As an actor, Louis Garrel has carved out a unique niche for himself starring in romantic dramas like Dans Paris, Love Songs, and Jealousy, as well as in controversial, erotic films such as The Dreamers and Ma Mère. His characters are united by a hang-dog ennui, a unique combination of affability and seriousness as they try to navigate matters of the heart.
It’s always seemed like a matter of time before Garrel, son of acclaimed writer-director Philippe Garrel and actress Brigitte Sy, would try his hand at directing. His feature debut, Two Friends, which had its U.S. premiere at Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema this month, was expanded from a 2011 short Garrel made entitled Le Règle de Trois.
Co-written by Christophe Honoré, the film is a perceptive romantic dramedy about the nature of love and friendship starring Golshifteh Farahani as Mona, a woman who hides the fact that she’s a prisoner on work release from Clement (Vincent Macaigne), the man she loves. Garrel also stars in the film as Clement’s best friend, Abel, to whom Mona is attracted, a situation that causes the three characters to reevaluate their relationships.
Garrel, in New York City to promote both Two Friends and Maïwenn’s engrossing relationship drama My King, in which he stars as the brother of a woman (Emmanuelle Bercot) who sees her relationship to her husband (Vincent Cassel) slowly unravel over the course of several years, sat down with me to talk about his roots in the theater, his thirst for collaboration, and what continues to draw him to parts in hothouse productions.
Two Friends wistfully captures the complications of friendship and love. What prompted you to make this project your feature directorial debut, and how would you characterize it as a “Louis Garrel” film?
I don’t exactly recall the beginning, but I have an affection for 1980s French movies, like those by Patrice Chéreau. I wanted it to have both a crisis and a sentimental feeling. The combination of two men and one woman is a classic French-movie situation, and I wanted to put a new interpretation on it. Sometimes when you have something very classic and stereotypical you have more freedom. I made a short film [Le Règle de Trois] and the producer saw it, and wanted me to make a long version.
How did growing up in a film family influence your becoming an actor-director?
There was no pressure. I come from a theater background, and when you act in theater, you’re watching all the time. Actors watch the scenes featuring other actors when they’re rehearsing. So I made Two Friends with this spirit. Before this film, I made three shorts. My habit is to watch actors, and help them.
How did you work with Christophe Honoré to develop the script for Two Friends? What accounts for your maybe symbiotic relationship?
It’s strange, I starred in Honoré’s Ma Mère, and I don’t know why, but the atmosphere on that set was very light despite the dark material. Then we made Dans Paris, and we also found pleasure in the darkness. He grew as a director with me, and he was looking for his own style as a director. We’re not friends in real life. I’m like a little brother to him. It’s a brotherhood more than friendship. When I decided to write Two Friends, and I knew that I was going to act in the film, I needed someone else to help me write “actor dialogue.” There’s something un-naturalistic about the film, and the biggest fight in cinema is that naturalism took up so much room in the cinema that it became about how to fight it back. Honore’s way of writing does that. I needed that kind of dialogue and the situations it creates. I know he could create these moments, like the scene on the train, which was joyful when he wrote it, and the actors played it a certain way, but I shot it more dramatically. This mix makes things interesting.
One of the things I like about the film is how its tone shifts back and forth between the comedic and the dramatic. Was that a very conscious decision?
When you watch the film there’s no suspense. Jean-Claude Carrière said you need to alternate the comic and the dramatic to hold dramatic interest. I knew that if the film was to engage people, I needed this alternation between scenes.
The scene where Mona dances in the café may be my favorite. How did you conceive of this episode, which is so different—but no less intimate—than the rest of the film?
I fought to do that scene. When she’s dancing, the producer hated it. In every romantic movie a girl is dancing at the bar. I said, “Let me do it, I know the scene is going to be good.” I wanted Goldshifteh to dance. She’s a brilliant actress in Iran, and in the films she makes outside Iran, she’s always describing the differences of the Muslim world. I knew her dancing scene would be an “explosion” for her. I asked a modern choreographer to create a strange, theatrical, non-natural atmosphere with Goldshifteh. We put lots of lights up to create a light box, so this moment would be a small show in the continuity of all these dances in so many movies.
You’ve played several characters who’ve been involved in inappropriate, queer, or polyamorous relationships, as well as in more conventional relationship films. What is the appeal of these roles?
As a young leading man, I did Bertolucci’s The Dreamers and Doillon’s A Three-Way Wedding. When you have two people in a couple, it’s interesting, but if you put another third person in there, it’s more interesting. I appeared in movies about love when I was 15, and it was about having adventures. I used to say that threesomes are a train that goes off the tracks. And it’s exciting. In movies, you like to see things you’re used to seeing or doing in real life.
Two Friends pivots on an axiom: “Whoever has the least interest in the relationship controls it.” Can you speak to the observations you have about love and friendship, and the un-balance of power in your film’s love triangle?
A French philosopher named René Girard talked about “mimetic desire.” In the trio of Two Friends, no one knows why they’re attracted to or hate each other. The feelings are lost between who loves whom. Everyone is “in jail” in the movie. Both literally and in the tyranny of Lacan, which is to give something you don’t have to someone who didn’t ask for it. I wanted the characters to be misfits. That’s why I like them, because they’re not integrated into society. They are marginal, which makes it a little bit ridiculous. They’re like teenagers, driven by the feeling to grab something, and they do.
Let’s shift gears for a second and talk about My King. This film is a different love story than Two Friends. Your character, Solal, comforts his sister when she’s hurt by her lover. The love is familial and seems to contrast interestingly with the love story in Two Friends.
I think My King is about how love isolates you socially and strangely, where no one around you has influence or way of getting hold of you anymore. Tony is confronted and faced with a love that’s growing harmful. The only character in the film who’s comforting is my character, Solal, because he’s there for Tony no matter what. Whereas in Two Friends, there’s no family, no links of family. It’s a film about people who get to chose each other.