It seems like the stuff of deep, twisted psychodrama, a father casting a son to play a variation of his grandfather. Yet in the new film “Jealousy,” such dynamics give way to something equal parts gentle and powerful, diffuse and insightful, in its resonant examination of the real costs of la vie de bohème.
Directed by Philippe Garrel and starring his son Louis Garrel, the film, opening in Los Angeles on Aug. 22, begins with a man leaving the mother of his daughter to take up with another woman, played by Anna Mouglalis. The new couple struggle to balance their personal lives with their creative ambitions, as he begins to move forward in his acting career while hers has stagnated. The story has its roots in an episode from Philippe’s childhood when his father, the actor Maurice Garrel, left the family for a time.
Yet Philippe Garrel cautions against trying to read the film too closely for personal details or autobiographical revelations.
“The film is really an abstraction, really only a very minor part of it is autobiographical,” he said during a recent phone call from Paris. “In making a film, you cannot capture life. I think this is a misconception, and it’s not just for cinema, as a novelist you can’t capture life either. You develop on life. I think because cinema is figurative people think you can capture life.”
Garrel’s films have long intertwined the intensely personal with a more broadly poetic sensibility. Garrel, now 66, began making movies when he was only a teenager. Through the 1970s he was in a 10-year relationship with the cult singer Nico, which found her appearing in a number of his films, including “The Inner Scar.” He explored their relationship after her death in his 1991 film “I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar.”
Garrel was long an obscure figure in the United States, with his films little seen. Since his 2005 film “Regular Lovers,” his work has been receiving wider distribution stateside and the stature of his explorations of bohemian life has grown.
In an essay on “Regular Lovers,” the critic Kent Jones called Garrel’s work “A cinema of threadbare overcoats, naked light bulbs, and peeling paint, of silent meals and small gatherings and melancholy discussions… A just and justly non-obtrusive rendering of intimate human experience.”
Louis made his screen debut at age 5 in his father’s 1989 film “Emergency Kisses” — the cast also included Philippe, Maurice and Louis’ mother, actress Brigitte Sy — in a story of a film director who refuses to cast his actress wife in a role.
“When I was 5 years old it was a passive collaboration, I was a passive actor,” Louis, 31, said. “Even now I’m confused about what was for real and what was for the movie.”
As a teenager, Louis spent time on the set of his father’s 1999 film “Night Wind,” which starred Catherine Deneuve, and after seeing the finished work he became a genuine admirer of his father’s work. In the meantime Louis had also started acting, including his role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” so when he came back to work with his father their dynamic had begun to change. His good looks and playful, moody manner have in the meantime made Louis something of an art-house idol; he played himself in Sophie Letourneur’s 2012 film “Les Coquillettes” in which a girl and her friends are obsessed with meeting him at a film festival.
“When we did ‘Regular Lovers’ I was a fan of his work, and I was actually shy about working with him,” recalled Louis. “The fact that he was my dad doesn’t have any connection. I know him as a dad, and when we’re on set I talk to him as a director.”
Since then the pair have also collaborated on “Frontier of Dawn” and “A Burning Hot Summer.” Adding to the family flavor of “Jealousy,” in the film Louis’ sister (and Philippe’s daughter) Esther Garrel also has a role as the sister of Louis’ character.
Yet even as Philippe cautioned against reading the film as too directly personal, he acknowledged that making “Jealousy” stemmed in part from his own grieving over his father’s death in 2011. “The loss was something that devastated me,” he said. “It was a way in which I could deal with my grief and being able to break out of the grief and create art as a tribute to my father.”
Though it began out of economic necessity, looking to save on film stock, it has since become a part of Philippe Garrel’s artistic process to whenever possible shoot only one take. He rehearses intensely with the actors before production, so the actual shooting days are a mix of preparation and creative invention.
With child actress Olga Milshtein in the mix as the young daughter, while shooting “Jealousy” there were sometimes allowances for additional takes and for improvisations on the set. Louis as well confessed he would sometimes ask his father for additional takes.
For Mouglalis, perhaps best known in the U.S. for her role as the famed fashion designer in “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,” working in Garrel’s style created a high-wire tension and creative atmosphere she found exciting.
“Before shooting, he says he doesn’t want you to try to be great or do a performance,” Mouglalis said by phone from the south of France. “He reassures you, sometimes you’re going to feel it’s not good, and it’s not about being good or bad, it’s just about doing what we’re doing. So you do just one take, and it’s just that moment, and it’s kind of holy.”
Shot in stark black-and-white by cinematographer Willy Kurant, who worked on such films as Jean-Luc Godard’s “Masculine-Feminine” and Louis C.K.'s “Pootie Tang,” the film, even with its brief running time under 80 minutes, packs a deep emotional wallop. It creates a multi-faceted consideration of the toll of artistic ambitions in the face of more practical concerns.
“Philippe would always ask, ‘What is most important for you now, love, art or money?’” recalled Mouglalis. “And it’s always changing. Sometimes money is the main aim, sometimes you’re taken by love and sometimes it’s all about art. He was always asking, ‘What would you put first, or second or third?’ So she’s sensitive to the conditions of life and how it affects their relationship.”
Philippe Garrel is shooting another movie, “Women’s Shadow,” about a pair of documentary filmmakers, though this time without Louis. Which is not to say their collaboration is finished.
“He gives so much life to little things. I used to say he’s a poet, but I think he’s more of a painter,” said Louis Garrel of his father’s work, while likening “Jealousy” to a watercolor. “Whether it’s a pen or a brush or a camera, it’s the same.”