A Family Affair

By Rob McCrae


Louis Garrel is the latest talent in a most distinctive filmmaking clan

“He was really masturbating,” Eva Green said of her Dreamers co-star. “I was very nervous for him, but he was so relaxed. He’s a very strong male.” Despite starring in his first film aged just five, the first glimpse of Louis Garrel for most cinema audiences probably came in the Bertolucci directed Dreamers in 2003. Based on Gilbert Adair’s best selling book, the film invited tabloid intrusion for its liberal censor-baiting scenes like the one where Garrel’s character Theo loses a bet and so has to pleasure himself over a poster. Interviewed at the time Garrel declared his experienced director “a poet” and hoped that people would get touched and dream like the characters... but that he would also like them to get aroused.

The twenty three year old actor comes from a remarkable filmmaking heritage that includes his father, film director Phillipe, actress and mother Brigitte Sy, and veteran of over one hundred films, grandfather Maurice. The whole family is unified in new French drama Les Amants Réguliers, an evocative saunter through a historically significant Paris in the late sixties when the spirit of revolution had descended on a country suffused by youthful turmoil. For cinema at least, and the films of Godard and Truffaut, it was a time of burgeoning creativity and the film is heavily redolent of the time. Louis has already picked up the most promising actor at the Cesars for his role as Francois.

Any man who lived for ten years with the Velvet Underground’s Nico inevitably has some desirable attributes and not necessarily in the pulchritudinous vein. Universally venerated in his own country, director Phillipe Garrel very much came of age in the late sixties, making his first film in 1968 and setting himself down at the court of auteur extraordinaire Jean-Luc Godard. From the late seventies onwards he moved into a more autobiographical frame of mind with films that infused the brilliance of his contemporaries with the melancholy appeal of his own relationships. He was never afraid to insert his family in potentially incendiary roles, casting his father as a sexual dilettante in one of his best works, La Nuit Liberte (1983), and then in Les Baisers De Secours (1989) acting alongside his wife Brigitte Sy and his young son in his first role. Louis told an Italian magazine in 2003 that the slim boundaries between film and reality were often too close for comfort. “It was complicated,” he said of his debut appearance. “My parents played my parents and it was all kind of confusing. I didn’t understand these scenes where other men found themselves in the bed of my mother”

Perhaps as a result of these Freudian distortions Louis didn’t touch the film world for another twelve years. He started acting in theatre at the age of fourteen before eventually returning to the screen in Ceci est Mon Corps (2001), a movie, like The Dreamers, similarly distinguished for its masturbation scene. At the time Louis began to worry this form of public onanism might soon become his signature...

However his big break came in the 2003 film directed on cruise control by cinematic sex provocateur Bertolucci. Theo (Garrel), a young French film student and denizen at the Cinémathèque, meets a similarly film fixated American student called Matthew (Michael Pitt) and invites him to stay at his parents’ house while they’re on vacation. Bertolucci picked the young actor on the first day of casting, knowing immediately that this was the person to play Theo as “he looked a bit like you’d see in certain neoclassical paintings”. In the actual book the relationship between Theo and Matthew is imbued with homosexual undertones but in the film Louis’s role was cut as it was felt that there was enough sexual legerdemain going on as it was. With the content so graphic his co-star Eva Green was grateful for Louis’s absence of embarrassment. “(He) was acting like a little kid of two years old, playing with his penis all the time,” Eva told Esquire magazine. “It helped us to get rid of our inhibitions”

In Les Amants Réguliers the action is transmuted to 1968, Garrel playing one of a group of intense aesthetes who live through the fervour of the student uprisings and then stroll the Parisian streets sending out numerous fashion signals that would come to epitomize the dashing silhouette of the French male. With the impotence of the revolution’s impact soon a crushing reality, Francois is soon bought back down to earth when he is hauled up to do National Service, despite getting his defence lawyer to insist that this would inhibit his poetry. To complicate matters he falls for the chic and enigmatic Lilie and they discuss the implosion of their dreams and the skewering of the socio-political horizon whilst smoking enormous amounts of opium. In depicting the romantic idealism of the time, while symbolising the louche freedom of the sixties, the film does a stunning job of nostalgic fulfilment, travelling back to a city where every move and gesture is impaled with iconography. Shot in moody black and white by William Lubtchansky this is the most zealously autobiographical movie of Phillipe’s career, and he perfectly casts his son in the role that is as much an echo of his own youth. Garlanded with awards, including a Silver Lion and an outstanding technical contribution award for Lubtchansky at the Venice Film Festival, it’s a film that could send the formidably talented Garrel family into the stratosphere.

Les Amants Réguliers is released by Artificial Eye in the UK on 21st July.

Rob McCrae is a writer and works at Curzon Soho cinema, London.