The younger Garrel became interested in film and started his career early, influenced by the new work of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. At the age of 16, Garrel wrote and directed his first film, Les Enfants Désaccordés, in 1964.
In 1982, Garrel won the Prix Jean Vigo for the film L'Enfant Secret. He won Perspectives du Cinéma Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984 for his 1983 film Liberté, la nuit. Over a ten-year period, Garrel enjoyed a good run of critical recognition at the Venice Film Festival. In 1991, he won a Silver Lion for his film J'entends Plus la Guitare, which was nominated for a Golden Lion. Le Vent de la Nuit was nominated for a Golden Lion in 1999. Two years later, Sauvage Innocence was nominated for a Golden Lion and won the FIPRESCI Prize. His 2005 film, Les Amants Réguliers, won him the Silver Lion, for Best Director.
Garrel met German singer and actress Nico in 1969 when she performed the song "The Falconer" for his film Le Lit de la Vierge (The Virgin's Bed). The couple soon started living together. He first cast Nico in his 1972 film La Cicatrice Intérieure (aka The Inner Scar). Songs from the soundtrack were included in Nico's album Desertshore, which featured stills from the film on the front and back covers. Nico was featured in a number of Garrel's films after this. Their ten-year relationship ended in 1979.