That English-language cinema has no parallel for the Garrel family is equal testament to their legacy and our shallow, piddling culture. While Philippe Garrel’s decades-long filmmaking career––which began with political documentation and silent features, but now represents modern cinema’s best studies of romance and longing––just added to its corpus his excellent The Plough, starring progeny Louis Garrel, Esther Garrel, and Lena Garrel, Louis is about to see the U.S. debut of The Innocent, his fourth feature in writing-directing-starring capacities.
If it barely resembles his father’s films––still attuned to human behavior, but packaging observations inside madcap scenarios Garrel proudly calls “completely unbelievable”––that’s all the better: watching The Innocent suggests less an heir to Philippe Garrel than Dino Risi or Pierre Etaix.
Ahead of a release this Friday beginning at NYC’s IFC Center, I talked to Garrel about the difficulty of constructing an intricate comedy-thriller, editorial force, and––because there is only so much time on earth––Mort Rifkin.
The Film Stage: In past interviews you’ve talked about hating boredom in movies––that when you write and direct there’s this constant need to keep audiences on their toes.
Louis Garrel: Yes, for sure.
And The Innocent does this with a great sense of speed: elliptical fades, heavy crossfades, split-screen. I’m curious how this editorial style was fashioned. Is it primarily in writing, shooting, editing? Some combination of all three?
I mean, for sure in the beginning of the work––when I was starting to write The Innocent––I thought of autobiographical stuff. Because my mother really married a guy in jail. And I knew, because I was taking this as a solid base for the film, I didn’t want to make a chronicle. At all. I didn’t want to make, like, a naturalistic movie about this anecdote. It became just an anecdote because I’m not a poet. I’m not, like… [Laughs] I’m an actor, you know? So since the beginning I knew that I wanted to be playful with the genre, different genres––switch from a heist movie to a romantic comedy to a family chronicle between mother and son.
When I was writing the film I took a coffee with Pedro Almodóvar, because I know him a little bit. He said, “What are you writing right now?” I said, “This is a movie about my mother.” He said, “This is always a good idea, to write a movie about your mother.” But I was afraid, also, to become unconsciously too pathetic––to put too much pathos in the movie. So I said, “The movie has to be playful. The movie has to be entertaining. The audience has to play with the movie all the time.” So most of the ideas are already organized before the shooting. Even the split-screen, I decided on it two months before the film. Because it’s playful to have three screens you can watch at one time. It’s a cool style in the film. Most of the stuff is completely… I wrote the movie for a long period because I wanted to have fun reading the script and I wanted to have strong characters without the actors in my mind. I wanted to feel the characters while reading the script. It was very difficult because the character has to have the same importance in the film. So no: it was a long, long period to write the film, because I knew the script has to be… not perfect, because a script is not perfect, but very well-balanced. I wanted to make an entertaining movie, for sure. [Laughs]
You know there is the world of Milan Kundera?
I have, always, on my mind this question: the deep or the profound is in the drama or the delightful? And Kundera made a bet that it’s in delightful projects you have the deep and profound. I wanted the movie… not light, but I was so afraid to make a movie too heavy. So to make this variation of genre and switch. Maybe this is the lesson I had with Jean-Claude Carriere. Carriere was one of the best scriptwriters of the cinema. He was a true narrator; not a poet, but a narrator. He said to me, “When you write the script, the audience has to be surprised by the thing after.” And this is the most difficult thing because we saw so many movies and so many things that we have to be entertaining. You follow the scene that you are watching because spectators are so quick right now. They say, “I think after this scene this is going to happen.” I wanted to build some traps for the spectator.
You’d written two films with Carriere––The Crusade and A Faithful Man. Your debut feature, Two Friends, was written with Christophe Honoré. And The Innocent was a first-time collaboration with Tanguy Viel and Naïla Guiguet. Is it a conscious decision to work with new writers on each film?
To be honest, I wanted to write most scripts with Jean-Claude, but he was 86, 87. He was close to his death and he knew that. But also, I was completely crazy about his way of writing, but sometimes he was very dry. He hated psychology. He said to me, “The psychology in cinema, it’s the most terrible thing. And the sentimentalism.” I agree with him, but sometimes I could feel that The Innocent had to be very sentimental and romantic, and I knew Jean-Claude couldn’t write it with me for that reason. He helped me; he gave me some clues and he added some small stuff, but I knew he couldn’t write the film. This is why I change, also, sometimes: a writer is good for one subject and not for another. Tanguy Viel never wrote a script; he’s a writer for literature. He wrote existential noir––I describe his books like this––so he didn’t know how to write a script. He was not confident at all. But this is also what I liked when I was asking him to write with me: because he was completely innocent. [Laughs] He was completely innocent writing movies. The difficulty when you’re a narrator is to not write conventional stuff. You have to make a prototype of stuff that never exists. So he was really open to everything––to build plot and destroy the plot, to go back to another plot.
For example, Jean-Claude Pautot is an actor in the film and was a guy who had 25 years in jail. We had moments with him when we were writing the script––asking about his life and everything, to help us writing. And the idea of the caviar was super-hard. It seems very natural right now because the movie is done, but the idea of the caviar––I had one year to find it. And I found it in Corsica because in Corsica you have a tradition of outlaw and everything. I was talking with some Corsican guys and suddenly one guy says, “I know somebody who did. Because to make a heist, you have paintings like in Ocean’s 11. You have money, but there is no money in the banks right now. You have the iPhone; it’s not cinematographic at all. To rob an iPhone? It’s completely boring. So I had to find a visual style to rob––something I never saw in a movie. Then suddenly, in Corsica, a guy says “I know somebody who robbed caviar.” So for all this research and everything it was super-nice to be with Tanguy, because he was super-open and super-devoted. He was a new guy in the world of cinema.
Naïla Guiguet is 30 years old. She joined us after writing two or three versions of the script and said, “The character of Noémie Merlant is not powerful at all. We have to change lots of stuff.” This was one difficulty of writing the script: I wanted to have these core characters be as powerful as the other one. I had to build four characters at the same level. Especially the two women have to be more exciting, more heroic than the men, so I decided to invite her like that. We were a little bit tired of the script, and she helped us making the characters of Noémie Merlant and Anouk Grinberg more exciting––from my point of view. If I love all of them, suddenly in a heist movie we gave a heroic part for the women, not the men. This is why I like the film: because the women are more brave, more heroic, more eccentric, more funny to watch.
I think this is the first movie I’ve seen where two characters work at an aquarium. But they’re not defined by this. It’s a very interesting profession to see onscreen.
And it seems justified just for those scenes with beautiful, glowing tanks behind them. But what, generally, was the idea giving them this profession?
I think it’s because Tanguy was completely obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock. And when you think about Hitchcock––especially in Vertigo––you have a character who is going to be more free after the film. Vertigo in particular, he’s got to right his neurotic stuff. Tanguy wanted this for my character, and when we had this idea of the aquarium it was a guy living under the sea, under the earth. Completely inhibited, neurotic, anxious, everything, and it’s a stupid way to describe it but it’s true: this guy was living close to the sea, like a baby. He can’t leave anymore and he just lost his wife. And to be honest: we didn’t have the idea of the caviar when we had the aquarium, but when we had the caviar and found we could connect it with the aquarium we were super-happy.
Because I love when something is resolved and you say, “Ahh! It was a sense.” It’s what you were talking about: when everything has a sense. It’s not just the pleasure of an aquarium with beautiful shots and everything. When everything is connected and has a sense: this is why I love to write sophisticated stories. The Innocent in particular, everything is sophisticated and has a sense. This is why I like it. Even in the heist: we’ve got to resolve a problem for the two characters. This is what I like. And the mise en abyme, for sure.
What conversations are you having about plausibility and believability, but staying unpredictable?
It’s completely unbelievable. Unbelievable. But also the plot of The Innocent is very realistic, but the way we are doing the scenes, sometimes, is completely unbelievable. Because you are happy to watch it you are super-happy to accept it. This is finally why you accept it: because you have a lot of pleasure watching it. If you watched Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, for example, there are so many things that are completely unbelievable in the film. But because the situations are so funny to watch and they are so light, spiritual, also ironic, you completely accept the situations because you have pleasure in it. I said, “The movie has to be a pleasure to watch, because it’s the only way we can make the audiences completely accept the situations.”
So the movie is completely a show. It’s naturalistic or poetry. As a spectator I am completely crazy about that––Jean Eustache or Maurice Pialat––but I am not capable of doing a movie like this. I am just able to do sophisticated movies like this. I have more in my mind Dino Risi and Mario Monticelli. It’s a stupid idea, I know, but I wanted the audience, after the film, to be just happy. I wanted to make them happy. It’s an upper movie, not a downer.
You acted in one of the more fascinating movies from recent years, Woody Allen’s Rifkin’s Festival, where you played Philippe, who Mort Rifkin describes as a politically conscious but aesthetically mediocre filmmaker whose work doesn’t ask the big questions––“why are we here?” and “what’s it all about?”
I understand if you have never thought about this and thus have no answer, but what do you think Mort Rifkin would make of your films?
This is an interesting question. I have no idea because the nostalgia of this character, Mort Rifkin, is so deep. This is also a thing we are dealing with in the world of cinephilia, sometimes: even if the cinema is so young, there is so much nostalgia––even with 20-year-old cinephiles. When you are watching a movie, for example, of the New Wave in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you love the films but you also love the time when they were shooting. Because you can see––in the ‘60s, for example, in Paris––there were so much less problems in society. It was after the second World War and the passion, the desire, the lightness in the air was also much more strong than today. To watch old films and be so fetishist, it’s also because they are… you can see the proof. The images are the proof of that. You also have a nostalgia for a world you didn’t know and a golden age you didn’t live. You know? So this is a good question and I have no idea. [Laughs]
I think to be a good cinephile today would be to adore everything and to be, also, not snobbish at all. Not snobbish. This is what I could say. You know, there is some fetishism in art in general. This is what I don’t like, for sure. I can enjoy something lowbrow and also the movie of Alice Diop [Saint Omer]. Film, the cinema, for me is an impure art. This is also the idea I had making The Innocent: I wanted to make a variété movie. When you are speaking about music, especially in France, when you say variété, in the snobbish world variété is like a secondhand music. But also it’s irresistible when you are hearing some French variété, sometimes, because they all speak about common stuff we are dealing with in a passionate life. There is something irresistible, and I wanted to make a variété movie––speaking about love, feelings like in the variété song.
I think people will watch The Innocent in 20, 30 years, and when they do it’ll spark what you’re talking about: “Yes, that looks and feels like the time it was made.”
Ah. Yeah, you’re right. There is a, how do you say… “j’ai imposé une légèreté.” I imposed a lightness in the movie. No, what is it… [Speaks French] I’m trying. With the lightness… I don’t know how to say it. It’s terrible. [Laughs] No, no, okay: maybe to be light was a way for me not to be academic. Voilà!
The Innocent enters a limited release on Friday, March 17.