Draw a Frenchman from memory and you will find you’ve drawn Louis Garrel. There’s that tousled hair and heavy brow. The aquiline nose you could use to crack open a beer bottle. The exact kind of jawline that people print off the internet, stare at resentfully and then take to their plastic surgeon. In films like Bernardo Bertolucci’s lusty drama The Dreamers and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, where he was Saoirse Ronan’s sophisticated love interest Professor Bhaer, Garrel is a portrait of chic, European handsomeness. In conversation, though, he is quick to tell you that he’s a bit of a mess.
“I am the most anxious French guy you can meet,” the 40-year-old squirms. “Believe me, I want to be more brave than I am. I am… what do you say? Effrayé they say in French… a scared guy.” Take Little Women, he says. “I was super stressed because I knew that all of the actors in it were better than me. Obviously Florence [Pugh], Saoirse, Timothée [Chalamet]…” He says the latter in about five syllables, somehow finding whole new levels of French to a name already spelt like “Timothée”. “But then it does work out sometimes,” he continues. “I find you know early – like the first or second day of shooting – if you’re going to be good.” His voice deepens. “Or not so good.”
From his holiday home in Corsica, where he’s promoting via Zoom his new film, the shaggy comedy heist drama The Innocent, Garrel looks much the same as he did when he rose to fame 20 years ago. The Dreamers, released in 2003, turned him into an arthouse pin-up practically overnight, but also had more interesting tendrils. It was the first of his collaborations with some of modern cinema’s most troubling, controversial filmmakers (between Bertolucci, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, he seems almost to be collecting disgraced directors), and set up the themes that have come to dominate his career both in front of and behind the camera: jealousies, love triangles, rebellion.
The Dreamers cast him as one half of a pair of quasi-incestuous Parisian twins, the other played by a similarly debuting Eva Green, who fall into a chaotic fervour with an American student (Michael Pitt). They play sexual mind games with one another, share baths and watch old movies. Everyone annoying and part of a university cinema society wanted to dive in with them – as they nattered on about philosophy in between weird shags and limp cigarettes. Watch The Dreamers today and you’ll find it to be as sexy and spirited as it is deeply cringe. So, everyone’s student years, I suppose. Garrel is aware that it’s developed a reputation as a kind of bohemian blueprint since its release. “Someone told me that it’s [officially] banned in Iran but that it’s become a cult movie there for so many young people – it’s seen as a symbol of freedom.”
For him, the movie was an eye-opener. “I was the virgin of everything when I was shooting The Dreamers,” he says. “I was completely naive and innocent. There was chemistry between Eva and Michael and me, and shooting was full of charm and sensuality and intellectual moments. I will never have another experience like that because it only ever happens one time. It was my first time, totally. The big bang.”
He hasn’t spoken to Pitt in a while, but he did hang out with Green on the set of last year’s The Three Musketeers, despite not sharing any scenes with her. “Sometimes we text each other,” he says. “Eva, though, is a very wild woman – because she’s French and also English. I am much more hysterical, like an Italian. Eva… she’s very secret, but I love that.”
I tell Garrel that I’ve only really seen him in films tinged with a degree of bravery that verges on the masochistic. Think of his role as a man having sex with his own mother in 2004’s deathly grim Ma Mère. Or when he played Jean-Luc Godard, France’s most revered filmmaker, in a biopic – 2017’s Redoubtable – that many believed to be a bit of a hatchet job. So I’m surprised that for an actor so edgy, he insists he’s so square.
“The generation of my father and mother – they were in their twenties at the end of the Sixties and into the Seventies,” he says. “So they went through so many psychedelic experiences and led these different lives. I think, as the son of those people, I wanted to live in a more conventional way. Even if I was full of admiration for them and full of respect for them, I couldn’t feel the same courage or braveness. I knew the bad stuff – the drugs, jail, the fallen illusions. So I tried in my personal life to be more regular.”
It’s an idea that also permeates Garrel’s new film, The Innocent, which he wrote and directed as well as starring in. It’s about a widower, Abel (Garrel), who is far more straight-laced than his flamboyant mother (Anouk Grinberg). She teaches drama to imprisoned men, and Abel watches on in horror as she announces she’s marrying one of the inmates. Like Garrel’s previous directorial projects – The Innocent is his fourth – there is a strain of autobiography running through the film. “My mother married a guy in jail when I was 17,” he laughs.
Garrel stems from a French film dynasty – his father is the director Philippe Garrel and his mother the actor Brigitte Sy, who split when Garrel was still a child. His sister Esther is an actor, too, most notably starring as Timothée Chalamet’s heterosexual – and therefore doomed – love interest in Call Me by Your Name, while his grandfather was the actor Maurice Garrel. It’s Garrel’s mother, though, who arguably has the most interesting story of all of them: after she and Garrel’s father separated, she taught acting in prisons and fell in love with a thief, with her “prison wedding” recreated in The Innocent.
Garrel admits that he and his mother’s relationship has sometimes been tempestuous. “I am full of admiration for her, because she is courageous and brave and a bit of a punk,” he says. “Obviously I’ve had lots of fights with her. It was not an easy life to live with her – with her working in jail, then falling in love in jail. When you start to understand that world, and see the kinds of people in jail, you realise that it’s not romantic all of the time.” He searches for the right thing to say, his eyes squinting. “I wanted to play with this idea of this guy who is completely scared for his own mother and wants to protect her, while also being completely in love with her.”
A sense of two worlds colliding occurs throughout The Innocent – a man who wishes his mother was more “bourgeois”, and a woman frustrated by her son’s timidity. Garrel admits he pulled the characters’ dynamic from reality. “I was super conventional in comparison to my mother’s life and her craziness,” he says. “She was completely anti-conformist, and sometimes was the one really pushing me to get out of myself.”
I tell Garrel that I thought the film was very good at pulling off typically disparate tones all at once, to which he seems to breathe a sigh of relief. It’s certainly an odd film, with Abel being recruited by his new stepfather into robbing a truck full of caviar, and further roping in his best friend and sorta-kinda love interest (a lively Noemie Merlant, of Portrait of a Lady on Fire). It barrels through genres as it goes – it’s a paranoid thriller, then a heist movie, then suddenly the funniest aquarium-based romcom to ever exist. Garrel admits to being nervous about the film’s reception.
“I’m much too scared about what people think,” he says, while clinging to his e-cigarette like it’s a panic button. “I’m very jealous when I meet a director or an actor who isn’t. I’m obsessed by what people think of me. It’s a kind of jail that I would love to escape.”
He says his fears were slightly allayed recently, though, when he met a “great American filmmaker” at an event – a man he declines to name – who was similarly anxious. “This guy was obsessed with this bad review of his film. And I thought… wait, even the great masters are obsessed with critics?” Garrel seems to dip into a panic spiral from there. “Sometimes I would love to have the strengths of Patrice Chéreau [the late director of Intimacy and La Reine Margot], for example, or Balzac! I’d love to not care as much, and just jump into the work.” He takes another drag of his e-cig.
I hear children nearby, as Garrel pads around what looks like a rustic Corsican castle searching for a clearer wifi signal. He’s been married to the model and actor Laetitia Casta since 2017 and they have four children. He admits to never being ambitious as an actor, and seems not entirely interested in modern cinema either. It’s partly why Hollywood never worked its magic on him – Little Women is his only American-produced film to date.
“I think in France we don’t have the same passion for acting,” he says. “We have many great actors who are French, obviously, but you created acting in England and America – the method, and that real passion to play on screen.”
“My ambition right now,” he continues, “is to spend 10 days outside of my country on a film. Maybe 10 days in America, 10 days in Italy, then go.” He shrugs. No one has ever looked so French. “It is the perfect goal,” he sighs. “For I am very lazy.”
‘The Innocent’ is in cinemas
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies