It's a good test in film viewing: the very first shot. Does it grab you, intrigue you, does it get straight into the action or the mood? But, this can be far more than a simple matter of narrative interest. Can we sense – without yet knowing anything more about it – that there is greatness in this film? And can we intuit that this opening shot is probably the entire film in miniature, in all its relations of content and style? That it condenses so much which will be slowly unpacked and elaborated over its entire length?

Opening, Night (as the first page of the screenplay might read): the first shot, the first 15 seconds of Philippe Garrel's The Birth of Love (La Naissance de l'amour, 1993) fulfils all these expectations.

A spectator's memory (mine, certainly) might contract this shot even more sharply than its actual 15 seconds because it has the force of abruptness, starting in medias res, with sudden action: Paul (Lou Castel) heads out the door and bids his host, Hélène (Dominique Reymond), farewell.

A rawness, too – especially because of the live, direct sound. Footsteps, the rustling of a coat, the banal, spoken words: especially without music, these noises seem magnified, harsh. No soothing, smoothing fade-in of a sound atmosphere.

Night-time is the time of sweet melancholia in Garrel's films: a time for walking and talking, for kissing, for looking into another's eyes. Night dispels the clarity of day and induces a dreamier, floating mood. But it can, equally, be the time of a formless, spreading anguish.

Who are these two people, Paul and Hélène, to each other? Friends, lovers, spouses? The exposition will be sorted out soon by Garrel and his script collaborators (Marc Cholodenko and Muriel Cerf) but, in these opening moments, the precise links are suspended. A touch of mystery is even added at the point when a third character, Marcus (Jean-Pierre Léaud), in search of cigarettes, surprisingly enters this scene, to hastily join Paul.

One shot, disconnected, alone at the start: the following image, of the two men walking and talking in a Paris street, will be situated after a jump cut in time and space. So our opening shot is rendered a fragment by the découpage (the sequencing of shots that comprise the entire first scene), and is further fragmented by the framing, and the mise en scène that goes on within that frame.

The frame is odd: an angle looking upward at the top halves of bodies (which sometimes block or cover each other) and at a dark doorframe, with glimpses of a pale, white, featureless interior. There is no wider, establishing view, no comforting sequence of progressively closer shots of a city, a street and a row of houses until we focalise on someone's home: all this is meaningless nonsense to Garrel.

Jacques Aumont has discussed how the living spaces in Garrel's cinema are given to us in a deliberately indistinct, interchangeable fashion.1 There is nothing to mark or identify houses or rooms or even entire, exotic cities (like the Italian locations used in this and other Garrel films) in the spectator's memory. Even less detail is given that might "characterise" a space, in the sense of associating it with a specific, fictional being's personality or feeling.

Entries and exits in relation to a largely static frame are crucial for Garrel: they take on a ritual, ceremonial air. They announce the starts and ends of small things (meetings, conversations), bigger things (romantic rendezvous), and the biggest things (relationships, marriages, families). They also shape shots, scenes, and ultimately the whole film: The Birth of Love seems to be constantly pointing out to us, as spectators, that here we enter, and here we part.

In the expository backstory, Paul is the friend of a married couple, Marcus and Hélène. Paul himself is married to Fauchon (Marie-Paule Laval), whom we will meet a little later. But what matters, what is announced in this opening shot, is not the separation or comparison of two distinct couples, but the bunching and division of the sexes: two men leave the home, one woman stays inside.

This is a highly charged, we could even say "loaded" configuration: men are always on the move, out in the world, taking long odysseys by car, while women (of the "wife and mother" variety) are frequently shown indoors, as creatures (maybe prisoners) of the domestic interior (kitchen cooking scenes are numerous). This is not a rigid ideological system in The Birth of Love or any other Garrel film: Hélène too will eventually head off somewhere foreign with a lover. But it is enough to solicit a searching analysis by Hilary Radner of "Masculine Subjectivity and the Representation of Woman" in Garrel's cinema, wondering if he ever gets beyond the old, patriarchal binaries identified long ago by Laura Mulvey.2

Radner cites the "affective hypothesis" of Thomas Lescure in this regard: "It seems that immobility and silence manifest themselves above all when a woman is present on the screen."3 Certainly, a woman's immobility and silence figure in this opening shot. But Radner deepens this typical male/female screen relation: "One might say that rather than stopping the narrative, the figure of woman undoes the narrative, unravels that possibility of a story that would define the body as such."4

Eight seconds into the shot, almost exactly midway, there is a slight but decisive reframing of the camera. It tilts a little – Garrel regularly exploits the simplest of pans and tilts, in contradistinction to ostentatious tracking shots – to show Hélène alone in the frame. It is a drawn-out coda to the unity or adventure of this shot, once the men's "action" has been and gone. In a striking gesture, Hélène very gently "pounds" the door, as if regretting, or deciding, or preparing . . . but what, exactly? It is an emotional undercurrent which will irrigate the film.

And then she, too, exits the frame.

© Adrian Martin, May 2017