Though known primarily as an actor, Louis Garrel has been conducting appreciable efforts behind the camera as well. After directing three short films, including a César-nominated Petit tailleur, and most recently La règle de trois, Louis Garrel expands upon his fascination of threes with his first feature length film, Two Friends (Les deux amis), in which he also stars. Based loosely on the French play The Moods of Marianne, Garrel's film finds professional movie extra Vincent (Vincent Macaigne) in frenzied love with Mona (Goldshifteh Farahani), who cannot and will not give in to his romantic advances due in part to her restrictive situation, which she keeps secret. She works behind a pastry counter by day, but every evening must return to prison for curfew, not unlike an incarcerated Cinderella. Vincent enlists his best friend, the caddish Abel (Louis Garrel), to help win her over or at least understand her cooling passion. Over the next three nights they jostle against each other for attention, as Garrel choreographs the shifty and shifting power dynamic between the three. As a director he is sharply attuned his characters, their high emotions, their small intimacies, and their guilt that underlie the film's inherent comedic aspects, many of them rooted in the physical. Garrel and Macaigne’s differences in stature allow for charming and classical farce, while the camera, rarely still, captures the propulsive forward motion of a trio constantly on move.
Two Friends is a film of recklessness and whimsy, but also sharp-felt pains and searing declarations of love and heartbreak among misfits. At the heart of Garrel’s film are Vincent and Abel, earnest goofballs, mismatched yet perfectly attuned to each other at times. The film is sagely imbued by French cinema of the past, including the New Wave, the post-wave 80s and in everything in between—but is haunted neither by its specter nor those of his father, the estimable filmmaker Philippe Garrel. The actor’s auspicious debut feature is all his own.
With the assistance of inimitable translator Nicholas Elliott, I spoke with Garrel about these influences and more, after the film’s American premiere at Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of its Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.
NOTEBOOK: Your film recalls those of an earlier era and not those of today. Almost timeless. What were your influences in locating its mood?
LOUIS GARREL: The first thing was making a movie that did not have a social theme, and I wanted to make a movie that from an emotional point of view was melodramatic. I don’t know if the film is that, but in any case that’s what I wanted. It is true that I wanted to hearken back to films of the 80s, films by Arnaud Desplechin, Leos Carax, or Patrice Chéreau, who made a film called L’homme blessé (The Wounded Man). These are feverish films, and the study of emotion is at the very center. That was the initial impulse, and then I also like the idea of having a conscripted amount of time. Three days and three nights, and because of that I liked to have at the end, as we say, fireworkd—a final bouquet. Then my co-screenwriter Christophe Honoré came along and he encouraged me to make it more of a comedy. He told me, “I know you, you can do this kind of thing. You’re funny.” So we pushed more toward a comic aspect and there I even referred to late 70s French films that are kind of like ‘feel good’ movies like Claude Pinoteau or Claude Sautet.
NOTEBOOK: A lot of the comedy is derived from a physical place. There’s constant movement and the characters are perpetually in motion running from one place to the next.
GARREL: This I wanted definitely. We all know that scene in Mauvais sang when the character is running to David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” Everybody loves that. We all want to imitate that. Noah Baumbach had a scene like that in Frances Ha. In that Carax movie when he runs, he runs for Leos, he runs for the character, for himself. Everybody runs. Everybody is connected to each other. When he runs in Mauvais sang, you feel like it’s completely true. You’re very moved by that. I don’t know why, but it has something cathartic and we also see it as just them actually making the movie when they were all 30 years old and had this fever that was carrying them along. That kind of movie is also very intimate in the way that everybody talks about love and why they’re hurting. I always love that—this intimacy put on a big screen. In the last scene of my movie when you have the two boys in the bed talking, it took a long time for Christophe and me to have this declaration of love and also of hate, and to make it acceptable for the spectator. Sometimes it’s too much, it lacks restraint, or you show too much of yourself. In a way, the audience doesn’t like that, so I rehearsed many times and even did the same take 20 times because I needed to give the pleasure of being voyeurs, but at the same time not overexpose people dealing with very intimate things. It was the hardest scene to do as far as I’m concerned, and we were only able to get there because of what Vincent did, which was talk to me as if he was talking to himself, and tell my character why he loved him.
NOTEBOOK: I think you’ve achieved that delicate balance between something outré and rehearsed and something more quiet not only in this scene but throughout the film in general.
GARREL: It’s not very natural this opening of hearts between men. I felt that when we showed the film women and very young people were much more receptive to it than 30 year-old men who were like, “these aren’t things we do, I can’t identify with this.”
NOTEBOOK: Even in France, where the people, including the men, are generally viewed by Americans at least as being more open and attuned to their emotions?
GARREL: Yes, because the two men they are stupid and infantile. They have nothing to do except talk about love, how they want to die for it. When you are a man, you go to the cinema to deal with your own destiny, so when you see men talking like this, it can be a bit aggressive.
NOTEBOOK: Many films that concerning male friendships especially the “bromances,” if you will, of American film tend to be crass, while your film is rooted in tenderness.
GARREL: Most of the time in a bromance they share sexual ideas and sexual practice. That is something that made me personally very uncomfortable and I really didn’t want to put that in my film. It’s hard to have two men talk about sex in a movie and make it acceptable. There’s a scene like that in My Sex Life—and even I adore that movie and [director Arnaud] Desplechin, but in that moment, I look away.
NOTEBOOK: Nevertheless, you have taken your share of more provocative or explicit roles as an actor.
GARREL: I prefer to see it. In Y Tu Mamá También you see the guys. They talk about sex, they’re so young. That’s why the movie is so brilliant, because at the end they do it together and it’s the end of the friendship. When you talk about movies that I’ve done when I was naked, I have no problem with that. I can have problems with sexual scenes in general as a spectator, but it can be done well. But two 30-year old men talking about it—to pull that off is a major challenge. A test.
NOTEBOOK: Y Tu Mamá También features a love triangle, as in your film. Are there any that figured into your mind while making Two Friends?
GARREL: There is Raoul Walsh’s Manpower and coincidentally we have the same situation. The movie is better than mine, but there is the same situation where Marlene Dietrich is getting out of jail and two guys, one tall and one little, fall in love with her—and it’s the way they manage with that. There’s also Claude Sautet’s movie, but it’s completely different. So many movies with menage a troi. Two men and a girl. What’s that phrase about a good story? All you need is boy meets girl.
NOTEBOOK: I want to ask how the film came together. Was it borne naturally of your short films? How did you share the writing responsibilities and was it ever a consideration to have Christophe direct and you write?
GARREL: I directed a short film called La regle du trois (Rule of Three) but it was completely different. I cast Goldshifteh in it and when the producers saw it, they said take the same actors and write a movie. So I found a subject and then wrote a treatment. Christophe remixed and changed it a little bit. I’m not sure that Christophe would be interested in making this movie.
NOTEBOOK: Have there been any comparisons of this film to those of your father?
GARREL: Not that much. They’re so different. Also because Philippe Garrel is his own style, a much more existentialist style. I’ve done a lot less than him as a director, and the way the actors play is much more artificial. He needs a human presence that is a more restrained, a little more pulled back so he can make his kind of film, whereas I need the actors to be more hysterically invested.
NOTEBOOK: In that sense are your actors or you improvising a lot?
GARREL: I don’t improvise so much. I rehearse a lot and read the text with them. There’s one thing that I do believe, which is that I really know how to look at actors, and I know how to look at these people because I know them well, so I’m able to remind them of the things they forgot to include of themselves. I can tell Vincent, “don’t forget about your humor, your sensuality.” Same with Goldshifteh. It’s kind of like a long piano and I would tell them you’re too much in the bass notes.
NOTEBOOK: I suppose that comes of being an actor yourself.
GARREL: It helps when you shoot in the cold winter. Sometimes the two actors they were freezing and sometimes it helps to be there with them and give them energy. An actor’s like a match. You have to strike first, and then there’s fire.
NOTEBOOK: Did you work closely with the editing process? Did you have a chance to edit your own performance?
GARREL: I edited my short films, but I was too obsessive so I need a very experienced editor and I met Joëlle Hache who also worked on Camille Claudel, all the movies of Patrice Leconte. She loved classic narratives and I knew my movie needed a very rigorous edit.
NOTEBOOK: Philippe Sarde did the score, which plays a big part in the film.
GARREL: It was very important for the music to be melodic, which is something that people are not doing so much these days. In a way it hearkens back to an 80s tradition where films tended to have music with a melody. There’s a film by André Téchiné called Barocco, and I often sing to the music from it to myself. Philippe Sarde scored that. He also did the music to a Jacques Doillon film that I acted in. Once I made my film I called him and asked him if he’d be interested in scoring it. He said “I’ll watch the film but I might fall asleep, because I fall asleep at the movies a lot.” When he came out of the movie he said, “I didn’t fall asleep and it’s a film about culpability so that inspires me, so I’ll do it.” In a way, the film draws on cinema of another time with the music as well. It’s a mix of different things. There’s these 80s films referenced, but also music of my generation and even younger than my generation. I knew it had to have this unfashionable or timeless feel.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a contemporary song by King Krule that underscores a great scene where Goldshifteh’s character Mona dances in a bar.
GARREL: Yes, I’m crazy about King Krule and he pushed the scene, which could have been a stupid scene that was too expected or obvious in a romantic film. The fact that the music is actually kind of punk throws the scene off balance or gives it this distance that makes it good.
NOTEBOOK: Did you give her directions on the dance or choreograph it in any way?
GARREL: There’s a dance teacher who’s also a choreographer and I asked her to rehearse with Goldshifteh and work on the themes of the character. One thing that took me a long time to find was the café, which is deep in the 18th arrondissement. What I did find was that I was looking for something that was a little more 80s again. It’s funny because there are a lot of original cafes taken over by Chinese families and these are left as is, kind of an 80s feel, whereas others are being changed to have this lounge vibe now.
NOTEBOOK: The locations you certainly had a lived-in and sometimes outdated feel.
GARREL: The principle that I start from is—granted that I love cinema—that when you’re a child, you want to be in the film, so when I make a film, I always ask myself, are people going to want to be in it?
NOTEBOOK: What movie specifically do you want to be in?
GARREL: The 400 Blows. It’s so tough, but there is tenderness. I don’t know why but when he goes to his friend the house of his friends you want to be with Antoine with them jumping on the bed. There’s something so sweet in every movie of Truffaut. With Truffaut this is something that clearly shows the difference between a very good director, a good director, and less good directors. Very good directors are able to make a scene that is a direct illustration of what you felt, and make the viewer feel what you felt at some point in your life.