Arnaud Desplechin: The BRM Interview
By Tom Hall on January 23, 2008
Tom Hall: Tracking the process of Kings & Queen from your intital idea to the finished film, do you feel you have accomplished what you set out to do? How did the film change?
Arnaud Desplechin: I think without realizing it, I wanted to see (good melodrama and raw comedy) on the screen, but wanted to go slightly further. Possibly because European films now are slightly too polite or too restrained, it was a love letter to the films I saw when I was 10 or 12 years old. I could quote Jerry Lewis or Frank Tashlin movies, or the first time I saw the Hitchcock melodramas on TV when I was 10. I wanted to have a real melodrama, not the pitiful story of some girl who has to work through problems to pay the rent, but dig deeper and see what melodrama is depicting about our own lives, and also on the comical aspect to be raw. I was thinking about all of these raw, comical movies I saw when I was an adolescent and I wanted to go a little bit further. It was a gamble. I wanted tears and bursts of laughter, but I didn’t want the laughter to be a mockery of the tears or the tears to restrain the good jokes in the Ismaël plot.
TH: What do you think has happened to European films? How did they become restrained and why did you want to change that?
AD: Strangely, it is easier to describe what I like in American movies, or Chinese cinematography, but it’s so difficult to depict it. Is it the influence of French or German TV? You don’t have this problem in the USA because you have these wonderful TV shows. The first time I saw early episodes of NYPD Blue with David Caruso, I said ‘This is the best police movie I’ve seen in 10 years!’ It was so raw, sad and deep, like the great dark movies of the 1970’s. It is quite a challenge for a film director to do something that is quite as good as the American TV is proposing. The European TV is more polite and politically correct. So, suddenly we started to forget. When I was 13, my parents took me to see Cries and Whispers. I thought ‘Whoa! That’s what women are about. Yes, it’s violent but I want to be a part of it! It’s dangerous but it’s fascinating.’ So, perhaps we forgot the films that conducted us to want to make films ourselves. It’s a lack of memory.
TH: There is the extraordinary scene between Ismaël and Elias, walking through the Musée de l’Homme, discussing the nature of family and love. Of course, Elias is wearing a shirt that says ‘Soul’ on it. How did this scene come about and what did you intend with it, because it feels like the perfect way to end this ‘cycle of woes’ that Nora has experienced.
AD: It’s just as you said. It’s funny because at the same time, I love the way that the two characters need one another. I think that because Nora’s journey is so hard, I think it is good that she has this lovely devil in Ismaël to enjoy her days because I think she looks quite peaceful when they meet in the psychiatric hospital, and suddenly she can behave in a very girlie way, to be nasty. It’s important to Nora to have this relationship because without it, her life would be too heavy. On the other hand, without Nora, Ismaël’s life would be emptier. At the end of the film, I think he’s learned a few things. He’s more solid. He’s becoming a man. It’s also funny because all along, he says he is not adopting the kid, but in the end, what do I see but him behaving like a perfect father, providing to him what he needs to grow up. But Ismaël is so pretentious; he would never say he would adopt this kid. Well, that’s what he says, but we saw it. So, I think Nora is very clever because she gave to Elias what Elias needed to become an adult; a nice chat between a man and a boy. It was so moving to shoot because both of them, Mathieu and Valentin, were so good and because the museum where we shot won’t exist any longer. Paris is closing the Musée de l’Homme, so it was my last opportunity to shoot it. It’s nice because its sort of a myth of French culture, having this museum about all of humanity, it’s a very nice 1960’s concept and I thought it was the perfect place.
TH: And of course there is Catherine Deneuve, who is perhaps the greatest of French actresses. How did she get involved with this film and what was your experience with her?
AD: First of all, because the lines between her character and Ismaël are quite rude, I thought it would be misogynistic to be equal about that. Let’s be brutal. It will be violent, but it will be lively. In the scene, Ismaël is a little bit ridiculous, and you want the psychiatrist to win the scene. It was just like a stupid kids game; the first one to get pissed off loses. Catherine Deneuve has such a sense of humor and is so bright; she can’t be offended by anything. I love the color of her feminism; the fact that she had a child without being married, the fact that she is so free, that she is an icon and is so insolent at the same time. I was sure that she would win the scene. But then I worried that maybe it was a little bit too over cast. We realized there would only be two actors who had a scene with both Emmanuelle and Mathieu; one would be Deneuve and the other would be Elias, Nora’s son. I thought in the shape of the film, it was nice to have the hugest French movie star (Deneuve) and the humblest (Valentin Lelong). So, that’s what I said to Deneuve: If she won the scene it could be a really funny feminist manifesto, and that it would be nice to compare Catherine Deneuve to the little Valentin. She said ‘Yeah, it’s quite relevant, let’s do it.’
TH: I would like to ask you about your editing choices. One of the most distinctive features of your style as a filmmaker is your decision to use multiple takes of a single shot in your films. This creates an effect of time shifting and changing, of multiple meanings and possibilities within a single moment. How did you come about this technique and what does it mean to you?
AD: I’m so glad that you saw it just as I saw it on the editing table. It started for me with the influence of TV, it gets edited with briefer and briefer shots and I think it’s good because the audience will understand what you are doing in a faster and faster way. It’s quite challenging. It was a moral statement between the actors and me. They know I am asking them to go in very different directions. They know I will never be mean with them. If there is one beautiful shot but the acting is slightly better in another take, they know I will choose the very bit that they gave me. I think it is sort of a moral duty, because what is it to be a Director? It’s nothing. You aren’t acting, you aren’t doing the lights; you’re the only one who’s not working on the set in a way. You’re just like a humble spectator. So, when I have all of these wonderful moments that they give me, if I don’t give them back to you, I’m not doing my job. It’s my job to say, ‘In that particular few seconds, Emmanuelle depicted the character in such a clever way. Mathieu did an amazing thing.’ In these takes, they give me a sort of sparkle, which belongs to you, the audience. So, who would I be as a Director if I hide it just to pretend that my way of shooting would be nice? No.
I saw in the way that Susan Morse did it when she was editing Deconstructing Harry. I love Woody Allen’s wonderful long shots, but after a while, it can seem too emphatic. So, Susan Morse said ‘Ok, let’s use the mess. Perhaps it will be more lively.’ And it worked. It was as gorgeous as the other films, but with another way of doing it. I hope it looks easy, because that’s my job, but sometimes it is reaching very emotional, deep moments. As I am working, I give the dailies to the editor and say ‘Give me a best of, show me what you like and if I disagree with you, we’ll add this and that.’ In the scene where Nora is on the phone, telling her sister about her father’s imminent death, I did five takes and she chose all five shots. Emmanuelle is giving us five different portraits of Nora, so it was (Editor Laurence Briaud’s) job to condense it, but she said ‘If I take off one of these five shots, we will lose one of the facets Emmanuelle is giving us.’
This scene reminds me of the moments when you learn of someone’s death by phone. I remember a friend of mine a few months ago. You think, between the time I pick up and hang up the phone, how long was it? Was it three hours, was it fifteen minutes? You don’t know. That quality of time, which is very specific to the phone, you’re lost. Physically, when I was looking at Nora, at this edit, I was identifying with that sense of losing time in these painful experiences.
TH: Another distinctive feature in your films is your use of music, both popular and classical. In Kings & Queen, music is not only used as a device to comment on the action and add meaning, but it figures directly in the life of Ismaël in particular, ranging from his career as a violist to his hilariously terrible break-dance to a hip-hop song. Can you talk about how you use music in your films, your technique, and how you choose the music that you feature?
AD: On these specific scenes, where Ismaël is break dancing or they are listening to the Rose Murphy tune, or when he is recording the Webern piece and we use direct sound, I am obliged to choose beforehand. But I prefer to work with music on the editing table. I love some films with very silent characters, people who don’t speak, but I wouldn’t be able to do that. I love the sound of their voices, I love that they are speaking for themselves, but I am not always listening to what they are saying. I like to listen to their voices to see if it is funny or if it is sad, and then put the music straight on; that’s what this scene is about. I also love that it is a puzzle with different kinds of music; no noble music, no humble music, but all the music is equal. Just like in silent movies. I hate this idea in the Cinematheque that you must watch silent movies with no music, like it’s a piece of art. It’s not true. When it was shown, it was always a popular art and there was always a piano player that was there to narrate the scenes. So, I am just trying to use different types of music. There is rap music in all my films. In La Vie des Morts, there is rap music too. It’s because I’m French, and when it appeared in 1978, it was so new, it set off my musical imagination. Pop music meant nothing to me. When we were setting things, we thought it would be nice to have ‘white’ music for Nora and ‘black’ music for Ismaël. So, you have Paul Weller songs and Randy Newman songs for Nora, but Ismaël is strictly hip-hop. I love the fact that we had jazz music, some techno, early hip-hop Marley Marl, Big Figures, Afrika Bambaataa, to modern hip-hop. So, we had a history of hip-hop through this guy who is a classical viola player and I thought the contrast worked.
TH: I would like to talk about structure in your films, particularly the idea that your films are ‘novelistic’ or ‘epic’ because of their ambitious scope and length. Do you feel that there is a relationship between films like Kings & Queen or My Sex Life… and the modern novel?
AD: Yes, it sounds relevant but now, I hope that what I always did, but I didn’t feel allowed to confess it, was to capture something sensual. That’s why I can say that one of the Directors who influenced me the most was Milos Forman. Coppola did the same stuff, but slightly later. Forman was the only one I can remember when if it was raining, cold, if the fabric was heavy or soft. I can remember the sensations. He has this way of working on the sets and costumes and performances where you can remember the quality of the flesh of the young girl in Valmont, I remember all the sensations and to try and capture them. I love that, but it’s not novelistic at all. It’s pure sensation, but I guess it produces something like that. I love storytelling. I’d be so afraid not to fulfill the story, I’d be afraid first and foremost of being boring, so I want to fill the frame. That way, there is always something to grab.
TH: As we eagerly await your next film, can you talk about what projects you are working on now and what we can look forward to in the coming years?
AD: Just as I did on my previous films, I am working on several projects. I know I will do all of them, I still don’t know which will be first because of practical questions like ‘Is the actor available?’ There is one film, a very simple dialogue, a very beautiful story between a woman and her lover. It’s just a series of dialogues about love. What it is to have a lover, to hide it, the problem of speaking of your husband or your wife to your lover, so it’s wonderful to be able to work around that. I don’t think it would work in French. It would work in English because of the lines.
Then there is a policier around the racial issue. I was really struck by Unbreakable, I thought it was the best M. Night Shyamalan movie. I love this movie, the fact that it confronts negritude. You don’t have a word for this in English, but it is very relevant. So, I am on a plot working around that. But I think the first one I will do is about the early 1970’s. I think about films like Almost Famous or The Ice Storm which are depicting the wildness of adolescence and the feeling that you are allowed to be free; a utopia. I could quote other films like The Outsiders or something like that. I noticed that I could see that in Asia or the U.S., but I never saw a good French film about these years, which are the years of my adolescence. It’s always too political, or too storytelling. I never saw it properly made. I thought it would be lovely to have this love story between adolescents, but now when you look at adolescence in French films, the kids are portrayed as stupid, they are deprived of language, they are cheap love stories, which is true, maybe it’s the way it is happening now. But when we were kids, we were doing so many amazing things and our parents just allowed us to do mad things. How did we survive? I still don’t know. But it could be good for a young audience to have that kind of story with those kinds of characters.
(Note: The following portion of the discussion was conducted over email, after our initial conversation.)
TH: During your recent retrospective at BAM, audiences had a chance to see all of your films together, and for me, it was illuminating because one notices right away that the films begin to almost talk to one another, to rhyme, on many levels. As a another way of talking about Nora and Ismaël’s story in Kings & Queen, I’d like to talk to you about your earlier films, because in many ways Kings & Queen feels like a continuation and culmination of the groundwork established in your other films.
So, in your films, there is a sense of haunting, of spirits, ghosts, and corpses arriving to change the meanings of character’s lives. The examples are numerous: The head, called le fantóme, in La Sentinelle, the return of Esther’s menstrual cycle in My Sex Life…, the dead monkey that helps free Paul in the same film, the dead in Léo, and of course Nora’s ‘ghosts’ in Kings & Queen. Can you discuss the role that these ghosts play for you? How do you wish them to be understood?
AD: Each time I’m starting to work on a film, even if I love to settle the plot in the real world, I start to think about the plot as a fairy tale, or a dream, or a nightmare… As if it was the best way to tell the truth about characters or narration, instead of realism. When I wrote my first movie, La Vie des Morts, I thought, here you have this girl, coming back to her parent’s house, because her cousin just committed suicide. The cousin is between life and death, a bullet in his head, and all they have to do is wait. Then, this girl, Pascale, (like a holy lamb) notices she starts to be strangely nauseous; her womb starts to ache, her period is delayed. She can’t understand what’s happening; she has no reason to be pregnant. So, what’s happening? At the end of the movie, she wakes up; during the night she had a weird miscarriage. And her father is telling to Pascale his cousin died at the very same moment. So, during the movie, she was pregnant with the death of her cousin. And she’s the one in the family who will have to free her cousin from death agony, through this black magic delivery. It seemed to me that such a plot, being pregnant with someone’s death, would express in an obscure and obvious way what mourning is about. Then, perhaps, all theses ghosts are spoors, cinematic appearances of the past in the middle of the present.
TH: In addition to the haunting presence in the films, there is seems to be a struggle for the soul of all of your protagonists. From Mathias having the ‘soul of a whore’ in La Sentinelle to Esther Kahn having to ‘snatch herself a soul, like monkeys do.’ The same search can be seen in My Sex Life ’s Esther and Paul, and certainly in Nora and Ismaël in Kings & Queen. In many ways, your films detail the quest for the soul of your characters; that by engaging in a struggle with the soul, a character may become human. Can you talk about this quest, this becoming?
AD: I’m sure you’re right, and I’m not able to speak about it! And all Esther Kahn is about that issue; winning a soul for herself, building her soul, steeling her soul, fighting for it, coming to the point where, at last, she has a soul. I felt so close to Esther whose feelings are deprived of soul, of depth, and who will get one through her work and love. I guess I do believe in souls, but what would it be, where such a soul would lie? I don’t know! But to show that thing called ‘soul’ on a screen, what a great challenge!
TH: Another powerful theme in your work is the need to break away from one’s family and the prescribed roles of family identity in order to find one’s self, one’s soul. To let go and become. Most of your protagonists feel like outsiders in their own families. There are several instances again: Esther’s mother and sisters’ cruelties inspiring her desire to be avenged in Esther Kahn , Nora’s need for freedom from her father’s image of her, Ismaël is literally imprisoned by the cruel collaboration of his colleague and his sister, (despite this, his parents refuse to free him, saying they think he might be ‘a little mad’). Mathias must break away from his father and the guilt of his cold war associations, along with the cruel selfishness of his sister. Paul’s abandoned novel of ‘revenge’ (like Esther) at the start of My Sex Life… causes his rift with his mother. Of course, this theme is most powerful in La Vie des Morts and Léo: Playing In the Company of Men, which both deal specifically with the dynamics of family power. Secondarily, the issue of adoption arises time and again, via Ismaël’s family adopting his cousin, his own refusal to adopt Nora’s son, and in Léo , where the power dynamic of adoption leads to death. Can you talk about your feelings about family and the impact the idea of family has had on your art?
AD: In a very practical level, as soon as I work on a character, I wonder what kind of a family he had. Are they alive or dead? Did he or she prefer their mother to their father? Was he or she loved? Are they talkative, humble, trendy? What kind of relatives does my character have? In a very same way, when you’re seeing a friend of yours with his or her family, you understand at last who he is, or small details he or she was trying to hide! Then, as soon as I built that past to give it to my character, I love to break it, to see my character trying to escape to any bond and any definition.
TH: Many of your characters literally carry secrets with them. Esther Kahn has her big bag, Mathias has his ghost, the head, in his valise in La Sentinelle , for Léo, it is the gun and his desire to assassinate his father, for Paul, his dreams and guilt about his dispute with Rabier blocking his ability to ‘begin his life as a man.’ Nora has her Leda painting, Ismaël his red cape. There seems to be a hidden thread in your films, a subtext that forces your audience to dig deeper and deeper into the meaning of the lives of your characters. I believe this is what makes the films so rich and deeply felt. How would you like these secrets to be understood?
AD: What I love in your note is the fact that each of these secrets you’re describing are real, visible. Mathias has to deal with a real human head, quite cumbersome if I may! Paul is enable to move in his life, because all the guilt, remorse and regrets. But the dream with the palm tree is so real. The monkey’s corpse is real, and Paul will have to take it out of the heater, and to bury it into a plastic bag. What will do Leo with this gun he has to present to the weapons dealer? The trail of his bullet-loader could be the trail of his love & hate with his father. But it’s still physical, incarnated. Even this blood motive in the movie: the dark blood of his hallucination; the life blood his mother is pouring on him, to protect him; the small spot of blood in the submarine… And you can see the Leda painting Nora is buying for her father in that shop, for real. And you can follow how this mysterious image will go through all the film until (it goes into the) cellar, as a curse. As we’ll see, at last, the absurd red cape which will be the very proof of Ismaël’s love or bravery or stupidity for the Chinese girl, etc. Is there some subtext here? What I would love is that an audience would remember the engraving, its texture, the weight of such a gun, this weird way of digging inside of a skull, the sensuality of a these props, like little and charming enigmas.
TH: One of the great mistakes many critics and filmgoers make is the refusal to take what is presented to them on all levels of a film as being true. Audiences are used to films taking clever advantage of them, of being fooled and misdirected, and so they often spend much of their time trying to uncover the ‘trick’ of a film. In your films, there are layers of meaning presented which can be understood on a literal level. That is to say, I believe that your films deal DIRECTLY with their themes and ideas, without trying to bluff the audience. The metaphysics of your films feel, to me, like straightforward storytelling. This allows the reversals of fortune of Nora and Ismaël in Kings & Queen to feel earned. And yet, sometimes I feel as though you are one of the most misunderstood filmmakers working today. Do you feel that your work is understood as you present it?
AD: How could I answer such a question?! I’m so flattered, because I share so much your way of looking films. This awful idea of ‘uncover the tricks’. As you say, each spectator can choose his level of seeing a scene and I haven’t any values scale when I’m going to see a movie. Is Nora’s name a quotation of the Ibsen play, an obscure allusion to Bergman, or a nice enchanted name for a princess? Each answer does fit with me! Therefore, I can’t be misunderstood by anyone. My films are so simple! Anyone can just play with them, identify with the characters, their tragedy, their funny stories, their pride or bitterness.
TH: Spirituality and religion are important in all of your films, but two stand out and feel directly related to one another: Ivan’s being filled with the Holy Spirit via the body of a young lover in My Sex Life… and the Leda myth that Nora evokes, a myth about being filled by God, in Kings & Queen . Both are played very subtly in the overall structure of your films, but they resonate deeply. Can you talk about your reasons for including these stories in your films? Do you think your films operate on a spiritual level?
AD: I think it’s too fast to take as a statement, that we would be so purely atheistic. What do I know about what I am? Not a thing. I guess I’m fulfilled with faith, myths, and an incredible craving for the infinite, God, religious commitments. The beauty of it is that I always will ignore these threads that are conducting my life.
TH: What about the Judaism in Esther Kahn and La Sentinelle ? Are you drawn to the outsider status of Judaism in Europe, another level of alienation and becoming, or are there other connections you wish to draw?
AD: As a 60’s-catholic-french-extreme-leftist-french kid, I’ve been raised amongst Jews. It’s so much a part of my childhood, of my family, of all the friends, books and films I loved, I would hate to paint France as a country full a boring French Christian White folks! And it would be a lie. The country where I grew in, was a mixture of mad outcast catholics, close brash Marxist Jewish friends, lovely shy Sephardim, reasonable North African people, brilliant black Africans so full of knowledge about the French Classics… I would hate and leave a country called France without Jews. It would be so boring; it wouldn’t be France any longer. France without Marcel Proust?! No way!
TH: In many ways, all of your films play on these same themes, these same character situations. As a final question, can you discuss how much of these characters are you, or represent your own experience of life? There is a tendency to assume that a character like Christian in La Vie des Morts somewhat reflects your own feelings about your own life. Can you describe the role of autobiography in your characters and films?
AD: It can sound tricky, but – really – I learnt so much from the actors. Each time, I’m starting a new script I hope everything will be all brand new and amazingly novelistic. That no one will ever guess I wrote it and directed it. But, just as a humble actor, I feel that I have to give to each line something personal, odd, and sincere. It doesn’t mean it would be nobler! I have to find a link between my experiences and what all each character will have to go through. If I don’t give something coming from my shames, my fears, my weaknesses, my stupidity, I would think I still not doing my job. And few months later, actors will come on my set, and I will beg them to give to each character something honest, hidden, humble, personal to his or her part. Not something brilliant, or well done, or clever; but something that this precise actor is the only one in the world able to offer to that character. Something intimate. In that way of speaking, everything in all of what I have ever filmed is autobiographical. But that’s not the end of the process! What I’m aiming at is using myself as a humble, common cheap tool, asking the actors to use their intimacies as tools too, to invent something bigger and brighter than our boring lives, and to catch sparkling bits of novels.