Right and True: An Interview with Philippe Garrel

The great French director discusses his inspirations, working with family and directing actors, and his new film "Lover for a Day".
Daniel Kasman

Philippe Garrel

French director Philippe Garrel has always only needed the barest means to make movie magic: a beautiful, tragic face, a sad wall to put behind it, a mournful, pensive walk alone on the street. His latest film premiered last year in Cannes at the Directors’ Fortnight; having first shown his work there in 1969 with Le lit de la vierge, Garrel once again proves he is nearly alone in continuing the French New Wave’s revolution of creating celluloid myths from mere bedrooms and cafes. This new film, Lover for a Day is one of his most simple, a lithe, splendid picture dazzling in its clarity, direct emotional resonance and condensed storytelling. The set-up, co-written with Garrel’s partner Caroline Deruas-Garrel and his usual writer Arlette Langmann along with Jean-Claude Carrière, is inspired: A young woman, Jeanne (Garrel’s daughter, Esther) breaks up with her boyfriend and must stay at the flat of his father, Gilles (Éric Caravaca), who, she discovers, is living with a new girlfriend Ariane (Louise Chevillotte), a student of his and nearly his daughter’s age. It is a spare situation and one which the film thoroughly, effortlessly explores with delicate freshness. The pain of Jeanne’s loss—"it's like being flayed alive"—is layered on top of the strange betrayal by her father. Arielle, meanwhile, tries to befriend her lover’s daughter at once as a mother and a peer, while still navigating her own youthful sense of fidelity to her relationship and desires. The older man, sensitively cast, is touchingly rendered but in the background to the fleet pleasures and quiet turmoil of the two conflicted young women and housemates.

This is the first film where Esther fully stars in a movie by her father, and Lover for a Day is in part dedicated to the young woman’s indolent eyes and, with a fittingly perverse twist, her small, calculated and unexpected manipulations. It sees her with the eyes of a father growing awake to the inner contradictions and yearning of his adult daughter. But the movie equally belongs to theater actress Louise Chevillotte, who receives the luminous close-ups of a director who knows better than any how to expose the vulnerable inner spirit of his characters. As she lays asleep in Renato Berta’s chiaroscuro, the harmony in which Ariane and Gilles profess to live together is instantly consecrated in black and white—the ideal instantly realized in a mere moment, and a mere images.

Jeanne flirts with the morose, with phantasms (the voiceover states, as she flies out a cafe, "She thought she glimpsed the face of the man she loved"), even, in the film’s most sudden apparition, with death. But Ariane helps: in scene of marvelous simplicity and pleasure the two go out dancing, each looking for a partner other than the one she loves. “What do you talk about with your friends?” asks her father. “The war.” “What war?” “The next one,” she says, and we wonder whether she worries over someone else’s attacks or whether Garrel sees or hopes that his daughter’s generation may pick up the fight lost by students and strikers in May, 1968. First, though, solace, home—love—must be possible. Someone predicts that “soon all you want to do is go home to your man. It keeps you from thinking,” and that may speak towards the fierce pull all three in this triangle feel at various times in the film. But as the ages and wants of Jeanne and Ariane change, and the older man remains the same, the two women both feel, think, and take action—and forge their own paths.

I spoke to Philippe Garrel after his film's premiere about returning to Cannes, looking back on his career, and directing his family in films.

NOTEBOOK: You were first here in Cannes almost 50 years ago, at the Directors’ Fortnight in ‘69 for The Bed of the Virgin. I wonder if you re-watch or reflect back on those films made in the late 60s, early 70s.

PHILIPPE GARREL: Well, I can tell you that I haven’t progressed very much since then. Yes, you mentioned Le lit de la vierge, that was at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, but also Marie pour memoire, that was the film I made before that, that was selected to be in Semaine de la Critique—it must have been ‘68 or ‘69, ‘69 for Le lit de la vierge—and I remember that back then I was not interested in going to Cannes, I didn’t go. It was Sylvina Boissonnas that had produced Le lit de la vierge and decided to present it for the selection. I was just interested in making film, in manufacturing film. And that is true for Le lit de la vierge, Marie pour Memoire, and my first full feature film that had never been released theatrically.

NOTEBOOK: And when looking back at that time, do you feel like you recognize that artist? Is he someone distant from you, or is he still inside you?

GARREL: I think that you can fail or succeed any time in your life, and an artist never improves, he’s just faithful to himself and to his identity as an artist—and of course he goes through different stages in life. Since the very beginning I have made films, some I love, some I don’t love as much, and that has not changed in 50 years, you know—it was the same in the beginning as it is today. I don’t think that any change depends on an epoch, or the times that change.

What I have changed is my way of making films. For over 15 years, my films were never scripted, I didn’t have any screenplay. Then I started writing films, I realized that my changes depended—the changes that occurred in my life, like a painter—depended on the women that I’ve loved and I’ve lived with. And that’s what influenced my style. So it really depends on that one, and I realize that I went through times and periods where a woman prompted me to change my style and to do something different. It’s exactly like a painter, you know, when a painter goes through a certain period and what he changes is his attitude, not his art. In a way, he can change his style, and this is the way I survived in the cinema environment in popular films or mainstream films.

I'm most concerned with the films I feel I need to make or want to make with my actors and my technicians. The first screening is very important for me, the first public screening, but then everything is over at that point. I’m no longer interested, I’m not interested in the release of the film. I’m only interested in that as long as it makes some money, it will allow me to make another film. But as for the rest, it’s the manufacturing of the film that moves me as a filmmaker, and as an artist it was important that an echo that a film has for money reasons. And this is why it’s important that my films are in competition, in case they win an award, exactly for the same reasons. But that’s my only connection in the film community and my reason for making films is being behind the camera or sitting at an editing table because that’s what counts. And that’s why sometimes I refuse to give interviews or to attend certain events. It’s not for a snobbish attitude, it’s just that I honestly—I’m not interested in that. What I’m interested in is staying in my own atelier, like a painter, and making my own art.

NOTEBOOK: You were speaking of a need to make a film, what was it about this story that inspired this need?

GARREL: The starting point was my desire to draw my daughter on screen. Louis, my son, managed to be successful—he made his own film. And my educational principle with my children is never to suffocate them and never to make them a sort of poisonous gift, so I’m always waiting that they start moving the first steps in films by themselves—meaning working with other directors. Because I don’t want to suffocate them I try to restrain my wish to work with them until they manage to work with others. In the case of Esther, she has in the past 3 or 4 years worked many second roles with other filmmakers and so I said okay now I want to be able to work with her, she was the starting point. And I was looking for a suitable subject to deal with her, and I decided to explore the Electra complex, which is the feminine version of the Oedipus complex—the attraction, the love of a daughter for her father.

NOTEBOOK: And when you’re working with Esther on set, is the relationship between you and an actress different than that of you and Louis?

GARREL: My second job in life is being a professor of dramatic art at the Conservatoire [Conservatoire national supérieur d'art dramatique] in Paris. And Louis, when he decided to become an actor, decided to choose that school, the conservatoire, and he was one of my pupils in one of the classrooms. And I of course tried to make my best, so my attitude was not different toward him than it was the other students of the class. Of course, there is a difference but somehow I managed to find the right attitude, and having your child on set is like having your child in a classroom, because in a way, a set—a cinema set—is very similar to a classroom. If you think about it, the Actors Studio method, the Stanislavski method, the two books about the method—what are they? They are the diary of a student attending classes and learning how to become an actor, and learning about artistic direction. And this is the reason why I choose to have the same attitude.

Next Tuesday I’m going to give my class in front of 30 students, and what I do with them is just go around the streets and filming and shooting, inside the building and also outside the building. And in the evening we all watch the daily rushes together, and this is the way for me to teach dramatic art to children. I love being a professor, I love to teach. I think there is a goodness in the method that I like very much, and that helps me when I’m on set directing actors and try[ing] to treat all actors like my children. My students at school, even amongst those actors there are my children, as it happened with Louis before and with Esther now. But before this film she was also in La jalousie, Jealousy, and I think that in France it’s quite popular for directors to have a second job. Jean Eustache, for instance, used to be an editor, and often a director is also a screenwriter. I don’t know if Jim Jarmusch needs to have a second job in order to be able to survive and earn his living. But I think for me it’s really a training in directing actors. And good and just direction is one of the pillars of the mise en scène. Because if actors manage to play the right note, at that part there’s no risk of sounding out of tune. It’s like an orchestra. Of course, when it’s out of tune, in the performance of an actor, it’s not so evident as it is in the music. But still you get the impression that what they are saying is not believable enough. What is out of tune is a thought you’re trying to express in your film.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of directing actors, I’ve always wondered what secret you’re whispering in their ears before a scene where they walk down a street by themselves.

GARREL: Direction of an actor is not just one moment in one movement that you manage to build to perfection. Of course, the movement is towards building something together, but then when you’ve built and built and built you’ve got to start destroying what you’ve built. You know, to be able to find that right level that you need, and that often depends on the place where you’re shooting your scene, and you might give an indication to an actor, and you of course need to listen to what an actor has to say, and sometimes you need to build more or to destroy more, it really depends on each circumstance.

But a director must be able to be there and grab whatever an actor is willing to give in any given moment. You cannot force a performance out of an actor—you can prompt it in a way, but it’s a matter of getting to a very subtle balance in all the takes that might be in filming. There’s a thin line—and you have to be careful for an actor not to fall on one side or another—you must not help him, you must not make him feel uneasy, more often you have to bite your tongue, because you would say something but you decide not to nine times out of ten because you have to let him or her search for what they’re getting at. And it’s that tenth time, then you’re obliged to say something, find the right word to say, but only when it’s absolutely essential to do so. If you feel that an actor is right in his performance, then what else can he give you? It’s right, and if it’s right, it’s true.

So most of the time for a director it’s a measure of self-containment and to shut up mainly and just stay behind the camera. I think the best directors are not the ones that talk a lot on set, but quite the opposite. I don’t think it’s correct out of uncertainty of the director himself to tell an actor, “I trust you, I trust what you can do.” No—you have some help to shape and give some indication. But then it’s like music, also for the repertoire of the director. You hear a piece and you think that’s right, and the other one you think is not. And you hear them again the next day, and you realize what you think was good is no longer good. Art is not an exact science you know. In no certainty. But I do believe that for a director, directing actors is the most important thing in a film to get to the right feeling. Being myself the son of a stage actor and having been very familiar with the behind-the-scene situation in a theatre that I started to attend when I was very, very little. I was always with my father, and my father was a stage classic actor, Ibsen, Marivaux and Diderot, so I know I remember how important it is to get to the right level to help an actor getting there.

This interview was originally filmed by Kurt Walker at the Cannes Film Festival in May, 2017. Watch it here.

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