Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1997), about the filming of a Les vampires remake in contemporary Paris, is, on the surface, your basic backstage drama. It’s also a découpage of opinions, prejudices, name-drops, movies-within-movies, and symbolic castings, attempting to situate French filmmaking tradition at the fin-de-millennium.
When Les vampires’ director, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, disappears from the set, he’s replaced by Lou Castel. Both actors are cast, with assumed knowledge of their histories, as leftovers of the ’60s scrambling to survive after time and the market has turned Leaud obscure and neurotic, and Castel lazy and mercenary.
If he didn’t gain Leaud’s level of iconic recognition stateside, Castel was as much a ground-floor participant in the adventurous age of the European arthouse. He was Fassbinder’s (physically) flattering alter ego in Beware of a Holy Whore (1971), in which he appeared baby-faced, blond, and blue-eyed. He returned bundled, balding, and puffy in Irma, draining bottomless café beers in a continuity oversight one hopes is an inside joke. And still, something beatific remains in him, now 67 and the subject of a joint Anthology Film Archives and French Institute Alliance Française series.
The actor, who spoke by phone from his home in Paris, was born Ulv Quarzéll in Bogotá, Columbia, to Irish-Swedish parents. His peripatetic first 18 years took him, with his communist-internationalist mother, through Jamaica, Brooklyn (he remembers shining shoes), Geneva, Paris (where he attended a progressive school with a program of “open, nature, be naked, arts, and so on”), Sweden, and, finally, Rome—good preparation for a career incarnating outsiders.
Castel made his name in Italian films as the squirmy, apoplectic, incestuous middle son of a family of Northern Italian provincial bourgeoisie in 1965’s Fists in the Pocket. In his most famous role, as he was for much of his career, he was overdubbed: “I had to be impulsive and intuitive for a very concrete reason—most of my films I don’t have my voice.”
After ’68, Castel applied his voice elsewhere, tithing his last lira to extreme left causes: “I had this double-life, actor and being a militant, and [acting] was very secondary.” Under suspicion of sedition, he was expelled from Italy for two years, beginning in March ’72, but had no problem expanding into German and French films in the interim. Today, the actor is in a voluntary second exile, crediting the ascent of media-mogul PM Silvio Berlusconi in hastening his relocation to Paris. There, long retired from direct action, he has finally, laboriously, read every volume of Das Kapital (“I marked colored bubbles each time I would understand something”), and seems unruffled by his lack of nationality: “Maybe my real identity is the cinema actor.”
As Alliance Française screens Castel’s better-known roles, Anthology will show six programs of his more recent, tenuously narrative films, including his work as director of video experiments in bifurcated screens and beyond. Welcome though this is, it barely summarizes a career that’s a bumpy back-road Grand Tour of Euro movies post–New Wave, from festival darlings, politicized Spaghetti Westerns, and still-more-scurrilous stuff. Having seen nearly everything in his lifetime, Castel will even risk a Q&A with New York cineastes—a battered legend, briefly manifest.
‘Lou Castel: Action!’ runs through December 21 at French Institute Alliance Française. ‘Lou Castel: Experiments in Film and Video’ runs December 8 through 12 at Anthology Film Archives.