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A Conversation with Philippe Garrel (Part 1)

Philippe Garrel (photo by Darren Hughes)

Explaining why Philippe Garrel is one of my favorite working directors can be difficult. Talking with a co-worker, I tried to sketch out his recurring interests: “he makes movies about men, often directors, who cheat on women and have trouble with themselves.” She rolled her eyes, and I’m not blaming her: what, again?

Garrel began making movies as a teenager, and his early work that I’ve seen is both gorgeous and the epitome of stereotypical arthouse pretension of the period. There is 1968’s Le lit de la vierge, a very of-its-time film about a particularly mopey Jesus, and 1975’s Le berceau de cristal, in which his then-lover Nico smokes opium and stares blankly. It wasn’t until 1979’s L’enfant secret that Garrel began moving into the realm of reasonably conventional narrative, in a series of dramas that double as family therapy. Working early and often with his actor father Maurice, latterly with his son Louis, and even playing a version of himself in 1989’s Emergency Kisses, Garrel repeatedly probes personal and family history.

To prepare for this interview, I watched two Garrel films I’d never seen before, which helped clarify his artistic evolution. 1983’s Liberté, la nuit stars Maurice as a disillusioned French soldier who gets involved with the Algerian resistance. Maurice’s wife (Emmanuelle Riva) is introduced in an extended reaction shot, observing her unseen husband, her continually changing facial reactions mesmerizing without being plot points. This is a less unwieldy refinement of Garrel’s earlier experiments with portraiture (influenced in part by his time spent hanging around Andy Warhol, discussed below), and an example of his great gift for capturing performers in the critical moment before the plot kicks in, when they’re simply being. The films are often abruptly funny, particularly in Garrel’s work from 2005’s Regular Lovers onwards, where Louis or a similarly stone-faced actor sullenly occupies the center of an emotional maelstrom, a juxtaposition that always makes me chuckle. I suspect Garrel doesn’t see his films that way (he says as much in this interview), but his films are open enough not to direct you to any particular correct reaction.

Garrel’s appearance at NYFF to show In the Shadow of Women was a rare opportunity to interview the director. The format was unusual but surprisingly productive: along with my colleagues Darren Hughes (representing MUBI) and Eric Hynes (a programmer at MoMI representing Reverse Shot), we had three hours to speak with Garrel. A purple heart must be awarded to translator Nicholas Elliott, who not only recapped six minutes’ worth of speech at a time but did so in easily transcribable, virtually word-perfect form — not merely translating, but inflecting and acting out the meaning of the sentences. Garrel (who has a fair command of English but prefers to speak in French for speed’s sake) was visibly impressed. We’re publishing the interview in three parts; the second part is here, the third here.

The interview begins in response to a query from Garrel to Hynes as to whether he’d passed along a message to a filmmaker; then he explained who he was talking about.

Garrel: He was at Cannes, I was showing La cicatrice intérieure. At a crossroads at Cannes, he caught me — I was with Nico — and said “I know who you are.” And I said, “Who are you?” “I’m Jim Jarmusch.”I said, “I don’t want to speak.” And he said, “It’s a pity!” I always remember that scene, that I refused to talk with a young filmmaker from my generation, because I was afraid he’d take my wife!

Hynes: He was a good looking guy in those days.

Garrel: Yeah, exactly. He’s not presentable nowadays?

Hynes: He’s very presentable.

Garrel: His last movie was fantastic. I thought it was a low-budget movie. It’s not.

Hynes: It’s not super low-budget.

Rizov: And he got tax breaks by shooting in Detroit.

Garrel: Like $4 or $5 million. Not a one-million budget.

Hynes: But I think that he often goes to Europe for financing.

Garrel: Ah, that’s why. Because ten years ago, a lot of people said, “[There is] no more money” — during the subprime crisis — “in New York. Everybody has gone to Detroit,” like you said. Nobody wants to — can, not want — put private money into a movie like before, so I thought it must be a low-budget movie. Why the movie is great is because it’s one of the good films in digital. If you look, in general, the photographic artistic level has dropped except for Jarmusch and Blue is the Warmest Color, which is a fantastic film.

Hynes: Is there anything about seeing those films that makes you curious about trying it yourself?

Garrel: I’m like this group of Hollywood directors who went to see Kodak in Manchester and said, “We’re still going to shoot film. Even if our films are distributed on digital, we’re going to shoot on 35mm.” And I was one of the first in Paris to say, “I’m going to stop shooting if there’s no more 35mm.” It’s like what Henri Langlois said — Henri Langlois, who is one of the five major friends of my life. We were friends in the ’70s. He said — at one point people were saying black and white was going to disappear — “It’s impossible. Black and white cannot disappear, because cinema was invented in black and white.” And it’s true: for ten years it was very difficult to make films in black and white, but then it came back. So now, I think it’s a similar thing. People have said that 35mm is finished, it’s over. I don’t think it’s true because it’s the same thing. Cinema was invented in 35mm. So I think this is just a passage we’re going through, even though distribution has been generalized to be in digital, because it’s easier. But I’m sure I’m right, and I’m like these Hollywood directors who will keep shooting in 35mm. And in France, they’re even now shooting advertisements on 35mm, so it will continue.

Hughes: How do you decide between black and white and color?

Garrel: Many directors are frustrated actors or writers, and some are frustrated painters. Me, when I was a child, I was a painter. I went to a public state school at one point that was at the Louvre. It was called the “Arts Decos’” [the Decorative Arts School], and I was in a specific workshop that was for people under 15. That’s what really brought me to art, this workshop for people under 15. I was very good at pencil drawing, and I was good at gouache, but when I first tried oil painting, I found my painting very bad and I broke it, I destroyed it. That’s when I decided I would make films. For me, black and white is like a pencil drawing, color is like a gouache, and it’s because of that moment, with that first oil painting — when I was maybe 13 or 14 — I realized it’s very, very, very hard to do oil painting. It’s not like gouache. Mixing colors with oil is much more complicated. If you put a blue and red together, it won’t be a violet like it would be in gouache. It would be a brown. So, I’m scared of color, and I make three black and white films for one color film. Overall, I’ve made four more black and white films than color films.

Hughes: When I think of your films, I think of a close-up of a face against a white background, or a white-washed window. When I saw A Burning Hot Summer a couple of years ago, it was shocking to see Louis’ face against those blue and red walls in the apartment.

Garrel: Yes. There’s also an economic aspect to this. For me, to make a film in color is twice the cost of black and white. That’s not really because of the cost of buying the film or the lab work, that’s about the same today. The reason is that for me to shoot color, I need not only a DP, I also need a costume designer and a set designer. This is something that I learned from Raoul Coutard. Raoul Coutard told me this about Godard and he also told me this regarding Antonioni — where you find emotion in the red, for instance, regarding Antonioni. The thing with color photography is that it’s not only about lights, so you don’t only need a DP, it’s also about the color tones that you use. That’s why you need more money. When you’re shooting color, you need to change the sets, you need to change the walls, you need to change the costumes. What Coutard explained to me — Coutard, who is alive but he’s no longer shooting, and he’s the greatest French DP — he explained to me that in Godard, and also in Jacques Demy, the range of colors that would be used was decided beforehand. Godard uses the three primary colors: red, yellow, blue, and also green. Antonioni is the same thing: you don’t have pink, violet, etc. I think that’s where you get the special chromatic effect that I find emotional.
Demy is the opposite: you have violet, pink, etc. But if you want to avoid having colors clashing, the way they do in life, you need to make sure you have a harmony of colors, and for that, you have to transform every set, every costume. You need to put paper up on the walls that you’ve made in special workshops.

The reason I’m talking about economics is that if you look at Jealousy and In the Shadow of Women, for example, these are real low-budget films. They’re about a million, a million and a half each, so really low budget. I pay the bottom union rates. It’s very quick, they’re made in 21 days. Another thing about black and white is when I shoot black and white, I don’t use make-up. The women don’t wear make-up, not even their own personal make-up. They’re not allowed. But if I shoot color, immediately I have to have make-up, because otherwise that means the skin will be red. That means more lights, you have to have a make-up person, so you’ve got a heavier, bigger crew. Another reason I shoot black and white is so that I can make low-budget films, and that’s the condition of my freedom. That’s how I stay free. If I make for one or 1.5 million, I demand, in exchange, total freedom. I get final cut, no one has any right to have any influence on the cut of my film or anything — the distributors, the financiers, they can’t say anything. But I couldn’t request, or be able to get, that kind of freedom, if I wasn’t less expensive than the other directors. That’s something that I understood from Godard. I understood that Godard was the most avant-garde director of the French New Wave because he was a little less expensive than Truffaut, Chabrol, and the others, and it’s similar to how I am now vis-a-vis Desplechin or Carax. My films cost about half the price of their films. I understood that about Godard, that he was more avant-garde through being less expensive. And it wasn’t by exploiting his crews, it was about being faster. He shot in less time, he edited in less time — that’s the condition of my freedom, that’s how I can keep my freedom, and it’s something that’s very rare in the US today.

Hynes: This is related to something you and I talked about last year, about working with single takes for the most part, and there being a practical reason for that. But then there’s an actual effect of that too. Hearing you talk about all the reasons you work in black and white — financially, logistically, and in terms of your own control — there’s also an effect from that. So you make a practical choice about make-up, and yet seeing your actors on screen in that manner has an effect on us as an audience in terms of how we approach them as people. How do you see the value in that as an effect?

Garrel: When I made my first films — Marie pour mémoireLes hautes solitudesL’enfant secret… I’m talking about the films that I produced myself, which here were probably only seen by cinephiles. I made these films with no money at all. That’s how I’m different from the New Wave, because I made films like a painter painting. I took some money that I got from patrons to buy paint and canvas, what painters would do. Now, the New Wave, they made inexpensive films, but industrially they weren’t working like painters. So that’s a difference that I have from the New Wave. I was my own producer for 15 years, and I don’t mean a painter with an office. What I would do is, I found this idea of asking for the leftover, unexposed film on a roll that was taken out. At that time, when stars acted, as soon as the star had been shot, they would change the roll of film, because they were afraid that the roll would run out if the star was doing something else. So I invented this idea of making features by going around and asking people to give me their leftover, unexposed film. There was so little film, therefore, to shoot, that I couldn’t shoot two takes, it was impossible. So all my films were made in this way. Then in 1983, when I started working with producers, I kept this one-take method. And, in a sense, it’s a lucky accident, a lucky coincidence, because now, if I hadn’t done that, the producers could have forced me to shoot digital. My first films were shot in 35mm using this method, and when people switched to digital, the argument was that digital is so much less expensive to shoot. So if I didn’t have the one-take method, I could have lost that argument. Now, I make a film with maybe five hours of exposed film. It’s very different from Abdetallif Kechiche, who for Blue is the Warmest Color shot 600 hours. Jealousy, I had five hours of rushes. In the Shadow of Women, four hours of rushes. That’s a huge difference from digital, and, in my case, it’s a method that I’ve had from the beginning.

Hynes: But there’s substance in what the artwork is too.

Garrel: There’s no doubt — unquestionably, this one-shot method leads to a specific genre of film. As I’m the son of an actor who died four years ago now, I’m very, very sensitive to the question of good acting. I work like the theater does. I rehearse long before the shoot, let’s say about 25 days. I rehearse with the actors, and that’s where I do all the directing, in rehearsal. Once we’re on set, I do only one take, and that one take works because of everything that I’ve done before. If I used the traditional method of cinema-making — coming in in the morning and starting to direct the actors at that point — it would be extremely, extremely difficult. It’s thanks to the fact that I added the theater rehearsal before the shoot that we can do this. And to be specific about it, it’s actually more than theater, because what we do is we work for 25 Saturdays. That’s nearly a year, let’s say about eight months, if you don’t work on holiday, and that allows the role to mature in the actors’ minds [and] the actors to act together. A lot of times now there’s this absurd risk that actors meet on the set for the first time and have never acted before. If only for the chemistry, as they say here, it’s so important for them to be together. So, what I have the opportunity of doing, starting with the casting in these rehearsals, is to match the actors together, to see different people together and see how it works. That’s how my method has evolved.

Many, many French films — not as many American films, but still some — are simply bad because there’s no chemistry between the actors. Directors see an actor, they see an actress separately, they say they’re great, and it’s like they’re putting two photos together. But it doesn’t mean that they can act together, it doesn’t mean that they’ll have chemistry. Hollywood knows that, I think. In France, you can’t test stars together. If you want a star, you deal with the star separately. You can’t test them together. I’m told that in Hollywood, they have readings with stars and actors together so you can see how they go together. You see films where actors may be very good, but organically, they’re not meant to play together; they don’t play together. My second career is as an acting career. I spent eight years teaching at the Conservatoire in Paris, the national school, also two years at the National Theater School in Strasbourg. When my films don’t make enough money for me to make a living, I sign up to teach acting. It’s there that I saw this business about chemistry — that though actors may have the talent, they don’t fit together. That’s something that you have you to look at in casting. Apart from the Actors’ Studio, in cinema we’re very, very primitive about this question of the association of actors.

Rizov: One of the things I associate with your films is a shot of a face or a whole body in the moment before the actual dialogue and argument of the scene starts. These can go on for a long time. I was watching Liberté, la nuit last night and saw that some of the reaction shots of Emmanuelle Riva are much longer than you let them go on now. This also relates to your work in the ’70s, such Le berceau de cristal, which is a lot of portraiture, which relates to your interest in the screen test. Could you talk a little bit about how long you allow them to get to this point, whether it’s up to them to decide when to enter the dialogue, and how you’ve changed your compression of these moments?

Garrel: Like the New Wave, what I liked best when I went to the Cinematheque was the silent films. For instance, I think that Sunrise by Murnau is one of the greatest films ever made. My three top films are Godard’s My Life to Live, Bergman’s Monika, Munrau’s Sunrise. Why? Because of the faces, the silent shots of faces. Now, when I wrote scripts by myself in the period you’re referring to, the dialogue was very, very short. That’s because I’m a paranoid type. Paranoid types don’t talk very much. It’s like Warhol. I think it’s very useful in art to be paranoid or schizoid. The most paranoid person I ever met, the most paranoid artist, was Warhol. I met him through Nico. He never talked. You would see him standing there all pale in the Factory, never talking, and he made these long, hours-long silent films with no talking. To me, that’s the work of a paranoid man, and I’m paranoid too. So at the time of Liberté, la nuit, the entire dialogue of my film was three or four pages long. Once I started with co-scriptwriters — this started with Marc Cholodenko, who is also a novelist. This started with Emergency Kisses. He’s more of a schizoid, so my cinema started to talk. There were pages and pages of dialogue. My original thing, though, comes from who I am, and the silent films that Henri Langlois showed me. At the time, the silent directors that people really liked were Murnau, Fritz Lang and — now he’s a little bit out of fashion, young people don’t know him so well — but I loved Erich von Stroheim. These films of von Stroheim’s, you would see them in a kind of half-waking state. It was like a dream, these films were like opium to me. And I think that left a trace on me, aside from my personality, which is to not talk very much, at least not in art, not to declare. This combination of the paranoid and the silent films is what had an impact. Now, today, things have really changed because I work with co-screenwriters.

Hughes: My favorite moment in In the Shadow of Women is when Pierre and Elizabeth are sitting on the bed together. I think he’s fixing a coffee maker, and he hurts her feelings, and she leans forward. She’s so delightful before he makes the hurtful comment, she’s just staring at him and admiring him, and then when he hurts her she leans forward, toward the camera, and makes this gesture with her hand. It’s really lovely, and I’m wondering — you talked about 25 Saturdays of rehearsals, and I’m wondering what the scene looked like at the beginning of those 25 days versus the one when the camera’s finally rolling and you get that one take. Where does that gesture come from? How are those choices made?

Garrel: All the young people in my films since Savage Innocence, which is 2001, have come from the Conservatoire, the national conservatory of acting Paris where I teach, like for example Lena Paugam, who you’re talking about. In my work as a professor with an acting class, it’s not at all a magisterial lesson. It’s a workshop class. I have a camera man, I have a sound person, I have a small camera, and I get the actors to do scenes in front of the camera. My work is to deblock the actor, to free the actor, to give him the freedom that’s been taken away from him by being filmed. Because being filmed paralyzes him, my job is to remove that paralysis. So that for example, for that gesture, my responsibility is simply to free the actress. She invents it, she makes the gesture in that moment that you’re referring to where he’s hurt her feelings and she’s repulsed and slightly traumatized. My only responsibility for the gesture is to free her, to be free on the set. Now, some good directors will push the actor. They’re like, “Let me show you what to do,” and then the actor imitates the director. I stay behind the camera. I don’t ever get in front of the camera, I don’t show them what to do, I don’t say what to do, I free them. Now, that takes a very long time, which is why it’s useful to have these many rehearsal days that I use. All my recent films — Savage InnocenceRegular LoversJealousy, etc. — have actors from the Conservatoire, either people from my own classroom or, because I’m a titular professor there, people who I see at the graduation exercises in the new classes. So the level of acting is reached by the level of freedom; the actor has to be himself and to act only like he would. And that’s what’s touching about it. In Regular Lovers, for instance, the May ’68 riot scenes, all of those people — 45 actors — come from the Conservatoire. So what you have behind that is six years of work in my class. School nourishes the set for me. And my son has been my student too in class, so he knows very well what the other students have done. It’s not like he is only my son, because he’s just a student like the others.

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