For Louis Garrel, the center of the universe is located at the Cannes film festival. “It’s like a particle accelerator, like that place in Switzerland,” he says. “Your disappointments there are bigger, and your joy is bigger.” He is calling from Paris, where he is tinkering with the edit of his latest film The Innocent; his fourth feature of him as a director but the first to get an airing in Cannes’s galactic-sized Louis Lumière auditorium. At the time of our conversation he’s got 10 days to nail down the finer details: “It’s like being back at school. I used to leave everything to the last minute.”
Garrel – still best known outside France for being one corner of a preposterously sexy love triangle in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers – is an aquiline-nosed, tousle-haired French film blue blood; the son of Nouvelle Vague stalwart Philippe Garrel and actor brigitte sy, and the godson of The 400 Blows star Jean-Pierre Léaud. But even if he understands “the way the game is played” at Cannes, he still doesn’t feel like an insider: “I get the jitters before going every time. So right now I’ve got the jitters.” Today, he’s fretting over how the sound mix will play in the giant auditorium. “It’s a good kind of pressure,” he says, then hoots with sharp laughter.
The Innocent is a delicate blend of fraught family comedy, parodic heist flick and meta thesp commentary, all tethered down with the dry irony that is fast becoming Garrel’s directorial trademark – or “banter a la française”, so he puts it. He plays Abel, a widower in Lyon who is rattled when his loose-cannon mum de él marries a convict being released from prison. Suspicious about where the latter is getting the cash to set her up as a florist, Abel turns amateur gumshoe and starts lurking outside the homeware store his new father-in-law supposedly works at.
The story is based on an episode from the 38-year-old’s own life, when his mother (his parents had divorced) had a prison wedding with “a guy called Michel I liked a lot”. What was he inside for? “I can’t really remember,” he says coyly. “You know: fun and games.” Was there a similar tension to their relationship as he depicts in the film? I have sidesteps. “It’s always interesting to meet people from another world. Generally, within the structures of family or friendship, society is made in such a manner you don’t often have the chance to get to know people from another walk of life.”
The protagonist Garrel has played in his four directorial efforts to date is always called Abel, who seems to be a kind of alter ego he uses to loosen up his screen presence – Byronic of brow and imposing elsewhere – into comic stooge territory. Ranging from the bachelor flirtations of his 2015 debut Two Friends to follow-ups A Faithful Man and The Crusade (in which Abel is married), the director, working with real-life intimates such as his former partner Golshifteh Farahani and his current wife Laetitia Casta, seems to use his films to playfully explore alternative life pathways for himself. But he prefers to give this Garrel Cinematic Universe an autonomy of its own: “Rather than saying as an actor, I’m going to live several lives through this character, I prefer to say, no, it’s the character that has several lives. ”
This braiding of autobiography and fiction is what he grew up with, the limber method his father persisted with well into the 21st century, like a soldier still fighting the Nouvelle Vague fight. Garrel’s first acting role was as a five-year-old in Garrel Sr’s 1989 film Les Baisers de Secours; his father of him, grandfather and mother all acted in it too, and in his first scene he had to walk in on his mother of him in bed with another man. “I hadn’t chosen to be in the film,” he says now. “Suddenly, they became like real memories, and I even forgot about the cameras. It was like a strange game with reality, one that determined my relationship with cinema. As a cinemagoer, when I watched films that weren’t autobiographically tied to the life of the director, I had the impression they were fake.”
It would have been easy for Garrel to be enveloped by this protean milieu, to fail to emerge with an identity of his own. But his recalcitrant glower helped his breakout film The Dreamers to take an askew glance at his father’s soixante-huitard cohort. Setting his, Eva Green and Michael Pitt’s lovers beside clips of the trio in Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part, it’s a rueful reflection on the time that suggests there was something decadent and incestuous going on behind the revolution – that perhaps the younger generation’s ultimate attachment is to the image rather than the deed. But at the start of the noughties, his dad was delighted at the unlikely event of a film about the Nouvelle Vague distributed by a Hollywood studio: “It’s as if, in 40 years’ time, the gilets jaunes would get to see a film produced by MGM called the Yellow Vest.”
Where Garrel is fundamentally different is that his dad hated acting. “I don’t know why,” the son shrugs. “It’s just like some children hate spinach or grapes.” Garrel is a natural, commanding performer, as is apparent from the versatile gallery of roles he has amassed that range far beyond the ennui-filled Parisian mopers of his early career, though not – apart from his performance for Woody Allen in Rifkin’s Festival (2020 ) and a smallish role in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women – anything in English-language cinema. Notably, over the last decade, there have been quite a few historical showstoppers: the rakish fashionista Jacques de Bascher in 2014’s Saint Laurent, Robespierre in 2018’s One Nation, One King, and soon director Patrice Chéreau in another Cannes entrant, Forever Young (where Garrel will be directed by his ex-wife Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi).
What is impressive is how forcefully he imbues these known quantities with an independent life. His portrayal of Jean-Luc Godard benefits from this discernment in the otherwise rather facetious 2017 biopic Redoubtable. Even though playing the godhead of French arthouse was a “total taboo”, Garrel realized he couldn’t just give fealty: “Of course he was someone with an extraordinary force. An artist with the capacity to do exactly what he wants, and what he didn’t want was to become bourgeoisified. But you mustn’t play him as only this force … there was doubt there, for example.” Portraying Godard as he was denouncing Nouvelle Vague frippery and moving towards Maoism, Garrel superbly fleshes out his self-flagellation and inertia from him.
He has also played Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer whose false conviction of treason rocked the French establishment at the end of the 19th century. He is rivetingly stoic in the role, and the film, 2019’s An Officer and a Spy, is engrossing. But with the #MeToo movement in full voice, it quickly became swamped in controversy because of its director: Roman Polanski. Garrel signed a 2009 petition protesting against the extradition of Polanski to the US to face his 1977 statutory rape charge. But now he insists it’s not his place to express a position in public. His primary interest in him in doing the film was Dreyfus’s story, he says, because of his own Jewish roots, and he was dismayed to see the story yanked into an alien context. But he felt torn: “It’s very painful to talk about it again. There were reasons why the debate was so violent. The direction society is moving in is benefitting the world. I belong to that world – one that is happy to see progress for women.”
Is art more important than the artist? Cannes loves those kind of philosophical atom-smashings. Garrel may be hoping The Innocent gets a boost from the particle accelerator, but he insists he is happy if his film-making operates at a more humble level. Rather than the likes of Godard, it is the dedicated actor-directors he looks up to; the player-managers of cinema such as Jacques Tati, John Cassavetes and Nanni Moretti. “It’s always interesting to see how they put themselves in their films. How they shoot scenes they are a part of,” he says. “After I started directing and acting at the same time, I no longer looked at Keaton and Chaplin in the same way. How did they succeed at executing such complex shots when they didn’t even have video playback?”
Judging by his fumbling alter ego Abel, Garrel regards himself from a healthy distance – and that ethic is starting to produce a body of work with a discreet but promising idiosyncrasy. “When I start shooting a film, I always tell the team that we have to avoid doing the usual thing. Making films is difficult, so you’re always quickly drawn towards doing what everybody else is doing. But what’s most difficult is succeeding in inventing a little gesture, whether it’s technical or narrative. That’s what you’re always looking for.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism