Philippe Garrel in Conversation

The great French director gives a wide-ranging interview during his first trip to the U.S. in two decades.
Darren Hughes

Philippe Garrel. Photo by Darren Hughes.

There’s no exact equivalent in film history for Philippe Garrel’s “family cinema,” as he calls it here. To immerse oneself in his work is to watch Garrel and those he loves (parents, partners, children) be transformed by age and experience, while their passions and preoccupations—that particular Garrelian amour fou—persist.

After several decades during which Garrel’s films saw limited distribution and exhibition in North America, he's now experiencing something of a revival. Over the span of three days at the Toronto International Film Festival I enjoyed an impromptu Garrel family retrospective. In the Cinematheque program, TIFF debuted its recently-commissioned 35mm print of Jacques Rozier’s first film, Adieu Philippine (1962), which features a middle-aged Maurice Garrel in a supporting role. Actua 1 (1968), Philippe Garrel’s long-lost short documentary of the May ’68 protests, screened in the Wavelengths section, also in a new print. And Philippe’s latest feature, In the Shadow of Women, with an appearance by Louis Garrel as disembodied voiceover, had its North American premiere. In the Shadow of Women begins its U.S. theatrical run this week, courtesy of Distrib Films.

It was also at TIFF that I heard rumors Garrel would be making his first trip to the States in more than a decade for the New York Film Festival. Rather than conduct a series of brief interviews, Garrel instead requested a three-hour, wide-ranging discussion. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to join Eric Hynes, Vadim Rizov, and Nicholas Elliot at that table. Garrel spoke at length and with great humor and enthusiasm, noting with a laugh when comments were off the record. It would be impossible to overestimate Nicholas’s skills as a translator.

We agreed as a group to publish the entire interview with only a light edit so as to maintain the flow of the conversation. See also: Part 1 at Filmmaker Magazine and Part 3 at Reverse Shot. The interview was conducted on the morning of October 7, 2015, the day after the NYFF premiere of In the Shadow of Women and soon after news broke of Chantal Akerman's death.

ERIC HYNES: I’d love to know for you the relationship between teaching and directing. Is there a real overlap in those two jobs? And more specifically for this film, did your directing start well before the shoot? Do you think of it in those terms? Or are there points when you feel you’re primarily teaching? How do those two jobs evolve over the course of a project?

PHLIPPE GARREL: It’s the same thing. It’s like playing tennis. The tennis match is the shoot, the training is the classroom. The only difference, I would say, is that when I’m on the set, I only talk to the actors separately, secretly. I don’t let the others hear. Whereas, when we’re in the classroom, I do let everyone hear so that they can learn from it. That’s the only practical difference.

When I chose what my profession would be, what my craft would be, which was after this business of the failed oil painting, I remember I was waiting at the bus stop and I saw a poster of a Marcel Carné film that was playing at the time starring Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan [Port of Shadows (Le quai des brumes, 1938)], and I thought to myself, “I’m not able to act, but I would be able to tell actors how to act well, because I’m the son of an actor.” So, that at first is what I realized I could do. Nine-tenths of directing is directing actors. In school, they put way too much emphasis on camera placement and so on, whereas really that’s just one-tenth of directing a film.

When I had kids, and I wasn’t as well known then, I was able to make a living by becoming an acting teacher. By thinking that you know something, you’re able to convince other people that you know it, and you become respected for it. It’s kind of like working with a psychoanalyst—by believing that the psychoanalyst is a wise man, you in fact heal yourself. It’s the same with an actor. I can say for myself that I’m a conductor, except that I’m a conductor who doesn’t know how to play any of the instruments.

HYNES: You talk about your father being an actor, and you felt emboldened in terms of offering that to others, but if I’m not mistaken you father was ambivalent about being an actor. You seem less ambivalent about being an actor and a director than he was. There’s a legacy of acting that you’ve inherited, but you’ve inherited it without the reluctance.

GARREL: It’s true that my father was like a hidden actor. He was mostly a theater actor, not a film actor, and the reason for this was that during the war he landed—he invaded in Provence and in Italy and he had killed people. This was a huge problem for him because my father was a humanist [yet] during the war he had been forced to do this. He had signed up with the North African Free French troops and he landed, like Samuel Fuller and others. He used to say to me, “There are no murders in war, Philippe,” but still, because he killed, it was very hard for him. At the end of his life, he explained to me that he had hidden himself away in a small profession, the small profession of being a theater actor.

He also was a puppetmaker and puppeteer first. When I was born, that’s what he was doing—acting with Jean Dasté and Gaston Baty. Gaston Baty belonged to the so-called “Cartel,” which was Baty, [Jacques] Copeau, [Charles] Dullin, and [Louis] Jouvet. My father was a student of Dullin, and my method comes from Dullin. Dullin is someone you might have seen in a few films around the second world war, but he was primarily a theater actor. That’s where most of his leading roles were. So when I was around six or eight I would go and sit alone with adults at night in the theater and watch my father on stage.

But it’s true he was ambivalent about it. He considered it a small profession. In a way, that’s something that I inherited from him.

VADIM RIZOV: I want to follow up on that a little bit. You talk about the work of unblocking the actor. When you were working with your father—especially regarding his experience in Algeria, which is addressed in Liberté, la nuit—did you have to unblock him in relation to his own experience to then relive it on screen?

GARREL: Just once. Other than that, I never directed him. He did it all alone. And on the contrary it was me who learned from him.

But for the last film he made with me, Un été brûlant, which was actually the last film he ever shot, I gave him a supporting role—he was too old to play a leading role—and he was acting with his grandson, Louis Garrel, and he was telling an incident from the war. For the first time I had seen with him, it was reality for him. It wasn’t improvising, it was reality. He started acting not just for Louis, he was acting for the crew as well, as if it were a confession. The crew included great, experienced members like Willy Kurant, the D.P., and he was talking to all of them. So it was the only time in my career that I decided to do a second take with him. I told him, “No, you have to talk just to Louis.” It was the only time I directed him, and it was for his last role. I think it was because he was so old that for him there was no difference between acting and being.

DARREN HUGHES: I’m deeply moved by that scene with your father, partly because as a cinephile I have a unique relationship with your family. A few weeks ago in Toronto, for example, I saw the new restored print of Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine (1962), in which we see your father in his late-30s. You’ve been working with your family for several decades now. Does that still satisfy your curiosity and bring you pleasure as a filmmaker?

GARREL: At the moment I’m rehearsing a film with my daughter, Louis’s sister [Esther Garrel], because my family is kind of like the circus. Everyone is in the theater or in film. So right now I’m rehearsing a film with my daughter who’s 23, an actress from the Conservatoire who I found in the recent graduating class and who’s 20, and one of my father’s best friends who’s an actor. It’s very, very important for me that art is grafted onto real, intimate life because a film is a piece of your life. Sometimes it takes a year, sometimes three years. I think it would be hard for me to maintain professional—even emotional—ties with people in cinema if I didn’t have these people from my family around me.

Sternberg had done it before, but what really interested me in the New Wave was that it was a couples’ cinema, it was a lovers’ cinema. Antonioni did it, too. What I think I invented, with my situation, was a family cinema. It’s very important for me that film remain meaningful, that it does not remain outside of the subconscious. Once the subconscious is expressed on the set—and I think this is very important—the film becomes more expressive.

At the end of his two books on acting, Stanislavsky comes to the conclusion that one should leave room for the expression of the subconscious. If you can let the subconscious be expressed in the making of the film, then when the viewer sees the film he will have something of his own subconscious emerge. Not through identification. He’ll think of people he loves, for instance. He’ll think of something that is emotionally moving to him. If my subconscious surfaces in the film and comes through, he will be touched because his subconscious will emerge. In this way, cinema heals.

I look for emotion in truth. I don’t go searching for emotion like some filmmakers do. I think it’s more successful to go looking for emotion through truth because that way the viewer can come to his truth.

RIZOV: In terms of your work with your son, his relative lack of expression is something that’s been discussed a lot. As an example, I’d like to ask about one of my favorite of your scenes that everybody likes, the “This Time Tomorrow” scene in Regular Lovers. Everyone is dancing around him and you cut to him in the middle of it. He’s very unmoved, in opposition to the spirit of the room. How do you develop that characteristic as you direct?

GARREL: In that particular scene, it was a choreographer who teaches at the Conservatoire. At the Conservatoire, they also have dance professors. It’s not just theater and films. Anyways, Caroline Marcadé choreographed the Kinks number.

My set is quite free, and Louis Garrel, in general, is quite inhibited about dancing, so he didn’t want to dance. Since my cinema is free, I said, “Okay, don’t dance. Be a character who doesn’t like to dance.” Then, as we were shooting, I saw that Louis was watching his classmates, because all the others in the scene were people he was at the Conservatoire with for three years. He was watching them, so I told the D.P. to film Louis without telling him. Those are documentary shots that are inserted in the choreography that Caroline Marcadé did.

By the way, I’m working with her again this year, so it’s not just actors that I get from the Conservatoire. I also take professors and use them behind the scenes. For instance, the person who teaches fight choreography at the Conservatoire, I’ve had him act in the films.

My father acted like I never could have imagined. And now Louis Garrel is a much better actor than I am. I try to help him, but most often when he’s stoic like that, these are decisions that he has made among his classmates, people he was in school with for a long time, based on what he can and can’t do.

I try to navigate this family relationship on the set. It can be awkward for people, and I try to avoid that. You have to avoid playing favorites. He and I are obviously very close, but one has to be democratic and not treat him differently. Of course, if we come back to the subconscious, of course I do treat him differently because, for instance, I dream of him more often than I dream of his classmates.

HYNES: You talked earlier about introversion and about how you’re an introvert and there’s an expression of that in terms of lengths of shots and the quietness, to some degree. It’s interesting to me that that’s how you describe yourself. When I spoke to Louis he also talked about your family as being a circus and he likened himself to being the clown in the circus. So, in that sense he seems very different from you. And yet, in your films there is an introversion that comes through at times, and I’m wondering about your relationship with him in terms of him basically being an expression of you in a deep sense. And also, how do you relate to other actors in that sense? Because actors tend to be introverts. As a teacher and a director, how do you work with that dynamic, bringing actors down to a quieter place? Or at other times encouraging their outgoing aspects?

GARREL: When I film Louis Garrel or my actors, even if I’ve written a story based on my own life, it’s really them that I’m filming. When I filmed my son or, back in the day when I filmed my father in films like Liberté, la nuit, I wasn’t asking them to play me. I was really filming them, and it’s been like that since the beginning, even when my films are drawn from my own personal life.

The problem is, for instance, if you’re telling a story that involves sex you can’t talk to your father about sex the way you would with your best friend. What we’re getting to is the problem of incest. In asking my father or my son to be actors, I can’t film my father kissing a woman. I can’t film my son holding a naked woman the way I could with other actors because that would be like looking through the keyhole at my parents or into the children’s room.

It’s Freud who said that the number one taboo for humanity is incest. It’s the most repulsive point. Everything about our evolution as a society is designed to avoid incest. So if I write, for instance, my love story with a woman, and I ask my father or Louis to act in it I don’t ask them to play me. I ask them to play themselves. And not only that, I have to film a purely spiritual love, because otherwise it’s like going and peeking at your parents or going into the kids’ room. You can’t do that.

There’s an inconvenience to that, which is that it makes for a certain kind of story; but there’s an advantage, which is that every time the story has to be of amour fou. It’s not just a little love affair. It can’t be that. It spiritualizes the love while taking away the problem of incest or voyeurism of other family members. So there’s both a limit and a kind of luck in this, which allows a transcendence. Perhaps I haven’t completely answered the question.

HUGHES: You mentioned earlier that you wanted to trigger the subconscious rather than create an identification. When I watched Emergency Kisses for the first time ten years ago, I felt very removed from it. I’m now the same age as you were when you made it. I’m married and have children the same age as Louis in that film. So when I revisited it last week, I identified much more closely with your character, but I was also deeply moved by it because I now understand deep in my bones that the loss of my family would be the great tragedy in my life. I now experience—subconsciously, I suppose—the threat of despair.

GARREL: Well, I think that’s proof of how art is useful. As we see with great filmmakers like Bergman, his films show that he was an artist, but they also show that films can be as useful for healing as a book by Freud.

It’s very important. I deeply believe that art can replace religion, like psychoanalysis can help—not replace but help—medicine. Art can supplant religion as far as belief in life. And that’s what’s sad about Chantal Akerman’s suicide. She was an atheist. My father used to say to me, to deal with suicides, “All young people are suicidal and I was, too.” And he used to say to me, “Suicide is two lines in the newspaper.” And we saw as much.

So, with Chantal it’s a real failure of art, as far as our business is concerned. We can’t get into her private life or the failure of love or any of that. But what we can see politically in her life is the concentration camps, because her mother was in the concentration camps, and we can see that art wasn’t enough for the collective unconscious, as Freud saw the collective unconscious. Not this idea that we have now of a cloud floating above men. Freud saw it as something that’s anchored in our memory and that comes from those who lived before, who came before us, and that makes us act despite ourselves.

As far as friendship and love and so on in art, that’s what art is good for, as the five of us here who agree that art must be defended in this way, because it helps us to live. But even psychoanalysis fails us. We see that with Primo Levi, who had been in the concentration camps and who, like Chantal, killed himself. It’s very, very complicated to heal the psyche through art, through this search for emotion, for reliving things, for bringing things forth from memory and unconscious when we see art. It’s not like we’ve reached the end point with this. On the contrary, we’re at the eve of the importance in our civilization of understanding that art is essential.

RIZOV: It would be hard for me to imagine a film of yours that eliminated political aspects entirely. There is an analytical component in returning to, revisiting, and re-experiencing charged political moments, whether through Maurice’s monologue in Liberté, la nuit about the scars left by the Algerian war, a very short eruption like in Frontier of Dawn when the man at the bar suddenly says, “I’m an anti-Semite,” or in A Burning Hot Summer, when a sidewalk conversation is interrupted by immigrants running from the police. The characters are preoccupied by their lives, while briefly noticing what’s still going on around them.

GARREL: Instinctively, what you’re touching on with all of these scenes is something that I didn’t invent. I didn’t invent this process. Artists have been doing this since the dawn of time. What you’re touching on are dreams that I wrote down upon waking up. Notated dreams. For instance, the murder of the mother in Liberté, la nuit, the arrest of the immigrants in A Burning Hot Summer, these are all dreams.

Now, many artists have done this. They mix imaginary scenes and dreams. But these scenes are not shown as dreams because I’ve also had scenes in my films where you see actual dreams, you see the hero fall asleep and dream. I like to mix those with reality. What I’m interested in is the search for a method, and that’s how you get an avant-garde style—by searching for something new.

In Regular Lovers, for instance, toward the end of the shoot, I had a dream, but instead of writing it down I did something like what Godard would do when he was . . . let’s call it “improvising the mise-en-scene” on the set, where he would make something up and shoot it with without writing it down. So, I had this dream. I called my assistant early in the morning and said, “Go to the store, buy some barbed wire, and come to the set. I’ll tell you why.” We were shooting in the forest, and what I was able to do is I noted the dream directly through the camera. I didn’t write it down. It would be hard for you to remember, but it was the scene where the character takes opium and then he dreams. That was a dream noted on camera. You see a young woman wearing old clothes in a small camp with barbed wire. She’s woken by Louis Garrel, who’s dressed as a young prince. There’s a small flame. He takes her out of the camp.

And that’s how you get to be avant-garde. You try to be the first to make a certain gesture. So, in this case, two or three hours after I’d woken up, I was shooting the dream, noting the dream directly through the camera, while I was still inhabited by it. What I try to do is I take these scenes from dreams, which you’ve instinctually noticed, and I mix them with realist scenes. They’re oneiric scenes by definition, since they’re taken from dreams.

You’ve instinctively put your finger on all of these scenes that were from dreams that were shown as reality!


See also: Part 1 at Filmmaker Magazine and Part 3 at Reverse Shot.

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