OLGA MILSHTEIN, LOUIS GARREL, AND ANNA MOUGLALIS IN JEALOUSY. IMAGE COURTESY OF DISTRIB FILMS.
For the Garrel family, making art seems to be a matter of genetics. Philippe, the post-New Wave French director, who zipped around Paris with Godard in a Ferrari shooting newsreels during May ’68, has made a series of stunning, searingly emotional films dealing with the complications of love, art, politics, and human behavior throughout his career. Likewise, his late, film actor father Maurice, and his son, Louis, another actor (The Dreamers; Love Songs; Saint Laurent), have preoccupied themselves with the art of performance.
Given many of Philippe’s films are rooted in quotidian events, it’s apt that he has chosen to feature those closest to him, including Maurice, Louis, his daughter Esther, and his ex-partners Nico and Brigitte Sy (Louis’ mother), in his films, entwining his personal relationships with his artistic ones. The three generations of men—Philippe, Louis, and Maurice—all come together in Philippe’s latest film, Jealousy, opening Friday.
Louis’ first experience working with his father was at age five, and after a number of films assuming Philippe’s cinematic alter ego, Jealousy, their fifth collaboration, puts Louis in a role derived from his grandfather as a 30-year-old struggling theater actor (also named Louis), who leaves the mother of their daughter for a fellow actress played by Anna Mouglalis. Jealousy is a simple story, but not simplistic—a modern-day retelling of Philippe’s experience when his own father Maurice left his mother when Philippe was a child, and the profound loss of cutting those ties.
Working with cinematographer Willy Kurant (Masculin féminin ) Jealousy plays out in lush black and white, separated into two sections (“I Kept the Angels” and “Sparks in a Powder Keg”) that follow Louis and his new life, love, and eventual heartbreak, and shrewdly reflects on the vagaries of love and betrayal.
We recently called up Louis while he was on holiday in the South of France.
COLLEEN KELSEY: Hi Louis, how are you?
LOUIS GARREL: I’m very good, thank you. I’m in the South of France. Are you good, in New York?
KELSEY: Everything’s great. So, before we start talking about Jealousy, I was curious about this: Considering how involved your family is with making movies and acting, was there a distinct moment when you were growing up where you knew you wanted to be a part of it?
GARREL: When I was five years old, I made a movie with my whole family. It’s called Emergency Kisses , and it’s a movie that my father directed. My grandfather was an actor and my mother, then my father’s ex-girlfriend—we were all in the movie. I knew that when I was five years old, I didn’t want to act. I was just doing this because they asked me to do it. [laughs] I used to go to theater with my mother because she was involved in a theater troupe, but I saw shows alone at the Comédie Française or the Théâtre de l’Odéon. After I discovered Le départ  by Jerzy Skolimowski and then Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 , it was the first time that I knew. When I was 12, my father and I used to exchange movies. I said, “Okay, we go to see this comic movie,” and he said “Okay, next Wednesday or Saturday we’re going to see the new Godard.” Like Hélas pour moi . It was a little bit too much for a young boy.
When I was 14, I think it was a French teacher who showed Truffaut’s movies and I said, “Oh, movies can also help you in your life. I want to be part of movies,” but more like a child wants to live like Jean-Pierre Léaud. Antoine Doinel [Léaud’s character in Truffaut’s five-part “The Adventures of Antoine Doinel” series] was something because he’s never connected to his parents. He seems to be more free, more wild than everyone, and very independent. Stolen Kisses  is the first memory of a movie I love very much. Doinel is completely devoted to women and love, and jobs and ambition is second. Right now I’m reading a book about Truffaut by the famous New York Times critic Pauline Kael. She hated Stolen Kisses! So critical. “A movie you could put in the garbage, Truffaut seems to be completely artificial…” Horrible!
KELSEY: You’ve worked on many films with you father. But what is it like working with him versus working with another director you’ve worked with repeatedly?
GARREL: With my father, it’s funny, because the first time I worked with him, I was 19. When I was 15, I was a big fan of his work; we used to go to see his movies. When he proposed for me to work with him regularly, I was very pleased and honored to work with him. I’ve been through the process of making a movie with him, so when you work with him once, the second time, you know his method. He works as a painter and a poet with a very regular method. We’ve done five movies together, so we can have a good conversation [about the films.] After A Burning Hot Summer  I said, “Philippe, I’m not a big fan of A Burning Hot Summer because it is aesthetically well done, but there are not so many elements of real life.”
When he told me about the script of Jealousy, a small story about a man who is leaving the mother of their daughter and what it is to destroy this small equilibrium. I said, “Let’s try to make this movie like a small painting. Let’s think about [Jean] Renoir when he’s making Partie de champagne .” Then, we had the chance to meet this the little girl who is in the movie. She was very good. When he was editing the movie, sometimes we could see that, “Okay, we need this, or…” He listens a lot. It’s very interesting for me to work with Philippe. You can be the actor, or the assistant.
KELSEY: Has it been more freeing working with him than working with some of the other directors you’ve worked with?
GARREL: Someone like Christophe Honoré, it’s completely different. The first time we did a movie together it was Ma mère . The first time that I read the script, I was supposed to masturbate myself “as a monkey.” He wrote this line, “The character is taking himself as a monkey.” I was completely afraid and I said, “What do you mean, ‘as a monkey’?!” After, you know, I knew the movie was very rude. After, he wrote Dans Paris , with me and Romain Duris, and he completely changed, so I could see that he was very free. I mean, he’s got a style, but he’s interested in switching styles and switching scale of stories. We were working with Paulo Branco and Paulo is fantastic, a crazy producer, he produced maybe like 200 movies in his life. It’s completely crazy. We could do everything. Christophe and I are in a brotherhood. I try to make him happy as a young brother can make his big brother happy.
KELSEY: Going back to Jealousy, your character is based on your grandfather, but as someone who shares the same profession that you do, and the same name as well, how much of yourself can you incorporate into a character like that? Is there a big difference?
GARREL: You know, the life of a grandfather, it’s always a story. You start to imagine the story of your grandfather. Even if it’s based on my grandfather, it’s completely imaginary also, because the events that Philippe knew about Maurice were told by Maurice. When a grandfather tells his family the story of his life, it’s storytelling, like a fable. When we started the movie, Philippe told me, “I’m going to talk to all the actors.” He likes rehearsal with all the actors. He said, “In the movie, I’m the little girl.” All of the actors, we were all involved in the project knowing this. It was very touching like to hear Philippe say this, “I’m the daughter and I’m going to try to reorganize my memory of my feelings about what did I feel when my parents were splitting.”
KELSEY: Do you think that he discovered anything new about himself through making this film?
GARREL: I don’t think so. Because when you do a movie, you have distance. You need to take a lot of time. Philippe is not interested about discovering himself in the movie. But I’m sure that sometimes he told me, ” In Regular Lovers , we succeeded in doing this, and in this movie, we failed in doing this…” This movie we found that you need distance, more time, to know exactly what you did. You never understand if what you did is cinematically good, or like, existentially great, which is better, when you do more of a piece of art. You can do a good movie, or you can do a good movie that can help people to feel the idea of what it is like to live. It can be good in an artificial way; it can be also a good movie for your own existence. You don’t know that when you do a movie. You don’t know if you succeeded, which is the most difficult thing. So I think Philippe is more in this interrogation of “Is the movie good for people?” more than, “Did I discover something about myself?”
KELSEY: One of the questions I like to ask actors or directors is: What do you think movies can tell us about real life?
GARREL: Sometimes living is not so light and easy and you need a representation of life in front of you. It’s a fake reorganization of reality. You start to feel, “I’m not so alone in the world because I can recognize exactly the same feelings.” [laughs] Someone else is living the same thing, the director is showing something that he was living. I feel close [to that]. It can help you live. It can also show you beautiful things in your life that you don’t take time to watch, that the movie’s taking time to watch. It gives you desire to go back to the life to see the beauty of things. It sounds a little bit naïve, but it can be that.
JEALOUSY OPENS THIS FRIDAY AT FILM SOCIETY AT LINCOLN CENTER IN NEW YORK, AND AUGUST 22 IN L.A.