For France, an All-Purpose Heartthrob

(The New York Times, 16 mars 2008)

DURING his brief but eye-catching career, the 24-year-old actor Louis Garrel has been cast as a love interest for young girls, older women and teenage boys, not to mention his own onscreen mother (“Ma Mère”) and sister (“The Dreamers”). 

“I’m a sexual object,” the tall, pale, dark-eyed Mr. Garrel said with a smile, taking a drag on his fifth Marlboro at a cafe in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. “It’s true that for me there’s something very sexual about the cinema. Not in the sense of the act, but of creating desire.” 

In his new film, “Love Songs,” directed by Christophe Honoré, Mr. Garrel plays Ismaël, caught in a ménage à trois with his girlfriend (Ludivine Sagnier) and colleague (Clotilde Hesme) as well as being the obsession of an ardent male student (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). His third film with Mr. Honoré, “Love Songs” is a modern musical about love and loss in which the characters break into song to express their emotions. Nominated for a Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, it opens Friday in New York. 

Mr. Garrel is the youngest member of an esteemed French cinema clan that includes his grandfather, the actor Maurice Garrel, and his father, the director Philippe Garrel (who cast him as a 5-year-old in the 1989 film “Emergency Kisses”). His mother is the actress Brigitte Sy, and the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud is his godfather. 

Despite his brief foray into child acting, Mr. Garrel said he didn’t decide to become an actor until he was 15, inspired by François Truffaut’s landmark films about the adolescent Antoine Doinel, played by Mr. Léaud. “I wanted to have a life that resembled his,” he said of Doinel. “Léaud didn’t obey any laws of acting. He sends signs that are recognizable but that we’ve never seen. And that’s what I think it means to be an actor.”

His first film role followed in Rodolphe Marconi’s “Ceci est mon corps” (“This Is My Body,” 2001) and he studied drama in Paris. But his recent work with Mr. Honoré has earned him a reputation as something of a 21st-century Doinel. 

“A lot of directors have a moment when they believe in an actor and that actor could be the character in all of their films,” said Mr. Honoré, who first cast him as the son of an incestuous mother (Isabelle Huppert) in his 2004 film “Ma Mère.” “It was a dark role,” Mr. Honoré said. “Off-camera he was lighter and more joyful, but with a certain melancholy, and I wanted to offer him something that would better correspond to his personality.” 

A gentler turn in “Dans Paris” followed in 2006, with “Love Songs” last year. “He has a very lyrical way of playing a role, like a character in a novel,” Mr. Honoré said, referring not just to his appealing singing style, demonstrated in “Love Songs.” “He seems to have escaped somehow from the 1960s but is totally of his time.”

Mr. Honoré is now editing their fourth collaboration, “La Belle Personne.” “Even in the editing room, I’m surprised by what he does,” Mr. Honoré said. “I have the impression that my films resemble me more and more because of Louis.” 

Onscreen, Mr. Garrel bites his nails and smokes, charms and broods. On a gray afternoon in a Left Bank cafe, he seemed to have stepped straight off the screen.

“It’s true I have a hard time with the notion of creating a character,” Mr. Garrel said. “And I feel it’s a limit. I’m always really impressed by actors who are able to construct a character, like Johnny Depp. Then again, an actor who gives a big performance, it’s always a little embarrassing, because he’s there saying, ‘Look at my performance.’ And that bothers me a lot.” 

Playing Ismaël, Mr. Garrel said, he had in mind Yves Montand, as a man who befriends his rival for the same woman’s heart, in Claude Sautet’s 1972 film, “César et Rosalie.” “I’m crazy about Yves Montand,” he said. “You want to live like he does in the film, to be his friend. He has a certain rhythm — he’s always trying to cheer people up, to carry them along — and I thought Ismaël should be like that.”

While shooting “Love Songs,” Mr. Garrel said, he did his best to forge real relationships with fellow cast members. “That’s how mystery is created,” he said. “I want the camera to be a bit like a voyeur. I like to say to myself that the film is a residue of a larger life.” Ms. Sagnier, his “Love Songs” co-star, said: “Louis really likes to share his energy. That’s very rare for an actor. The only bad part is that he also shares his anguish.”

Mr. Honoré agreed that Mr. Garrel is “very inventive and spontaneous on set.”

“But he’s also very much an intellectual who wants to master everything.” he added. “It’s hard for him that he’s not the one choosing the takes. He often calls me up late at night full of anguish, but after the fact.” 

Said Mr. Garrel: “I hope each day to have done 10 seconds of good work that they can use in the film. And I’m always afraid I didn’t get those 10 seconds.” 

He finds it painful to wait while a film is finished without him. But he’s not one of those actors who refuses to see the final product. “ ‘Love Songs’ is a very tender film,” he said. “I wasn’t watching myself and my faults. And that’s my goal. I want to take pleasure in watching the film.” 

Mr. Garrel won the French César for most promising male newcomer in 2006 for his role in “Regular Lovers,” his father’s film set during the May 1968 student protests in Paris, and has a taste for the ever more rarefied French cinéma d’auteur. It was the second time he’d participated in a movie about May 1968, after Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Dreamers,” his best-known film. 

His striking looks are also the stuff of fashion shoots and fan sites, and he routinely turns down work in more commercial films. “I like to be able to understand the feeling of the director,” he said, “that a film corresponds to something in his life. Otherwise, it doesn’t interest me much.”

Mr. Garrel has recently completed a second film with his father, “La Frontière de l’Aube,” and is working on his own short film about a young man who feels that time is passing too quickly. 

“I don’t know how long I’ll live,” he said when asked what his own future may hold. “But I’d like to make communist films with Ken Loach, libertine films with Almodóvar, esoteric films with Kaurismaki. That’s not bad for a start.”


© 2008 LGA - Louis Garrel addict