The peculiar dark magic of “L’Enfant Secret,” a 1979 film by Philippe Garrel only now seeing theatrical release in the United States, begins with its models. “Models” was the term the monumental French filmmaker Robert Bresson used for the men and women he cast in his films; he believed acting was an art best reserved for the theater, so he recruited faces and bodies he felt could carry his intents, and instructed them to enact precise physical movements, but not to emote.
Mr. Garrel, a filmmaker since his teens, is looser and more expansive in his approach. Nevertheless, in this film he cast two former Bresson “models,” Anne Wiazemsky and Henri de Maublanc, as the lovers Elie and Jean Baptiste. The secret child of the title is, in a sense, the film itself, one in which, according to Mr. Garrel, he “returned to autobiography” after a series of experimental features.
But the movie does feature a little boy named Swann who belongs to Elie. The adorable blond moppet, she tells Jean-Baptiste, is the son of a film actor who refuses to acknowledge paternity, even though his mother is raising the child. It reflects Mr. Garrel’s own long love affair with the musical artist Nico, who had a child she said was the son of the French film star Alain Delon. He never acknowledged the boy, but his parents largely raised the child in his early years.
Ms. Wiazemsky and Mr. de Maublanc maintain a kind of Bressonian passivity in enacting the dank, entropic spiral that sucks their characters ever downward. They alternately try to maintain, or violently break away from, their intimacy. Mr. Garrel’s approach to narrative here is deliberately provisional; he presents a number of story modules which fragmentedly depict Jean-Baptiste’s mental breakdown, Elie’s mourning over the death of her mother and the couple’s flirtations with potential new lovers and dangerous drugs.
Most sad stories of love in our culture express disappointed romanticism. In the world of Mr. Garrel, whose whole work can be seen as an inquiry into the nature of love, romanticism is crushed, slowly and inexorably, yet refuses to die fully. The movie’s few moments of respite from this process are provided through brief shots of the couple walking hand in hand with Swann. Far longer are the shots of them on a park bench in the pouring rain, or sitting on a mattress on an apartment floor, framed by dingy off-white walls.
Mr. Garrel’s work has a unique aesthetic that today’s American cinephiles seem to be hungry for; this movie’s long-overdue release here is part of a longer retrospective at the Metrograph. One reason Mr. Garrel’s earlier work has been hard to see in this country is that his early career was more or less as an underground filmmaker — one of the inspirations he cited during a recent New York appearance is Andy Warhol, whom he met through Nico. “L’Enfant Secret” forms a kind of bridge between his more abstract pictures and the narratives of the ’80s and beyond, extending to his latest movie, “Lover for a Day,” which was seen at the New York Film Festival and will have a theatrical run here next year.