The Everyday Fantasies of Philippe Garrel

In considering Philippe Garrel, the 65-year-old director of Night Wind (1999) and Emergency Kisses (1989), it may seem that outside of hardcore cinephiles, no one knows his name. Perhaps easily linked to another Garrel, the actor Louis, who came into the international consciousness with Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 ode to ‘60s Parisian nostalgia and ménage-a-trois, The Dreamers—Philippe Garrel (Louis’ father, by the way), has somehow managed to stay outside of the mainstream, and many of his films have not even been released abroad. 

Enamored by the giants of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, Garrel made his first film in 1964 at age 16. Part of the May ’68 generation, he channeled a revolutionary spirit into his body of subtly cinematic work, focusing on life’s seemingly banal, but essential happenings: family, art, and of course, love. Many of Garrel’s favorite actors, especially in the ’70s and ’80s, surrounded him in real life, including German singer Nico, whom he dated from 1969 to 1979; his ex-wife Brigitte Sy; his son, Louis; and perhaps one of his most frequent collaborators, his father, the actor Maurice Garrel. Garrel’s penchant for capturing autobiographical details has burrowed itself into his films, yielding stark portraits of intimacy, alienation, and the dynamic between men and women.

Garrel recently debuted his 25th feature, Jealousy, at the New York Film Festival, and is the subject of a new retrospective, “Philippe Garrel: An Auteur Apart,” at New York’s French Institute Alliance Française. Featuring five of his films—Emergency Kisses (1989), I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (1991), The Birth of Love (1993), Regular Lovers (2005), and A Burning Hot Summer (2011)—the series takes a look at the size and scope of Garrel’s creative preoccupations over his nearly 50-year filmmaking career.

Interview recently spoke with Garrel, via an interpreter, while he was in Paris.

COLLEEN KELSEY: Philippe, you came after the New Wave and have been pretty vocal about your appreciation for Godard and Truffaut. Why has their approach to cinema influenced you so much?

PHILIPPE GARREL: Yes. The patterns that interested me the most about the films of Godard and Truffaut cinema were their films about love. The films about couples with one comedienne in the principal role. I found the manner was like a model and a painter: the rapport between one man and one woman, the man behind the camera and the woman in front.

KELSEY: A lot of your films use autobiography as a framework for the narrative. What about these everyday occurrences—relationships, or love, or familydo you find to be compelling to base your films on?

GARREL: Like most filmmakers and writers, there are roots in my own life, but they are stories that I invent. There was a period of time in my life when I made directly autobiographical films where I truly told what happened to me. But, now, I don’t make directly autobiographical films anymore. I am more for renouncing that and being in front of history. The large part [of my work] tells about something I know. It’s close.

KELSEY: Your films are also very naturalistic. When you work with your actors, do you give them much direction or a finalized script? How do you work with them?

GARREL: I know very well that parts of the films are naturalistic, but I try to avoid that. As for the rapport between the actors, I have returned to written scenes with partly improvised dialogue in written situations. In writing my last film, Jealousy, I began to let the actors improvise. There was dialogue for them in order to learn their roles, to define the situations well, but I let them improvise parts of scenes. Now, as when I made films that were too autobiographical, the problem is how to escape naturalism. If you tell a strictly true story, because the way you are telling it is false, it creates naturalism. We improvise as well, and we end up capturing more of real life. There are gushes of unconscious attitude in the situation. But at the same time, I also become a naturalist. And to become a naturalist is something I avoid, in fact. It is fake life—that is the problem. It is because we are familiar with situationnisme, and the critique of the spectacle, et cetera, which is a very fair criticism. People who have no life, and who watch this fake life on a screen—it’s a very alienated situation. And that’s what situationnisme is about.

But I’m not able to completely escape naturalism. It’s very difficult to escape from naturalism without being too dry. That’s what I try to do in my cinema—escape naturalism and do films that are, at the same time, realistic but have a lot of fantasy. It’s very difficult in cinema to get away from what life is about, from real life. The way the actors work has to be realistic—you can’t do Baroque acting—so it’s very complicated. And, we’re human beings, so we’re not perfect. I’m trying to do something different, but it’s a complicated question.

KELSEY: How do you approach creating male and female characters and their dynamic?

GARREL: For Jealousy, actually, for the dialogue and the script, I worked with two women, and a man, and myself. I worked with Arlette Langmann, a scriptwriter for [Maurice] Pialat—she worked on Loulou (1980) and À Nos Amours (1983). Caroline Deruas was involved—she’s a younger woman, she’s 35, and brought in another, younger approach to write the role of the young woman. I also worked with Marc Cholodenko, he’s a writer and poet. He’s received several prizes, the Prix Medicis among others, and he’s very original in the way he writes the dialogue—it’s more literature oriented. So, in the film, for instance, the main character says, “You are my definite love. You are my definite love.” And this is not actually naturalist at all, but it is acceptable, so there is a certain fantasy of it. So it’s not realist, but it has a sense of fantasy. I’ve been working with Marc Cholodenko for a long time now—we write together. And that’s how I approach the roles so you have that dialectic between the male and the female roles. But it’s really anarchic, the way we write. So it’s not the women do the women’s roles and the men do the men’s roles. They have their different styles and languages and I don’t touch the scene when they write them. I keep them. And because I actually filmed in chronological order of the film, the camera, the way I work with the camera, kind of rewrites and gives unity to the script and the dialogue.

This is the first film I worked with four people. On my five last films, I worked with three other people: a woman and another man and myself. And you need a very good producer to be able to pay for this, and that’s very unusual in France. Sometimes there’s not as much money for screenplays. And there’s not as much time and as much energy put into them. But the screenplay is very important because you need something very solid in order to make such a small budget film. Everything has to be very tight. And that’s also very rare. The risk with screenplays, of course, is that they may not be made into films. The problem in France is that we don’t spend enough money on screenplays, as opposed to the United States.

KELSEY: I also wanted to talk a little about your working relationship with your son, Louis. He debuted as a child in your film Emergency Kisses (1989), but has acted in each of your films since Regular Lovers in 2005. Why have you chosen to use Louis in your films as he has gotten older?

GARREL: I involved my father very early on, from the first short that I made when I was 16, continuing throughout my career.  I really like working with my family. Louis became an actor even before I started having him in my films. He was actually my student at the conservatory. When my father passed away, it was difficult to make a film again. Louis Garrel was important. I developed with him what I called the Cinema d’amité—Cinema of Friendships—which I had with my father. In a way, I was [my father’s] disciple. He would read all the scenarios and the scripts that I would write and give me his green light.

KELSEY: How do you think your process to making films has evolved since you began?

GARREL: The first period of my career, from ’64 to ’83, I didn’t have a producer. I made a dozen films without receiving a wage or having any support. And I didn’t have any scripts for these films. L’enfant secret was the first film I had a screenplay for. I shot it in 14 days and I won the Jean Vigo prize, which helped me get a first producer for Liberté, la nuit. Since then, in ’83, I’ve always had a script. But I worked very differently, in that respect. But now, with Jealousy, I realize that it’s not because I have a script that I don’t have to return to the style of my beginnings. In fact, Marc Cholodenko always said that he preferred my first films and, in fact, my first films were the ones descended from people like Godard and Truffaut.  So, I want to go back to a more poetic style and that’s what I tried to do with Jealousy. So it’s the cinéma des rêves écrites—written cinema of dreams, so to speak.