It’s a scorching summer afternoon in Paris, and Louis Garrel has just pulled up to meet me outside an old-fashioned cafe in the city’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés district. On a scooter. In sunglasses. The Parisian actor looks exactly as you’d imagine a French movie star to look: tousled dark curls, rumpled navy shirt, disarming, wolfish grin and, yes, the scooter. He greets the maître d’ cheerfully, orders us two small bottles of sparkling water and sets his helmet down on the table, before taking a drag of his vape pen. “It’s futuristic, I know, I know. This is my fetish. This is my object. I have to have it on myself all the time.”
Indefinable, wild, fascinating, funny, unpredictable, disconcerting, political, charming, impertinent, young, free. This is how Anne Wiazemsky, as portrayed by Stacy Martin, describes her husband in the opening scene of Redoubtable, Michel Hazanavicius’ playful biopic of legendary director Jean-Luc Godard. Handsome, brooding and bohemian, Garrel is not exactly an obvious choice to play the reclusive maverick auteur. Yet he’s never shied away from controversial roles, from the sensual, free-spirited Théo in Bernardo Bertolucci’s transgressive period drama The Dreamers (2003) to Pierre, son of incestuous mother Isabelle Huppert in the following year’s Ma Mère, and Jacques de Bascher, a mustachoied, corrupting presence in Bertrand Bonello’s glossy Yves Saint Laurent biopic (2014). Godard–a prickly, divisive figure who is still very much alive–might be his most controversial yet.
Based on the memoirs of Wiazemsky, who Godard cast in La Chinoise after seeing her in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, the film portrays the iconoclastic auteur of 1968 through his ex-wife’s eyes. Her Godard was newly politicised, entering the militant Maoist period of his career — and a man whose passion and impenetrable genius was, to a certain type of woman, irresistibly seductive. And so, Garrel makes sense (though, despite adopting the 37-year-old Godard’s receding hairline with the help of a bald cap, he’s a little too good-looking to be totally believable). His Godard is intelligent, sexy and unbearably selfish, telling the 20-year-old Wiazemsky, “We’ll love each other later, now’s the revolution.”
With its candy colours, Redoubtable is an eye-popping pastiche — a bubblegum balloon blown in Godard’s direction. Garrel’s performance pops that bubble with a sly wink, gently ribbing its subject with mocking affection. The actor admits he was nervous about taking on such a revered figure: “His movies are very special,” he says. “He tried, and sometimes he failed. But he was a star. I was very, very shy all the time–stressed and shy–because I’m a big fan, and I didn’t want to hurt people who love his movies... It was very hard to imagine that people would accept (the playful nature of ) the movie, because they respect him so much.” Wiazemsky, however, has seen the film three times, and liked it. “She said, ‘I don’t recognise myself, but I recognise Jean-Luc.’”
The film’s refusal to deify Godard may rub super-fans the wrong way, but it would be wrong to read its irreverence as sourness. “Some of the people who saw the movie at Cannes — I can see that they couldn’t laugh. They wouldn’t allow themselves to laugh, (as though) May ’68 was last year. Like it’s a monument, a thing you can’t touch. You can touch everything, you know. Kubrick made a film (Dr Strangelove) about nuclear war that was comic. People often feel like comedy is an insult to the truth, but sometimes it can touch the truth more than drama.” May ’68 refers, of course, to France’s social revolution, marked by a wave of volatile protests, strikes and occupations, the shadow of which still looms large over the country’s cultural conscious.
Garrel describes Redoubtable pithily, as “a movie about an artist in crisis, in a country in crisis”. “I tried to build an angry character,” he says. “Angry, because he understands better than anyone around him that something has to change. When May ’68 happened, Godard said, ‘OK, the 20-year-old people understand better than my generation that things have to change. If I stay in my comfortable position as a well-known star and director, I’m gonna become stupid.’ So he said, ‘I’m gonna change.’ And he tried to do something so different — which was very risky, because nobody watched those second-period movies, they just weren’t commercial at all. But he stayed focused on this, and it was very brave to do it.”
Garrel argues that Godard’s callous behaviour in the film can be understood in this context. “I read some critics that said, ‘Oh, Godard was so mean with his wife,’” he says. “When I watch the movie, I don’t see a mean guy. I just see a guy in conf lict with his wife. Like, ‘I wanna go there and you don’t wanna go with me.’ She wants to stay in this same kind of circle. He wants to change. You want to make the movement and the other person doesn’t want to. I can’t see him as a mean character. You think he’s a mean character?”
‘Mean’ isn’t the word I would use; in Redoubtable, Godard’s cruelty seems borne of self-loathing. “I don’t like myself,” he says in the movie, his anxieties about ageing and the unpopularity of his second wave of films floating to the surface despite his best efforts to flush them away. (There is more than a touchof Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories here.) “Exactly,” says Garrel. “Those second-period films are very hard to watch. Very heavy, very Marxist. They are movies made for a particular period, and watching them now you don’t always get the context. I had to work hard to understand what was happening in his head, you know? For him to change like this. But, you know, that’s also the comic situation in the movie. (He has) to deal in public with all the demonstrations and the cinephiles, but at home, he has to deal with intimacy. When he’s in the street filming demonstrations, she’s swimming at a beautiful house. This is very funny. For me, this is a tender way to tell that story.”
There is a delicious, obvious, ironic moment in Redoubtable that sees Godard proclaim, “Actors are dumb.” Garrel, who studied at the prestigious Conservatoire National in Paris, is anything but. At one point, he references Walter Benjamin: “‘When an actor enters on stage, he enters himself and the characters.’ So, in cinema, when an actor goes in front of the camera, he becomes like himself. Sometimes, for an actor, that can be very boring. It can be boring to play yourself in front of the camera.”
In a video on the Criterion Collection’s YouTube channel, Garrel rifles through the company’s DVD library in New York. In it, he picks out a Jacques Tati box set (Blu-ray, bien sur), a couple of Ingmar Bergman DVDs and a trio of Roberto Rossellini films, because he’s “more than a filmmaker, he’s also a light to follow”. Garrel has directed three short films and one feature, Two Friends — a co-write with frequent collaborator Christophe Honoré — and is planning another, “a crime melodrama” featuring “robberies and police”. He’s not sure if he’ll cast himself as the lead. “If I get much older, I’ll have to change the casting,” says Garrel, laughing. “Right now, I’m 34 — I’m not a young lady any more.” In Redoubtable, Godard declares that “artists should die at 35, before they become old farts.”
Garrel is a cinephile as well as a cineaste, as interested in watching films as he is making and starring in them. He describes Arnaud Desplechin as “the one I like the most”, also citing Alejandro González Iñárritu, Xavier Dolan, Alfonso Cuarón and the Safdie brothers (“Heaven Knows What — it’s very, very good”) as directors he’s paying attention to. “I was very interested in Barry Jenkins and Moonlight,” he says. “I was a bit frustrated, because I was waiting for the sex scene at the end. That’s the story, I think: a boy who is ashamed all his life. I thought the movie was going to deliver him from the shame.” Perhaps Garrel’s desire for cinematic catharsis has something to do with the sex scenes he’s starred in himself; several of the characters he’s played have reckoned with their darkest impulses, explicitly.
Bertolucci, Bonello, not to mention his father, Philippe — Garrel has worked with his share of auteurs. Still, he is yet to appear in any English-language films. “Women can. But men cannot, because they are French,” he says when asked if he has plans to cross over. His theory is that, when you use a male French actor in a movie, “they have to play a French man”.
“Wes Anderson can use French actors because he is very connected to French cinema. His movies are made with images of French cinema. I would love to play for, like, two or three days in his movies. Make a silent character.” He mimes a ridiculous, jaunty movement, like something out of Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, cracking a goofy grin. “I have met him,” he says of Anderson, who also lives in Paris. “But I’m not gonna be the horrible actor who comes to you (at a party),” he laughs.
Garrel is self-deprecating and chatty, with a silly side that slips out as he begins to relax. He describes himself as indecisive, making a dark joke by way of a philosophical thought-experiment to illustrate his point. There is a donkey who is both hungry and thirsty, but he can’t decide whether to eat or drink first — and so he simply dies. Only, he can’t remember the English word for donkey, so does a loud, perfect impression of one.
Garrel, I learn, has a previously untapped knack for broad comedy. The moments of near-slapstick in Redoubtable — the lisping Swiss accent, for example, or his desperate scramble for Godard’s signature glasses which inexplicably fall off and break in almost every protest scene — are some of the very best things about the film. “I would love to make a comedy on stage,” he says.“Or, like, a silent comedy. I’d be so happy if somebody gave me a silent role, you know? In an English movie. With Ricky Gervais.” We share a tiny moment of stupid, silent comedy ourselves when I notice that his glass of water is empty. When I move to politely top it up as he continues talking, he notices, refilling my glass too.
His ultimate dream, though, is to be in a Nanni Moretti movie. Embarrassed, I admit I’ve never seen any of his films. “Show me the internet. You didn’t see his movies? You’re gonna watch them, and you’re gonna become crazy,” he says, looking up the trailer for Moretti’s 1993 film Caro Diario on my iPhone.
“Godard’s movies are very special. He tried, and sometimes he failed. But he was a star... For me, this is a tender way to tell that story” — Louis Garrel
Redoubtable sees Garrel revisit May ’68, a period he’s explored before in both The Dreamers and Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers. I ask why he’s drawn to the theme of revolution, and to this particular moment in French history. “When I was 15 or 16, it was a big part of my imagination and my dreams,” he says. “I didn’t like the period that I was living in, you know? Me, when I was 15, I was a little bit nostalgic. Oh, the 70s, the 60s.” Knowing this, I can only imagine how it must have felt for Garrel to run through the Louvre à la Godard’s Bande à Part at the age of 19 in The Dreamers, his first major part. “When Bertolucci gave me the role, I was so happy because I was like, ‘Cool, I’m gonna live that.’”
Throughout the interview, Garrel keeps apologising for his “terrible English”, getting visibly irate and swearing in French when he can’t find the precise word he’s looking for. I assure him that it’s fine and I understand everything he’s saying, but get the sense that the language barrier is interfering with his natural expressiveness. He also frequently interjects to ask me questions about my opinions. He asks me if “young people are happy with the Brexit at all” and what I think about the UK election (“When Jeremy Corbyn won. He failed, but he won. We understood. Theresa May, she’s horrible or no? She’s the spiritual daughter of Margaret Thatcher?”). “Is this what you were dreaming when you were 15, of yourself doing journalism?” he asks later on, seeming genuinely curious.
When I explain that I also write film reviews, he wants to know if I’m “a tough critic”. “You can destroy movies? Sometimes you like to be tough? The critique you wrote — the most tough — what was the movie?” He’s eager to know what newspaper I read, and whether I agree with The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw. (Not always, I reply.) Garrel reads critics “all the time”, though he admits that sometimes it’s “too hard” and that actors should learn not to. “There is a French critic — very famous — called Jean Douchet. He wrote a book called The Art of Love. His way to think about the critic is if you don’t like it, you don’t talk about it,” he says, explaining Douchet’s theory that critics should focus on the art that speaks to them. Garrel doesn’t necessarily agree, insisting that the critic is the one person who has enough distance to say, ‘This is not working.’
“You too are anxious?” he asks when I order coffee, telling him I haven’t had my caffeine fix for today. “Because I am anxious; I need to not drink coffee. I try not to drink so much... I have anxiety and stress,” he says, before ordering a decaf espresso. This surprises me a little, and I wonder how he manages it. “I don’t manage. It’s tough. You know when you think too much and then you have all the thoughts and you can’t stop them?”
Our interview wraps, but Garrel is in no rush and is interested to know what I’ll do with the rest of my afternoon in Paris. I tell him I haven’t visited in four years and that I’m leaving on the last Eurostar back to London. “OK, here’s what you’re gonna do,” he says, reaching into his pocket for a pen and asking for my notebook. JARDIN DU LUXEMBOURG, he scrawls, in capital letters. Above, he writes down the address of a Chinese restaurant in the Latin Quarter and the dishes I have to order (ravioli crevettes soupe et porc laquéavec riz cantonais).
“You like ice cream?” he asks. I shoot him a raised eyebrow, as if to say, ‘Who doesn’t?’ “Berthillon has the best ice cream in Paris. The mandarin is...” he says, blowing a chef’s kiss. “You’ll email Monica (Garrel’s PR) if you like the ice cream, yes?”
The last stop on the Louis Garrel tour of Paris is the world-famous Shakespeare & Co, just around the corner from the restaurant. It’s dusk when I arrive and the shop is heaving with tourists, but I head upstairs anyway and sit among the musty books not for sale next to a girl taking a selfie. “It’s an English-language bookstore,” he told me earlier. “I’ve heard of it,” I joked.
Redoubtable is out in UK cinemas now
Hair Jawara at Bryant Artists using Bumble and bumble., make-up Adrien Pinault at Management + Artists using M.A.C, styling assistant Kieran Fenney