Garrel’s films are filled with endlessly dissected declarations and definitions of love. “Maybe that’s what love mainly is -- fear of not being loved,” Marianne theorizes at one point. In “Emergency Kisses,” one character offers that love is “everything that you can’t say.”

This blunt, obsessive romanticism can be off-putting to non-initiates, but Garrel’s films, more than most, emerge directly from life, and for him, the meaning of life is bound up in the meaning of love and the tragedy of its impermanence.

“Emergency Kisses” is one of the more literal examples of his hall-of-mirrors approach. Garrel himself plays a filmmaker, Sy plays his wife and their son, Louis, 5 at the time, plays their son. Her character is an actress, devastated that her husband has offered a role based on her to another woman; she retaliates by sleeping with another man.

Garrel’s is a cinema of disappointment. His films range in mood from minor-key plaintiveness to epic sadness. His body of work has the cumulative feel of a hangover, one long comedown from early success and the giddy rush of May ’68. In ways both narcissistic and fearless, he has used his camera to probe and to ease the pain.

The DVD extras include a French TV documentary in which Garrel acknowledges the therapeutic aspects of his work. Filmmaking is “a way to dispel my paranoia, to feel good, to be armed against reality,” he says. “It helped keep me alive.”

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calendar@latimes.com

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