Laurent Garnier is a world renowned DJ, respected producer and has never been one afraid of experimenting outside of what people may perceive to be his boundaries as a techno artist. He has produced dancefloor classics such as the hypnotic Crispy Bacon and the darkly euphoric Flashback while always being wilfully unpredictable, as his current Retrospective collection shows.
As well as providing some of the finest dance music, he has also experimented with a vast variety of tempos, styles and sounds, his collaboration with jazz pianist Bugge Wesseltoft a case in point. Tonight at the National Film Theatre his versatility is further demonstrated as he provides the musical accompaniment to 1929 film, Finis Terrae, which he first performed at The Louvre earlier this year.
An apology is offered during the introductory speech for the bottom of the screen, and therefore on-screen commentary, being cut off and it does make the plot slightly more difficult to follow but Jean Epstein‘s silent tale of a soured friendship is a simple one so suffers little from this technical hitch. Initially it proves hard to shift concentration from watching Garnier in action (tweaking and nodding away to the results) to focussing on the screen but after a few minutes both film and the Frenchman’s live soundtrack prove immersive.
The plot involves two adolescent friends, Ambroise and Jean-Marie, who gather wrack (dried seaweed) on the small, deserted island of Bannec alongside two older workmates. A dispute begins when Ambroise runs to fetch their last bottle of wine from their store and trips, breaking the bottle and cutting his thumb, with Jean-Marie also incensed by his belief that his friend has stolen his prized knife. A silence descends between the two as Ambroise wound becomes infected and he gradually slips into a debilitating fever.
The older workers see him as merely lazy as he lies ill on the beach while Jean-Marie, bitter about the ‘theft’, leaves his friend for dead until he rediscovers the knife and realises Ambroise has done no such thing. This galvanises Jean-Marie to attempt to single-handedly row his friend back to main island Ouessant for medical attention, though it’s hard to have any empathy for his heroism considering his earlier over-reaction and willingness to watch his friend suffer.
Garnier soundtracks every moment with great awareness and sensitivity. Ambroise’s dash across the pebble beach with the bottle of wine receives a frantically unstable flurry of keys and abstract noise which proves the perfect prelude to the accident that follows. The fever sequence meanwhile unsettles both visually and musically. Epstein’s layered filming of the lighthouse coming in and out of focus, the harsh sun beating down on Ambroise as he suffers alone on the beach and the unbearable disorientation he feels are underpinned by intense, manic bursts of noise. At times it touches upon the abstract glitch sound from leftfield dance music’s outer reaches, and proves the ideal accompaniment.
Garnier’s versatility is perfectly suited for the job in hand. The soundtrack builds and swells with darkness and light portrayed through euphoric chords and edgy atmospherics while the most dramatic moments are marked by crunching beats as the drums crash in and the music overwhelms, almost over-powers. Tension builds as treacherous rocks and fog threaten to scupper the two friends’ journey back to the safety of the doctor and again the cinematography, lingering shots of the rough, dangerous sea, are given the ideal aural edge. At times reminiscent of the ever-evolving music of Tangerine Dream and at others indulging in accordion-led merriment, Garnier offers momentary glimpses of his house and techno background while on occasion he imposes it explicitly through thundering bass or dark synth stabs.
Using the emotive tones of Radiohead‘s ‘No Surprises’ to end, the multi-talented Frenchman deservedly gets an extended round of applause. Laurent Garnier’s emotional understanding of the film and deftness of touch throughout has made this unique experience all the more special. Long may he continue to experiment and challenge both himself and his audience.