Dialogue in Zero Gravity:
Philippe Garrel Meets Leos Carax
By Alain Philippon
From Metrograph Vol. 18, Winter 2019.
A conversation between the two filmmakers originally recorded in 1984.
While Boy Meets Girl incontestably expresses the spirit of the 1980s, it is also a film that has assimilated the cinemas of Godard and Garrel, in other words of the two previous generations (Carax was born in 1962, Garrel in 1948). We were also aware that Garrel pays close attention to contemporary French cinema, regardless from what generation, and when asked, he confirmed that he was especially interested in Carax’s film. This presented the opportunity for a meeting, which both directors agreed to, Garrel immediately and Carax somewhat reluctantly. We chose to leave the two filmmakers alone, without intervening to channel their words, which would have distorted the exercise. Garrel and Carax met on October 4 in Paris. We agreed in advance that Philippe Garrel’s role would be that of the interviewer. While he took this very seriously, what can be read below is not so much an interview as a confrontation, with the agreements and divergences that entails. For while it is obvious that both Garrel and Carax are artists, their experiences of this status are very different.—Alain Philippon
Explorers on the Moon
Philippe Garrel: What has been proven once again is that cinema isn’t found at the IDHEC1 or by being an assistant on a set, but on the sidewalk, in the rain, one night after seeing one of Jean-Luc’s films. You say you’re not politicized. Yet I think that in Boy Meets Girl, you’re being political without realizing it. For example, the scene with the cosmonaut, the first man to walk on the moon, makes me think about Situationism: there’s both respect for the guy’s courage and a little bit of derision, a feeling of pointlessness in the acting. The idea, for me, is that it’s contemporary civilization that’s stupid, not people themselves.
Leos Carax: In any case, it’s not the moon that’s stupid. There’s also the moment when Alex says he wants to be an oceanographer; when I was a kid that’s what I wanted to do, either be an oceanographer or an astronaut. I closely followed man’s first steps on the moon in 1969. I remember adults being very political about that, because of the fortune it had cost, when that money could have been used for something else, etc. It’s a little like criticizing a guy in the Sahel for eating a guy from Biafra’s rice. There’s so much money everywhere. There are absurd things you can invest money in, including a film. However, there are other absurdities that kill people. At the same time, the moon stayed with me. I thought of a project. I don’t know if you’ve seen that old movie, a beautiful movie, An Affair to Remember by Leo McCarey. I kind of wanted to remake that: a couple of astronauts, a man and a woman, who are sent to the moon. They fall in love on the moon, in zero gravity, while doing their research. It’s really true love.
PG: That’s a nice story.
LC: They come back to earth and obviously the wife is waiting for the guy, the husband is waiting for the woman and that’s the end of it. Even physically, love is less good than on the moon. But to produce that, you’d have to start by doing a location scout, no one would pay for that. But I always had that ambition, even as a child, I told myself I’d do something on the moon. I thought that we’d send people up there pretty quickly, when in fact there was only that first time, which didn’t serve any purpose. Yet I like first times. Anyhow, it’s a trip I really wanted to make. Later, when I started to make films, I had that project to shoot a movie on the moon.
PG: That scene between Alex and the cosmonaut gives me a philosophical idea: people like me, born immediately after the war, have currently taken shelter in humanism. With that scene, I had the impression that there was a knowledge emerging, but that it had passed into the collective unconscious, and that you were political without knowing it.
LC: Maybe, but often the less you know, the better you’re doing.
Making Movies Because of Girls
PG: Your film stands out by its attitude toward women: even in the intelligentsia of days gone by it was not a foregone conclusion to think that men and women were of equal intelligence. Without delving into your private life, I’d like to talk about what the very heterosexual work of making films is for you.
LC: Yes. I grew up with women. And the reason I wanted to make films was because of girls, or women as you say once you turn 20. When I was a kid, it was actresses. Like everyone else, I didn’t know there were directors. And there was a kind of joke circulating in my family, saying that I didn’t look like the others, that I was a kid who came from somewhere else. I took that seriously and made up imaginary biographies for myself in which I was the son of an actress. I looked at the dates and wrote to quite a few actresses. I would find similarities between their names and mine. Then just before I went into my freshman year in high school, suddenly during the summer, I became unable to talk, or maybe I had made a decision not to talk. For four or five years, I never spoke. In my senior year, I fell in love with a girl I saw every day and I never said anything to her. Because of that, I didn’t hate school. I finished school at 16 and I decided to make movies. I was working as a messenger for a distribution company, I bought a camera, a Bolex 16mm, and I got the idea to make a film for this girl, telling myself that an assistant would call her in and we’d make the film together. I had a maid’s room near the Louvre and everything was supposed to happen there. I wrote a letter to this girl and she accepted. She came on the appointed day, she was a little scared. We hadn’t spoken (“Hello, you good?, yes”), it happened in the presence of the Bolex. For the first shot, she was supposed to be in bed and her legs were bare so I was a little scared. She was supposed to wake up from a nightmare. We filmed that shot. She didn’t like cinema and she left. Since I had paid for the camera, the film stock, and had found people to do the camera work and act, I had to continue. So, I put want ads in Libération—it was free at the time—and I went to see girls, but I realized that without her it didn’t interest me at all.
PG: I’m like you. When I go to Chevereau to rent a camera, it’s because there’s a girl who interests me psychically, there’s no other motivation. I’m in constant latent preparation for the film and all of sudden I run into a girl and I tell myself, “it’s worth painting, she’s a beautiful model,” and I move into action. And in Boy Meets Girl, you can really see that the move into action is in relation to Mireille Perrier. In my opinion, it’s very different from the everyday cinema, which is deeply misogynist, and in which women play roles that are simultaneously erotic and worthless. But afterward, didn’t you have the impression every time you had a love affair that you had a prosthesis, which was your camera? Don’t you have this slightly… obscene feeling? Don’t you experience a rejection of cinema, for instance, at the end of a shoot?
LC: I think it was the wrong way round: it was the camera that made a love affair, it would make things a reality or make them move forward. It’s also a way of talking: it’s easier to say hello on a film set than in real life. For example, I can’t do auditions. I could never do theater. And even in film, I’m unable to rehearse, without the camera: it makes me feel like I’m an idiot.
PG: That’s why painting seems purer and stronger. The painter paints his muse and the entirety of the painting is a portrait of a woman with whom he locks himself up in his studio. That’s nearly the only angle from which cinema interests me. For example, I studied silent film a little bit at the Cinémathèque in Langlois’s2 day, and the films that interested me were those that were triggered because of women. That doesn’t have anything to do with a question of generations anymore, it concerns the history of art: there’s a lineage of artists who pick up a paintbrush to have a privileged relationship with a woman. That’s why I like Ingres and de La Tour.
PG: I also wanted to talk to you about suicide. The image of Mireille Perrier slashing her wrists with a pair of scissors in your film has been widely seen. Don’t you think the attitude toward suicide in France is neither scientific nor reasonable, regardless of whether you’re Christian or an atheist (I’m an atheist)? For example, the reaction when Jean Eustache killed himself, the way it made waves, there’s something not at all human about it, something very mythological. That’s not the way to prevent people from committing suicide. How old were you when you were shooting Boy Meets Girl?
PG: You see: wanting to deal with suicide right away, within your own life, that of your friends and the love story, seems very reasonable to me, very lucid. That doesn’t seem to participate in this mythology of death as it is lived in our society and seems to me to be a symptom of the extreme foolishness that our civilization is embarked on.
LC: After high school, I had a project called Déjà Vu, in which there was an older woman, fifty years old, who was suicidal. I didn’t get the money to make that and it must have been later that I saw The Devil, Probably. I tell myself that maybe that was something I should still dare to do. To show that in some way or other. When someone around you commits suicide, there’s always something—the way the person commits suicide or the letter he leaves—that is taken as a last word: “He wanted to have the last word.” In fact, there’s a few lines about that in Boy Meets Girl, written by one of the actors: “You will respect the warmth of your blood, the clearness of your gaze, the gentleness of your feelings,” a text he had written following the suicide of a friend, for which the friend’s circle had basically blamed him. In the film project I have now, there are suicides filmed like murders, or the other way around, and an investigation to figure out whether it’s suicide or murder, while the dead man’s son doesn’t care. That’s kind of the beginning…
PG: Another thing I like is the young man’s conversation with the older woman in the kitchen. It seems to me you’re listening to others, to “people of goodwill,” to be able to make this portrait. I think it’s good not to mythologize youth and to know that there are righteous people of every age.
LC: I wanted to put every age in the film. The youngest actor must be four months old and the oldest must be eighty-five. The idea of the film is that the main character experiences an illusion of déjà vu. The ages are a little bit like the sexes. It’s said that we’re kind of half-half male-female. I think we have all the ages inside us at every moment. I remember that when I was nine, on my birthday, I was sitting on the stairs in pajamas and I had the distinct impression of being fifty years old. To this day, I sometimes still find myself like an infant and other times it seems terribly hard for me to get up, as if I were a bedridden invalid.
PG: Your film is not a soliloquy. It wasn’t shot in front of a mirror. On the level of the imagination, it belongs to you and Mireille, not to a single individual. That’s why Godard’s films interest me, for example. Either the woman is in front of the camera, or she’s the co-screenwriter, there’s always a woman’s words and a man’s words: how they intertwine, how they provoke each other, and that’s the existence of life.
LC: Yes, Mireille Perrier is an interesting actress for that. She works. For example, she wrote my favorite line in the dialogue: “When I met him, at the beginning, he felt free with me. Now, he often reproaches me for things, things I don’t understand. For him, everything counts, my past, my future, my present, and my death.” That enlightened me.
PG: That makes me think of a teenage metaphysical fantasy I had one night: I was on LSD, no STP, which is a different poison (I fried my brains pretty good when I was twenty). I was with a woman and I thought that the two of us had gone into orbit, that living a life with a woman was like the first Russian satellite that was going around the world: the two of us were in our cell and like it or not we were going to have to get along for life… There are films and novels that shape your life, and then the rest. For me, the novel that shaped my entire life is Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot: everyone thought he was the stupidest, but in fact he was the most intelligent. That’s exactly why he wasn’t able to communicate with people. There are works that give you an education, like parents give one, and I think that your film has the virtue of having been completely sincere and of not going looking for anything outside to find an audience.
LC: I also think that cinema saved me in so far as school didn’t teach me anything. Toward the end of high school, for three years, I spent ten hours a day in front of a pinball machine. And after that, films. That or a girl, that’s the only way to replace a professor. How do you discover a piece of music, a painting, a book? Through cinema, there’s no doubt about it. I had a friend who would tell me about a teacher who made him discover Barbara3 when he was 12. And that’s what got him out of his family. As well as a film by a certain director. Then you pick up from there, you go see another film by that director, in which you spot an actor, so you go see another movie by a different director, with the same actor, and that’s the chain. That’s when you start living.
PG: You mentioned The Devil, Probably. What other filmmakers do you consider humanly legitimate?
LC: Griffith, for example. Silent film might have had more of an impact on me because I was silent at the time I started going to the movies. I used to go see Lillian Gish a lot. The second filmmaker would be [King] Vidor, especially for The Crowd: I think it could be rereleased today. And then… still in the Americans, the most important ones may be Lubitsch and Nicholas Ray. In France, it starts with Epstein. What’s it called? Cœur… The word “cœur” is in the title. It’s the one with superimpositions on the characters’ backs…
PG: …Well, Langlois is dead. Did you ever meet him?
LC: I was thinking about that when Georges de Beauregard4 died. I met each of them once. Langlois, I must have been fifteen but I only realized it was Langlois very recently. The way I remember it, he had a body like Laughton and a strand of hair like Jean-Pierre Léaud. Beauregard was two years later, in his offices near Place d’Iéna. I had brought him my first screenplay, Déjà Vu. His secretary told me to leave it with her. I answered: “No, I’m going to wait for Mr. Beauregard.” He happened to come out of his office at that very moment. He asked me what I was doing there. I was standing there with this screenplay, a very classic one with the dialogue on one side and the action on the other. I told him: “Well, I want to make this film and I was told you weren’t afraid of first films. Maybe we could make it together. So read it or maybe we could talk.” He opened the screenplay, read “Interior Night—Bedroom,” closed it, and told me: “I don’t produce Interior Night—Bedroom films anymore, that’s over.” I said: “All right, that’s fine, maybe it could happen on the banks of the Seine.” “Oh? Leave it with me, maybe I’ll read it.” That’s what he told me.
PG: I thought you were talking about Langlois. It was funny to imagine that you could believe Langlois would produce a single foot of film for you, because he always wanted to do that and was never able to. I didn’t know Beauregard. I liked Langlois because he really wasn’t rich and he wanted to go further than the Cinémathèque. He wanted to create an Institute of Cinema. He was aware that our lives constantly have ups and downs. He wanted to have a place where we could come to work, with editing tables, cameras, and all that, for all the times in our lives when things go wrong. When I finished a film, the only person I could go show it to, aside from the woman for whom I had made it and four or five friends, was Langlois. He was the only one who treated us like artists. Everyone else treated you like an indecisive dilettante or like someone who wanted to get access to something. Everyone thinks that the only good poet is a dead poet. But not people like Henri Langlois. He was very useful. But now, you see how it is, the Cinémathèque is a tomb. There’s no University of the Imagination, and Langlois could have pulled it off. Langlois was an artist himself in his way of living and what he created was not drifting toward becoming the kind of management machine all the arts funding centers turn into. The problem is that we constantly have to maintain the currency of our presence in cinema, and I’d really like to be able to do nothing.
I refuse the obligation to work your whole life, that’s a way of losing your life. With Langlois, you were a good director and artist whether or not you had made a film that year. His relationship with artists had nothing to do with bourgeois morality. People say the Cinémathèque was like the Raft of the Medusa, but that’s a good thing: what would we have done if it was like the other institutions!
Today they’re talking about putting video cameras in schools, but if it’s done under the guidance of computer engineers, alienation will intensify. That’s what Godard means when he says that it’s the machine that governs us. It’s not by adding machines to communicate that people will dare to say what weighs on their hearts… I’m talking to you about the few people who were essential. There were Godard’s films, which were coming out at an accelerated pace and were ahead of the news, they were simultaneously a love story and the latest political news, faster even than the newspapers, and then Langlois, who represented something other than French rationalism, with this idea of constant progress, this constant attempt to reach the largest possible audience, which is the way the French cinema is structured. It’s very important that people like you are coming along, because there was a hecatomb. Between Langlois and Eustache, plus the attitude that the film business has toward people like Jean-Marie Straub and Marguerite Duras, we had reached a point, in the late ’70s, where we were in hell. We had the feeling we were trying to get three rays of sunlight onto a screen, but it was a little like in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, where there are marginalized intellectuals in forbidden zones. That’s the most atrocious thing about modernity: the fact that we constantly exploit and draw inspiration from thinkers, but punish them for being free-thinkers. Society generates discoveries of the imagination for itself, but at the same time, it punishes the bearers of this imagination because they are rebels or asocial… You were telling me you wanted to work with a woman musician. Do the punk world and that kind of thing interest you as good people for your generation or do you think you’re like a punk, that you belong to an avant-garde, with other demands about what life should be, born of your generation?
LC: Punks… I don’t know that so well. In each art form, there are different movements that interest me, but in music, that’s not really the one. Not that particular violence. I like pop, I listen to facile pop. Even compared to cinema, sometimes I’d rather put 20 francs in a jukebox than go to the movies.
PG: It seemed to me that what the punks had in common with you was working in a very precarious life, because at the end of the day, now you’re a worker at Kodak, just like me. For the rest of our lives, when things are flush, they’ll give us unexposed film and we’ll have to turn it into exposed film. But if we should remain pure, our standard of living will improve a tiny bit, let’s say, as we get old, but that’s all. An artist who doesn’t betray, socially speaking, will experience difficulties his whole life long.
A Way of Talking about Money
LC: I think there are times in life when you have to have money. Even a lot of money. Do you think you’re going to stay at the same level?
PG: Artists who are pure compensate for the inflation of their cells: their cells age, so there’s compensation, but that’s all. Look at what Mary Meerson5 had to live on in the end. Like Langlois, she had a very, very precarious life. Yet these were very important people in the history of art. Langlois was able to aggressively respond to a Minister of Culture or anyone else who was a pain in the ass when it came to cinema. Power is only imaginary: there is no material power.
LC: Money is something, like when we were talking about the moon earlier. Imagine you hold up Gaumont and go off with checks worth three billion francs, that’s money too. You can change your life with that. You can make yourself a new identity somewhere else or… I don’t see myself living the way I do now for a long time. The film I’m preparing is about a young guy who wants to take advantage of the fact that he’s finally become an orphan to make a new life for himself. Without leaving any traces. But making a new life is very expensive, so he agrees to do a last dangerous job (he’s an outlaw), offered to him by a couple. And despite himself, he falls in love with the 30-year-old woman and he stays. You need money just to move around. There are moments when it’s something else too: every 10 years, there’s a film that changes your life, every five years maybe a girl, and every three years maybe you don’t have any money left and you’re forced to change, and all of a sudden you decide that you’re sick of not having any, and you want a lot of it. To go someplace new or for something else.
PG: For me, money is connected to man’s labor, and therefore to man’s death. Each time that you force yourself to make money to live, it’s like eating death. Money always has a source and there’s a moral contract entered into.
LC: But when you ask Gaumont for a million francs, or 80 million old francs, suddenly you’re handling amounts of money that no one handles. And after all, at the beginning you’re not making the film for a lot of people. So why not take the 80 million and go visit some country or take off somewhere with your wife for five years?
PG: But they only give you that money in exchange for exposed film… There’s a de facto situation. The history of painting or poetry shows us that it was never easy between painters and poets and money. That’s why I have the feeling that from the beginning I set off with a certain lucidity. If you stick to your personal subjects all the time, little by little your audience thins out. You have to do some serials like Théophile Gautier did in parallel to his novels, in order to make a living. When I think about money, I think work equals death, not freedom. •
(1) IDHEC (Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques) was a French film school located in Paris. It was replaced by La Fémis in 1986.
(2) Henri Langlois (1914-1977), founder of the Cinémathèque Française.
(3) Barbara (1930-1997), French singer-songwriter.
(4) Georges de Beauregard (1920-1984), French producer who produced early films by Godard, Varda, Demy, Rivette, and Chabrol, among others.
(5) Mary Meerson (1902-1993), Bulgarian-born partner of Henri Langlois, a former dancer and central figure of the interwar Parisian art world, played a crucial role in developing and running the Cinémathèque until Langlois’s death in 1977.
Conversation recorded by Alain Philippon. Initially published in Cahiers du Cinéma no. 365, November 1984. Translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott. Printed with permission of Cahiers du Cinéma.