Theatrical releases only. Caveat: Due to work/ timing, I don’t see a ton of award season releases. Alas.
(Note: This interview first ran in Hammer To Nail in February of 2014. It is re-printed here to preserve a personal copy. )
I love talking movies with Arnaud Desplechin. The care and artistry he puts into every one of his films creates a platform for deep analysis and conversation about his work, and he never disappoints. His new film Jimmy P: Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian, which re-teams him with Mathieu Amalric and features a commanding performance by Benicio del Toro, has been somewhat misunderstood by American critics since its debut at Cannes last year. I sat down with Desplechin during his visit to the New York Film Festival last October to discuss the film and continue an ongoing conversation about his work, some of the finest in the modern cinema.
Back Row Manifesto: The first thing to talk about with this film is the book Reality And Dream: Psychotherapy of A Plains Indian by George Devereux. Can you talk about how you found this book and what inspired you to make a film from such an unlikely source?
Arnaud Desplechin: The book is in two parts. You have the very theoretical part in the opening chapters, but when I bought the book I opened it to the middle and I found these dialogues which, like Madelene says in the film, looked much more like a theatrical piece or a play than a psychological treatment. It was just the dialogues between the patient and the analyst and I thought it was fantastic because I realized you had this process of psychoanalysis presented verbatim, which is fairly unique in the history of psychoanalysis. And what I loved in reading the forward of this book was that it was not for some noble reason that we had this record, but it was for a very humble reason; these two guys were bored to death in Topeka, far from home the two of them, one being far from Montana and the other being far from New York, and so they had nothing to do but work together. And so, I fell in love with these two characters who are two outsiders, but who are very different, opposites; you have the “savage”, who is the shrink, and you have the very “civilized” man, who is the Native American. I loved this confrontation between these two temperaments and I thought it was fantastic material for a film.
BRM: This is not the first time you’ve dealt with psychoanalysis in your films. It’s almost a common thread; there are those great scenes between Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric in Kings and Queen, etc. In your films, mental health “issues” are used as a way to punish outsiders, to keep them separated from society.
AD: I guess it is a threat. To me, it is the threat of madness. Even if it is expressed in a comical way like in Kings and Queen where the character is not that mad but is very reasonable in an odd way, still, there is a threat. In La Vie Des Morts you have the question of whether this cousin killed himself through madness or some other reason, so it’s always a threat which is surrounding the characters; will they cross the frontier between mental health and mental disease? I guess it is something I have improved in my own life, you know, this fear of becoming “mad”, which is the biggest threat I can imagine.
BRM: What creates that fear in you? There is this tradition between artists and madness; a lot has been written about schizophrenia and the creative process…
AD: I can only answer this in a concrete way by referring to my films, not in an abstract way. It’s terrible because in this film, you have in Jimmy, who is simply suffering from headaches, simple headaches, but it starts to become more than that; he starts to lose his hearing, he starts to lose his vision and because of this he says, “I don’t know whether I am awake or asleep.” And then, the hospital says, “This guy is mad and you have to put him in jail.” All because of this one line he says. And suddenly, the guy can be declared mad. You were mentioning schizophrenia; a friend of mine, who is a psychiatrist, was explaining to me that from time to time he meets schizophrenic cases and he would warn them, “Okay, right now you’re stable, but I know, because I have studied, that you are suffering from schizophrenia. We can’t cure this. And this also means that one day, you will have an hallucination, and see, for example, a dog transforming itself into a devil or something way out. But don’t worry, it is because of your disease.” And I said to him, “Come on! Don’t worry?! How can you not worry about that?” (laughs) So, yes, there is a very thin line between mental health and illness.
BRM: And what about you in your day to day work? I don’t know what your process is in terms of your day to day writing, filmmaking, etc. When you are working on these stories, do you feel you have to personally grapple with that? Not that you might be ill, but you are grappling with that line in others…
AD: I think that it cures me. Life and jogging are curing me (laughs), because it is a very boring practice that I love. I love writing, which is a very long process and very dull and stern, but I love it because it brings me to reality. You have to work on the scenes and you have to make them spectacular. So, there is nothing mythic, nothing mad about the writing process or preparing a film; it’s all so practical, you know? That is my favorite moment in making a film—when you are creating and assembling everything during the prep, which is the dullest moment of the making of a film. But it’s my favorite moment because suddenly all of your ideas are coming to life, it’s very exciting. But it’s a very, very dull process before that, I think.
BRM: Another thread in this film that ties it closely to your previous work is the idea of family and this terrible obligation to his family that is haunting Jimmy—his daughter, his dead ex-wife, although he considers himself a widower, his sister. This is in all of your films, this struggle between someone struggling to be who they are fighting against who they feel obligated to be. In the book, these realizations about his sister, his mother help lead him to an understanding of himself. Can you talk about how you translated this into the film?
AD: This is what I found in the book as well. I was talking to Mathieu (Amalric) about this and I remember him telling me, “You will be in big, big trouble with this film. It’s a double portrait—it’s you as a mad shrink, but it’s also you as Jimmy.” So, he was perhaps asking me if I would identify myself to Jimmy or to him, the character of Devereux he was playing. I am not sure which he would have preferred, but the thing that I love with Jimmy is his fear of women. The fact that his sister is so nice, but she’s essentially fathering him—she’s not mothering him at all. She’s bringing him to the hospital, but in a very nice way, she’s putting him in jail. So, you have the threatening figure of the older sister, which is a thing I already filmed in La Sentinelle—I don’t know where it is coming from. Sure, I have an older sister and a younger sister, so I don’t know if I am thinking about my older or younger sister, but it’s something that I love.
There is also this thing that always fascinates me and it’s a hidden motif for Jimmy: his bad relationship with his mother and not speaking about her. It’s like the opening lines with Devereux; the shrink is guessing the Native American word for this, and he says, “Your mother was a manly hearted woman?” So, there is this very severe mother, plus this contradiction that while she was severe, she also had intercourse in front of Jimmy after the death of her husband. You have this discourse coming from women for Jimmy and he has to recover from that, so we have this scene where he is listing all of his traumas, which I think is very important, because we see him making some kind of progress.
But then, you have this scene that is in the book and a scene I really love; it’s probably the deepest reason for me to adapt this book. It is where Jimmy gives an almost novelistic account of his life, saying, “This is the way I lived and this is the long story about Jane” (his ex-wife). At this point in his psychoanalysis, Jimmy is allowed to be his own narrator, able to tell us the “novel” that he has been through and in that sense it seems to me he is very close to Thomas Hardy’s characters, feeling that they have been cursed and suddenly being able to explain their experiences in the form of a novel of which they are the heroes. So, it’s very heartbreaking, he thinks, “I fucked up everything and this is how it happened.” You have this massive novel appearing in the middle of this film. But I don’t think it’s necessarily the deepest session he has with Devereux, it’s just the one time he is allowed to be his own narrator. Period. I am sure that five years later, he will have a different way of expressing the “novel” he has been through, but at this moment, this is the way for him to recount his own story.
BRM: And in the film, there is no great “revelation” that he discovers through this narrative act that allows him to feel he has overcome his past, it is just telling the story—the process is the cure.
AD: It is something I worked a lot on with the co-writers, because it’s something that annoys me in films dealing with psychoanalysis, the idea of revelation. Am I too atheist to believe in any form of revelation? I guess I am. I don’t think that one day, I will go to a shrink, I will say one line, and suddenly I will realize, “This is what I’ve been through!”—a hidden trauma or whatever. I don’t think this exists inside of me or of any character, something hidden that comes to light and suddenly, you are cured. I don’t believe in any revelation or magic tricks. I think it’s just a process. So, how to avoid this in the script, without the big moment, the tears? It’s not that I don’t like it; I do like it in other films, but I don’t buy it for me or my films.
BRM: How do you feel audiences have received that? People are so conditioned to expect that moment and this film refuses to give it to them.
AD: I guess they respond to it because the film is surprisingly sweeter and more gentle than the “sturm und drang” of many of the films that deal with psychoanalysis. And the film does have a revelation in it, during his relapse, when he starts having his headaches again and then he’s cured because, as the doctor tells him, he will have relapses all his life. And that’s the cure, the fact that this is his life and life will happen to him. Headaches, love, boredom—it will all happen and now that he can face that this is his life. That is his cure. That’s his revelation.
BRM: This is the second film you’ve made in English, another adaptation, this time a French writer writing in English, and while the film focuses on the dialogues, the book itself begins with an entire ethnographic study that traces, in a very political way, the treatment of Native Americans by predominantly white American culture. That is addressed in the film in a more subtle way. How did you weave these two things together in the script?
AD: The book is very elliptical, because you really have to piece together the chronology of events, as they are so interrelated and told through dialogues, ethnography, etc. It was a challenge for us. For example, the book tries to hide Jimmy’s identity, so it refuses to identify his tribe, but we wanted to know who he really was, which tribe, so we had to uncover that he was a Blackfoot from Browning, Montana. In the book, he tells us Jimmy’s mother lived near the grave of a popular writer, so of course, we had to find the grave, and that allowed us to find Browning. You also mentioned a French writer writing in English, and so we knew that Devereux’s wife had to have a great influence over the text because his English was worse than mine (laughs). So, I started by doing the adaptation in French, and then using the book, we translated that, but I didn’t want to do it like Esther Kahn where we simply translated the French script into English; I wanted to adapt the script with a co-writer, so Kent Jones came on with me.
It was so lovely; I sent him a rough draft of it, I had not done the ending, there were gaps here and there, it was unfinished. It still felt French and that I had to find the right language for it, that made it feel American. So, I sent it to Kent and said, “Could you help me find a writer you think could understand the period and the script?” and I mentioned I was on deadline. I didn’t hear from him for a day and a half and I was thinking, “Come on, this guy was supposed to be my friend!” And then I got a very short e-mail back saying, “You might never forgive me, but I had to do this…” and he attached the whole script that he had adapted and re-translated. So, I assumed that was a proposal from him, and that’s how we undertook the second step of making the script together.
As for the politics of race, Kent really was the one, this is a very American kind of thing. Kent showed me The Exiles, which I didn’t know, but is a film that just broke my heart because it was pre-1967, and the goal was not to take pride in your roots, but to assimilate. The dream was to become Elvis Presley. So, Jimmy had this shitty life before the treatment and after, and it’s a big part of the book, he still had a tough life. The politics didn’t change, but dealing with the fact that his life will be tougher than a Caucasian life, that’s part of the cure. So, we looked at The Exiles, I looked at John Huston’s Let There Be Light which, again, being French, I didn’t know this film…
BRM: Did you look at Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which also drew heavily on Huston’s film?
AD: For sure. It was fascinating to me, the difference, because you have two characters dealing with words, but in The Master, you have a magician. In my film, Devereaux is not a magician, he is not a shaman, he wants to be equal with his partner, he doesn’t want to be “The Master.” But The Master is fantastic, you are depicting a relationship where they are demonstrating how to empower someone, and in Jimmy P., it has nothing to do with empowerment. It’s really about friendship. But the influence of Let There Be Light, I just loved it.
BRM: No one I know has more passion for American cinema than you, and I know shooting this film in Topeka (where the original story took place) was a priority for you, but you never were able to shoot there. How was your American filmmaking experience and what did you take from it?
AD: Well, we didn’t get to shoot in Kansas because the original hospital was destroyed. During the writing, I thought it would be foolish for me to worry about making an American film or not making one, my task was to stay in a small office in Paris and to write the material, which was so abstract. I had to transform it into something more cinematic, build the strings that would connect the writing to these dreams and memories and create something for the cinema. I didn’t want to do anything too exotic. Really, truly, each day I was saying to the French co-writer that we have to recall that this is just like a doctor in Roubaix treating a patient. I’m not speaking about something exotic, I am speaking about my own life.
That said, I thought it was important to send someone to give me information about the locations in the story, so I sent a friend to take some photos and go through the archives in Topeka, to meet the last living people who knew Devereux. Then they went to Montana, to see what was there, and I always asked them not to send me exotic details, but very practical details.
I have this fear of exoticism, I think it is dangerous. I think it is a another way to see, but not for me. I was never thinking, “I am making an American film.” I mean, I’m French and I was coming in with Mathieu, who is like my brother in cinema, so we couldn’t pretend, like Devereux, that we were American. I’m not pretending anything, so I think the film has one step in America, one step in France and one step in Puerto Rico (where Benicio Del Toro comes from). So, I feel the film is a mixture of influences and roots. It becomes a mix of identities, in the end.
BRM: In this film, it’s really George who is the outsider. He’s a revolutionary in a lot of ways, an outsider to science, to medicine, to America, his faith. Mathieu took this and made a bright, eccentric character out of this, but how did you conceive of George? You earlier mentioned you consider him “the savage”…
AD: There is also an opposition between the two characters concerning the question of identity, which I loved the first time I read the book. It’s in the opening lines; as soon as Devereux arrived in France, despite being Jewish, he was baptized. He transformed himself from a Jew to a Catholic, and then from a Catholic into a nothing, from a Hungarian to a Romanian, from a Romanian to French, then moved from France for a time to Vietnam, and from there he became American. He was always trying to escape into assimilation through shifting his identity. In an odd way, he was always using masks to disguise himself, yet here he is recommending to his friend Jimmy to recognize his own identity, that Jimmy should be proud of being Native American. But I always want to say to Devereux, “Come on, you’re saying that when you are hiding the fact that you’re an Eastern European Jew!” It’s very strange.
But it’s also quite moving; one of them is dreaming he is no one—there was a line from The Odyssey we wanted to use that we ended up cutting from the film, which, when they ask Ulysses his name he replies, “I am no one.” In the film, there is this motif of the hidden name; Jimmy’s hidden name is his Native American name. So there is this conflict of trying to escape identity and the quest to recognize identity.
I don’t think there is a better way to be in life. I guess I am always trying to escape my own identity, but I also think recognizing who I really am can be good, too. The opposition between these two things… to phrase it in a brutal way, I always think of when I started the script, I wanted to depict the conflict, so I said to the producer, “This is a film about a bad Jew who is meeting a bad Indian. They want to assimilate to America and are refusing their own identity.”
BRM: We’ve discussed masks before in your work, it is a prevalent theme in all of your work, something that always seems to attract you. What do you think, on a creative level, fascinates you about masks, about hiding identity?
AD: I guess it brings me back to Philip Roth. I don’t think that I exist. Very deeply, I don’t think that “I” exist. I have values, characteristics, but I think, fundamentally, what makes me a human being is my attempt to try to look like a human being. But I don’t think in the morning that I wake up a human being. I think I wake up as nothing, and during the day, I am trying to construct myself and to present myself as a human being, using different kinds of masks to appear as “something” when actually, when I wake up, I’m just a baby, crying and desperate.
BRM: Who do you think you are at that primal moment of waking?
AD: Something unformed. After that, I try to assemble myself and think, “What does a decent human being do in this circumstance?” So, I try to be decent, I try to make a decent self, but I don’t believe there is one truth that is “myself.” I guess that I am a series of characters that I am impersonating.
A big smile and a raise of the eyebrows, as if to say “..how about THAT?”, brings an end to our interview.
The online summary of Arnaud Desplechin’s Nos Arcadies (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse) (very rough translation):
“We remember Paul Daedalus, the hero of How I Got Into an Argument … (my sex life) by Arnaud Desplechin. The future professor of philosophy is not done telling his tale– he returns to the big screen to tell his three greatest memories of youth. Paul Dédalus had a life before becoming a neurotic thirty-something Parisian; his childhood in the north, his family life punctuated by the violence of his brother Ivan, and delusions of his mother. Paul remembers his taste of intrigue, living the life of a spy back when Russia was still called the Soviet Union, and the threats of a stranger to whom he offered his identity. Paul remembers the end of adolescence, the carefree holiday with his friends, his relations with his cousin and sister. And Paul Dédalus remembers his arrival in Paris and his crush on Esther…”
So just the odd return to La Vie des morts, La Sentinel, and Comment je me suis disputé… (ma vie sexuelle) then? This may be the my most anticipated movie of the past twenty years. I think I may need to fly to Cannes just for the one screening?
For the past decade, I have worked at the Sarasota Film Festival in Sarasota, FL.
This year’s festival, the 16th edition, ended in April, with a full slate of 252 films: shorts, foreign films, independent films, non-fiction films. Movies we were proud to show. The festival was my tenth as the person in charge of programming the films, my sixth with a more active role in helping shape the festival from an administrative perspective.
When I was hired in 2004, the festival was coming off of a difficult year, facing problems that stemmed from the decision to host the festival in late January, at the same time as Sundance and Slamdance, and to require World or U.S. Premieres for competition films. I was brought on based upon my work as Programmer at the Nantucket Film Festival, and asked to come in and reorganize Sarasota’s film program. The festival hired a film programming consulting company at the same time, as a hedge, just in case I was not a good hire. I did my best. We screened Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings & Queen in competition (it lost to Danny Boyle’s Millions), hosted musical performances by Bob Mould, Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, and DeVotchKa, we added films like Jem Cohen’s Chain to the program. I scrambled to try to figure out how to contextualize these personal passions, quickly learning I was in a community that seemed more than willing to embrace new things, if only given the chance.
Over the first few years, thanks to our friends in the filmmaking community and the hard work of my programming colleague Holly Herrick, who joined me as a programmer in the autumn of 2005, we began to see the seeds of something special begin to sprout at the festival. Sarasota became a place for filmmakers to meet, to become friends, and to launch collaborations that bore some pretty significant fruit. It became about community, both locally and among independent filmmakers.
There are so many of these stories to tell, but I can’t help thinking of people like Alex Karpovsky, who brought The Hole Story to Sarasota for the 2005 festival (again, my first) and Jon Hyrns, who was the subject of Dominic DeJoseph’s Johnny Berlin that same year. Alex met Jon at the festival, and the two went on to make Woodpecker together.
In 2006, Holly and I programmed a small movie set in Florida called Cocaine Angel by a first-time filmmaker named Michael Tully. We’ve shown all of his films since, because I really love his movies. Or I think of Mary Bronstein, whose amazing film Yeast screened at the festival in 2008, where she met a young, local filmmaker and actress named Amy Seimetz who was attending for the second time with her short We Saw Such Things (was it her first time? I know Amy was in Goran Duckic’s Wristcutters, which played the 2006 festival. Did she come? Her family? Time blurs experience… ), which she co-directed with James Ponsoldt. Mary, James and Amy went on to make Round Town Girls together. And then many, many other films. Amy’s Sun Don’t Shine played the festival. James returned with The Spectacular Now.
Dozens of others brought films, and wanted to come back. They have all been incredibly generous in their support of the Sarasota Film Festival. We programmed Craig Zobel’s Great World Of Sound, and got the privilege of showing Compliance. We had David Lowery and James Johnson with us to show Some Analog Lines, then The Outlaw Son, and then St. Nick. We had a ton of people join us for Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes The Stairs. Ry Russo Young came, and then brought us Orphans, then You Won’t Miss Me, and then Nobody Walks. Greta Gerwig came with Hannah. Last year, her collaboration with Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha, closed the festival at a screening for over 1100 people. I met Mickey Sumner through her work and count myself among her biggest fans. We hosted Lena Dunham and Alicia Van Couvering with Tiny Furniture. AJ Schnack brought literally all of his work to us, and we loved it, and showed as much of it as the calendar would allow.
I got to honor Robert Altman at one of the greatest award ceremonies in the history of the festival. I got to salute Werner Herzog, Liv Ullmann, and Barbara Kopple at the festival. I got to tell Mariel Hemingway how much her work in Woody Allen’s Manhattan meant to me. Jeremy Renner attended four years in a row and became one of our greatest advocates. I watched him sing an incredible version of Night Ranger’s Sister Christian at a particularly memorable karaoke night. He was followed by Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi who, working with Wren Arthur at Olive Productions, gave the festival the gift of their support. Steve, Stanley and Wren even allowed us to do a staged reading of Oren Moverman’s screenplay for Queer, which saw Patti Smith opening the event with an invocation in honor of William S. Burroughs. Later that night, Patti played a 75 minute set with Lenny Kaye, the music crackling out of a crummy PA set up on the second floor of a local tapas restaurant. Of Montreal played a show at the festival, and we set up a free “glam make-up” station. Everyone got made-up.
We were lucky and honored to host the World Premieres of films like Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel, Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, Robert Greene’s Fake It So Real, and Onur Tukel’s Richard’s Wedding. The U.S. Premieres of films like Matt Wolf’s Wild Combination, Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild And Lovely, and Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands. Filmmakers and distributors began to trust us and to see the festival as a place for ambitious, independent work. This year, Jason Momoa world premiered his film Road To Paloma with us. Now, he might be playing Aquaman in the new Superman vs. Batman movie. We closed the fest with The One I Love, all thanks to Radius-TWC believing in us. Elisabeth Moss and Charlie McDowell came to the festival with the film. It was a thrill to meet them and share their work.
Somehow, all of these things grow into other things. Filmmakers make new films, new filmmakers make first films, the community grows, the festival moves forward.
Over the course of this decade, the film industry has changed dramatically. In 2005, we supplemented our 35mm projection with DigiBeta, the highest quality digital standard at the time. Then HDCam came along. Then DCP. In 2012, we showed our last 35mm print. The number of film festivals has grown exponentially as well, with so many of my colleagues putting on great events, each with their own role in the lives of these films and filmmakers. And of course, Sarasota itself went through an enormous transformation.
In January 2008, I attended a panel at Sundance where IFC Films announced a partnership with SXSW to use that festival as a VOD launch for some select new films. I was skeptical of how day and date would work for festival screenings, but we tried an experiment, showing Matthew Newton’s Three Blind Mice at the festival after it had debuted on VOD. The audiences came en masse, and it really forced us to re-think what VOD meant for the festival’s programming model. It was a big shift.
In April 2008, we held what had to be our biggest festival ever. We honored Charlize Theron at a typically massive Tribute Dinner event during the festival, closing that year’s edition with her film Battle In Seattle, about the violent confrontation between the Seattle police and anti-globalization protesters. That spring, I learned from the organization that the Sarasota Film Festival was carrying a massive deficit. There was no guarantee of a next paycheck. Big changes were made to the organization’s structure, including our then Executive Director exiting the festival. At that time, a large portion of the festival’s cash sponsorship budget was made up of long term agreements with real estate companies and developers. They evaporated. In the autumn of 2008, as the festival looked toward its 11th edition carrying the uncertainty of a big debt, the bottom fell out of the local real estate market. Sponsorship dollars dried up. Individual giving was way down as people scrambled to protect their assets. The Board of the festival stepped in to completely overhaul the festival’s budget and expenditures and to work on a long term solution to the festival’s deficit.
In between these two events, my wife and I had our first child, a son.
Since 2008, the Sarasota Film Festival has been operating on less than half of its 2008 cash budget, and we haven’t missed a beat. That is all due to the festival’s Executive Board, especially Board President Mark Famiglio and Executive Board member Sharyn Weiner, as well as our former Managing Director Kathy Jordan, who did an incredible job of holding the festival together through these difficult changes. Without their leadership and fiscal discipline, as well as their faith in the value of the organization, I have little doubt that the 2008 festival would have been the last. This type of restructuring is never easy; I know I have made sacrifices as we worked our way toward a healthy economic situation. So has the staff. But the Board has always supported the organization by putting money in the right places; supporting filmmaker attendance, making sure our technical presentation is world class, and investing in partnerships that leverage films into the needs of the community. I have no doubt they will continue to do this important work as the festival moves forward.
If you asked people in Sarasota about the story of the past ten years of the Sarasota Film Festival, about what defined the last decade, I am not sure what they would say. I don’t think many of the names and milestones I mentioned above would come up. Maybe a few films they saw and loved? Something they hated? All of this behind the scenes work is essentially irrelevant to our community, as it should be. People just want a great festival. We did our best to make sure that happened.
But Sarasota is a unique community, with its own intrigue and culture, its own diverse opinions. I know what I’ve heard, though. I’ve heard it argued that the festival is a superfluous event that trades on “glitz” and has no substance. It’s just for rich people. It’s not elegant enough. I’ve heard that film is not on par with the “real” arts that are supported by major donors to the ballet, or the symphony, or the opera, or the numerous theater companies that dot the Sarasota landscape.
We had people who worked with us leave and take our ideas and start them up at other local institutions, raking in money. We partnered with organizations that learned from us and decided to stop partnering so they could do their own thing. We found we could not partner with other groups who didn’t seem able to map their goals to our own. Other local film festivals started up. Film programs began. Some continue. Some are gone. Sarasota was going to be the new Hollywood. We got dozens of emails a week telling us how consultants can show us the way to do things better. You stay quiet and focus on your work.
Some enjoy talking about which films we chose not to show, as if our curatorial choices were suspect. Or political. I’ve heard the festival can’t be trusted. Some like to spin the festival’s good work into a negative headline. You don’t have enough celebrities. You have too many celebrities. The parties seem scaled back. The parties are too lavish. We’ve never heard of these guests attending the festival. We’ve never heard of these films. You’re showing too many films. The program seems smaller this year. Things were better under previous management. Each year is “better” or “more substantive” than previous years. It’s a small community. That is its charm and appeal. You wish everyone knew what they had in front of them. Instead, you rinse and repeat.
Through all of it, I have never backed down from showing films I thought were important. For me, that means thematically challenging, formally ambitious, aesthetically beautiful films that challenge an intelligent audience. I’ve seen audience members seethe with rage coming out of a film they hated, only to head to the lobby and get back in line for the next film and then hate that one, too. This year, I had a scholar from overseas try to dress me down in front of a small crowd, asking me if she could join the festival’s screening committee so she could look at the criteria for selecting films. When I asked her about her interest, it turned out that she wanted to know why I programmed so many bad films that she absolutely hated. Zing! Saw twenty films, hated them all. Stray Dogs? Manakamana? These were not real movies. They did not meet the standard of true art, which was to uplift the audience. All of the films we showed were grim. Negative.
You smile. You endure it. You wonder why she didn’t get tickets to any comedies or romances. You await the arrival of the 21st century.
And yet, I know there are literally tens of thousands of people who love the festival, love the organization, and they have never hesitated to take chances, to try new things, to support the festival in the best way possible; by attending the films. By getting their friends to come with them. By spending beautiful, sunlit days inside dark movie theaters, surrounded by strangers. Each and every one of them has, at some point, said hello to me or given me a passing smile, a frown, their thoughts on the films, the festival, what we do well, what we could improve.
This is the Sarasota audience. The reason I was able to work in Sarasota for a decade was because of them.
Programming for them has been absolute heaven. Film programmers know the feeling of sharing a film they love with an audience and knowing that they are responsible for helping make a connection. I had that experience literally thousands of times, all because an audience of film-loving, generous, open-minded people decided, for their own private reasons, to support the festival. They trusted our curation. They believed in us. In me. It is like no feeling on earth. I am eternally grateful.
Outside of the festival bubble, my life has grown increasingly more complicated. During my time working in Sarasota, I got married, I had two amazing sons, and I stayed rooted in Brooklyn, my home, where my life and time have grown more and more focused. In the end, my role as a father and husband have eclipsed my ability to make trips back and forth to Florida, to pay for incredibly long hours of child care, to miss my boys’ milestones, to not be there at the end of the day for weeks and then months at a time. I turned 43. I was spending a lot of money to cover the cost of travel, for the privilege (and it was) of working a thousand and more miles away from home. Trying desperately to be a good dad and a tolerable husband. In Brooklyn, we rent a small apartment that I’ve been in for almost 12 years. I work from a small desk in my small bedroom. Outside my window, days go by. My boys want a puppy. We’re treading water. Years go by, and faster now.
Coming home to Brooklyn after this year’s festival, with a decade of hard work under my belt, it just felt like the right moment to work with Mark Famiglio to call time on my work in Sarasota. I feel like I’ve built everything I could, I’ve given my heart and soul to the festival and to the organization. The festival is in a great position for new choices, new ideas, new blood. There is an identity we’ve worked hard to build, but curation is a matter of making choices. I don’t feel anyone should feel beholden to what we’ve done in the past. I know that the organization will continue to thrive without me. No one is bigger than the festival, least of all me.
A few years back, Holly married Michael Tully, who she met at the festival. His was the one of the first films we programmed at Sarasota. We’ve been friends ever since. He even lets me write and interview filmmakers for his website once in a while. Holly left Sarasota in late 2011 to join the Austin Film Society and expand her programming work, collaborating with Richard Linklater (#Upgrade). I got to work with Caley Fagerstrom, an amazing programming coordinator who has blossomed into an incredible programmer in her own right. I was lucky to work with Magida Diouri, who has outstanding taste and is an excellent programmer. This past year, I found a way to work with Ina Pira, a fantastic programmer with whom I love working and who I know will continue to do great things.
I feel like everyone at the Sarasota Film Festival created a small place in the world to help foster all of these things in our own, small way. We annoyed people, we made people happy. We made friends, we lost a few. We showed a lot of movies. Thousands. Together, we built a reputation for The Sarasota Film Festival as a place for emerging artists to call home, for adventurous programs, for the insane cultural dissonance of our parties, for late night beaches, for fun. We sang karaoke at a motel with hourly rates. We showed people the power of the Bahi Hut Mai Tai cocktail. Sarasota meant community and defying expectations, with incredible audiences who believed in us.
I could not be more proud to see all of these artists blossoming in the world. To see the growth of the festival. To have known and worked with so many amazing colleagues. To have met so many people who love film as much as I do.
I look back on all of these things and it is beyond my wildest dreams to have been a part of it.
It has been an absolute privilege.
On the occasion of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s new film Two Days, One Night premiering at Cannes, I present my interview with them from October 2011, when they came to New York City to promote the New York Film Festival screening of The Kid With A Bike.
I worry that in the eyes of some, the Dardennes suffer from being too good at their art; each of their films is probably among the greatest works of any given year, and yet, too often, the brothers’ style is considered against itself, and individual films suffer in contemporary thought as being alike, or of being various degrees of “Dardenne.” Sometimes, perhaps, it is hard to understand greatness in its living context, but for me, they are among the all-time greatest of filmmakers.
I hoped this conversation illuminates much of what makes all of their work so powerful, and while it was conducted in conjunction with The Kid With A Bike, I believe it has much to say about all of their work.
This interview has never been published and runs here in its entirety.
BRM: I want to start by asking you about one of the most striking techniques in your films, the way in you hew so closely to your characters with the camera and how their physical experiences drive your films; they way they move through the frame, the way your characters always seem to be in motion. Can you discuss this movement as a way of expressing interiority?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: The camera in this film (The Kid With A Bike) is a little further away, but we like to film our characters in movement– looking for something, moving toward something– because our characters are always obsessed with something. In this case, it is about finding his father and receiving his father’s love. So, in filming their movements, we hope it will be a catalyst for their interior movement and consequently, for how the viewer understands them. Even if I know that, in a movie, you can film someone who is sleeping for twenty four hours, that’s not our path.
BRM: Do you think this obsession leads your characters to depend on instinct? Your characters seem to spring into action.
Luc Dardenne: They don’t act without thinking, they just think fast. In this film, Cyril understands very quickly that if he wants to see his father and he can’t leave the orphanage, he has to flee the school to get what he wants. Our characters are people who are in dire circumstances and want to escape from something, so they are searching and they understand immediately that they need to escape from a situation; so, they just get to work on it. They are characters where there is no room, they’re looking for space; they’re suffocating and they’re looking for a space to breathe. When they find that breathing room, we leave them alone for a while and let them slow down.
BRM: Perhaps this is why the betrayal— which seems to happen in all of your films, maybe not in The Son, but in most, this great moment of betrayal— is so devastating to your characters? They finally find this moment to breathe and often, it is the moment when everything is destroyed.
Luc Dardenne: Precisely. In order to have space, they are forced into a position to experience betrayal. They are ready to risk almost anything to have space, and consequently, to betray others or to find themselves betrayed. It’s true that in The Son, the boy already has this space; he has already killed the other boy, but he wants to stay there in this space. He wants to stay there and he doesn’t want to move. But that’s not the case with Lorna or Rosetta, unfortunately.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne (photo by me)
BRM: Let’s talk about work in your films, labor. In many American films, work doesn’t really play a major role in the lives of the characters; the portrayal is usually vacuous or satirical. But in your films, labor plays a very important role in the lives of your characters. What drives you to depict work so carefully?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: We didn’t really decide on this ourselves, but what you’re saying is true. I think it is because we grew up in this milieu; we’ve spent our lives in this environment where manual labor is very important. And even your schedule revolves around work. In film, you can’t film the inside of a person, so we gamble that by filming movement of our characters, that we’ll be able to understand them.
Luc Dardenne: At the same time, vacation or escaping work is important for fiction. Like in Hitchcock, when the character is rid of daily obligations like work or family or whatever, that is the moment when unexpected things begin to happen. We’re available for a thriller if anyone wants us to make one…(*laughs*). But no, our characters are available for these unexpected things. Like Rosetta, she loses her work at the beginning of the story and so she is forced to be on “vacation” and it opens up the film to what is possible.
BRM: You hinted at this, but how does Seraing specifically influence this perspective? The city itself seems to contribute to this feeling in your films.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: It’s true that this region where we grew up and where we situate most of our films is an industrial area, so people’s lives are driven by industry. In the 1970’s, it started to fall apart, and that’s when we started to see young people pop up, like kids who have seen their father abandon them like Cyril, or like Rosetta, who is 16, 17 years old and feels she has no future. When the factories shut down, the structure of these people’s lives was altered and they crumbled.
BRM: On a personal level, did you feel the impact of this yourselves?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Not us, but our father’s life was impacted; he lost his job.
BRM: Another one of the major themes, as I see it, in your films, is this idea of transcendence. I don’t mean spiritually necessarily, but—
Luc Dardenne: It’s not transcending, it is immediate change. It is not spiritual, it’s human. When human beings help once another, you may call it transcendent, but hopefully it is a moment when people find their humanity again. It is a normal, primal behavior. And that’s what we try to film. It’s people who are locked in their solitude, who are alone, and at some point it becomes a question of when will they find a hand that will pull them out of their isolation and toward their humanity?
Luc Dardenne (photo by me)
BRM: How do you feel the viewer experiences this? Not the character, but the audience…
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Unfortunately, we are never going to be able to be viewers of our own films. When a film is finished, it doesn’t belong to us anymore. It belongs to the audience.
Luc Dardenne: In terms of The Kid With A Bike, we hope that the viewer will be moved by the story. It is amazing what happens, and we want the viewer to be touched by it. It’s incredible what Samantha (Cécile De France’s character) does. You walk out and you think “Wow, what this woman did… I can’t believe it, but she did it.” We had a writer who sent us a letter and he said “Samantha is a person that nearly doesn’t exist, but thing is to meet her…” So, the viewer can meet her through the film.
The Kid With A Bike
BRM: Do you hope to inspire the humanity of intervention in your films? I am sure they are not a call to action, per se, but perhaps an inspiration to help others?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: I think that each films— well, maybe not each film, but many films— can affect the viewer, can change something in the viewer. The viewer can discover things that he thought he knew but actually did not know. Movies are like that. Cinema is a form of beauty, and it inspires a reaction because the viewer is confronted by that form of beauty. It can be a landscape, a gesture, a face. A little example: we saw a friend a few weeks ago who told us that he had met a young woman, and the woman told him her life had changed after she saw Rosetta. She said, “I saw the film by chance, but I was just like Rosetta.” In her real life, she was like the character. And when she saw the film, she realized she had to push herself out of this life she was living. That’s a good thing.
BRM: Can I ask how you work together, about the division of labor—
Luc Dardenne: No division.
BRM: What is you process for settling your own disagreements? Do you have them?
Luc Dardenne: We’ve been working so long together… thirty seven years. We talk so much about the film before we make the film, that we know that one of us won’t say “black” and the other says “No, white!” or vice versa. We’ll both say “black” and what’s good is, say we’re shooting a scene, and one of us says “Maybe we should try it this way” and the other says “Okay”, and then the other says “Let’s try it that way” and the other says “Okay” and then in the editing, we see what works. The world doesn’t end with the shoot, so it works out.
BRM: The issue of influences comes up all the time with your work— obviously, Bresson gets mentioned all the time— but in the case of The Kid With A Bike, De Sica or Truffaut… How do you feel about people bring up influences in your work?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Yeah. We don’t reject it, because we’re made up of the art we know— the films we’ve seen, the books we’ve read. But it is true that when I’m feeling a little bit lost and I’m thinking about how we should do a scene— this way or that way— that Rossellini’s films come back to me because there is always something—
Luc Dardenne:— as a spectator, when you’re seeing Rossellini’s films, you get the feeling that things are always clear and evident—
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: —and that comes back to me when I am feeling a little lost. And so, I say that’s what has to guide me. I have to give life to that clarity.
BRM: Last question… Cinema is changing rapidly here in the USA, especially with video on demand services. It is likely that more people will see this film on a television than will likely see it in a cinema. What are your thoughts on this change?
Luc Dardenne: It’s true that everything is changing really fast with satellite downloads of films into cinemas and video on demand, but I think that film remains linked to the theater and the big screen. And in fact, we’re going to open, with the support of the government, four new movie theaters in Brussels. You can be touched by films that are outside of the theater; just before coming to the US, I watched PIalat’s Loulou on DVD and I saw it on a nice sized HDTV and the following day, I watched it on the big screen and the experience was totally different. There’s a point in the movie when you Depardieu is walking down a dark street, and there’s very little light and you can’t really see him at all. Well, in the DVD, it all melted together, there are flickers here and there, but you really can’t see it. You need to see it on the big screen.
On the occasion of Mathieu Amalric’s new film The Blue Room premiering at Cannes, I present my interview with him from October 2013, when he came to New York City to promote the New York Film Festival screening of Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. While not specifically about The Blue Room, we discussed Amalric’s approach to acting and directing, which I hope might illuminate his process. This interview has never been published and runs here in its entirety.
Mathieu Amalric (photo by me)
BRM: Let’s start by discussing how you started the process of becoming an actor.
Mathieu Amalric: Nothing was expected, it was an accident. It was Arnaud Desplechin who invented me, as I always say. It’s true. I fell in love with movies and found my place in movies when I was young. I was 17 when I saw the work of Otar Iosseliani, who never picks actors; only friends or silhouettes. He directs with a whistle; one whistle you stop, two whistles you walk, and that’s it, then he does the sound in post, afterward. And I wanted to do what he was doing, which was to fabricate films. People say they are “Filmmakers”- yes, film “makers”, in English it is more beautiful. It is exactly that, you “make” films. Because it had to do with making with your hands, you head your heart— (gasps in revelation)— I could do anything with it. You never understand anything about life; the older you get, the less you understand and film is just a way to have the illusion that you grabbed something.
So, I was just working as an AD, an assistant editor, working behind the camera and directing my short films. And then Arnaud saw a short film in which I acted, because it was with my grandmother and my father, and he asked me to do some screen-tests for La Sentinelle but he didn’t pick me…
BRM: You had a small role…
Amalric: Yes, but I tested again for Comment je me suis disputé (My Sex Life… or how I got into an argument). Arnaud is an amazing director, especially with actors. The other directors thought that I was a good actor, and I am still living on that mistake. But like all phonies, you have to be very good to be a phony. Like people who do art forgeries; you have to be very, very good. So, I am getting better at false acting.
BRM: Can you describe the process of invention that you had with Arnaud? I am sure the relationship has changed over time, you must have developed a shorthand and trust by now, but at the start, how did he “invent” you as an actor?
Amalric: He told me 10 days before we started shooting that I had the role. For me, it was suddenly “Shit! I should have been better in school and learned my poems, so I had fewer problems with my memory… how am I going to learn all of this?” Because in this film, there was so much dialogue, and it was so precise, and you don’t want to change a word. It has nothing to do with naturalism; in Arnaud’s films, he is working on something else. So, ok- learn your lines, learn your lines, learn your lines— am I going to be able to say my lines not being conscious of what I’m doing?
And Arnaud, who is in love with actors and always wanting to help them, finds this way that you are occupied by tons of things to do at the same time, so that you don’t think that you’re acting, and if you don’t think you’re acting, maybe you grab some truth that belongs to you but that you’re not aware that you’re making. So, Arnaud says something like “Maybe on that line, you take the pen and then you take your cigarette there, and then you go over there.” Ok. And at the start, he would do a lot of takes, maybe twenty or so takes, and after each take he would say “I know what this scene is about, it is about that word, so we’re going to do something else.”
And so, after a moment, you cannot physically do everything he’s given you. And in that moment, something of you is grabbed by the camera. That’s how he works. And that as twenty years ago. Now, and its funny because it was specific to a film like Jimmy P., where something happens between those two men that is never named, but it has to do with friendship. Like he says at the beginning “Sympathy is sufficient… I didn’t help Jimmy because he was an Indian, but because it was in my power to help him.” That is how it is with Arnaud. Complicity, let’s say.
(photo by me)
BRM: I spoke to Arnaud about his use of masks, and often in his films, your characters are people who, underneath, are a swirl of contradictions which are always breaking through this mask they are presenting to the world. It has an almost spiritual component, where Arnaud is inventing, on the page, characters who present you with the opportunity to inhabit them and present this contradictory state to the world. Am I wrong about this?
Amalric: No no no… you’re right, and I was thinking when you were talking, that Jimmy P. is really two masks of Arnaud, one that is the Indian and one that is the Hungarian— not professor, because I think what Arnaud loves about Devereaux is that he’s a man who never presented himself as an expert— but there is something where Arnaud believes in humanity, and it is in all of his characters and its always like that. Even in his family films; he is the mother, the angry sister, the banished son. He is a great actor when he directs, he always has to get involved and demonstrate, and he plays the part to see how he would do as a girl, as an old man, as an adolescent. So, that’s why his films belong to everyone, he doesn’t tell people what to think. He wants you to take your own voyage inside all of those characters.
BRM: He also deals with outsiders, who are often set aside by society and convinced they are insane, but really, they are just alive; they’re not really insane. This is a thread throughout the work. Is this something that draws you to these characters?
Amalric: I am never driven to a character, it’s more that I am lucky that these amazing directors pick me and make me their puppet. It’s great! Acting is only abandoning yourself to someone else’s vision of the world. And it’s only afterwards that you discover the change in your perspective, that you’ve been looking at the world one way and never thought it could be the other way. It’s fascinating, it’s passion, it makes life more interesting. And then, when I go back to directing my own films, it helps me a lot.
But it’s true with Arnaud, in all of his films, he is attracted by men and women who are capable of resisting what society expects of them. I don’t think he sees them as victims, but as heroes, as in Howard Hawks films, I don’t know… strong. The women in Howard Hawks films are incredible. They are not victims crying that society set them aside, they are in the center, and they invent their own methods for placing themselves there. It is an act of self-invention; the same as Devereaux in this film, not quite anthropologist, not quote psychoanalyst- he made this new psychoanthropology. But in the end, as an actor, you just try to know your lines, create a credible accent, and you try to be like an athlete, who can do all he wants because he can control his body and be precise. And this film is so much about listening to the other, working on what is being said between the lines.
BRM: Every time I see you in a film he is not directing, I feel like you’re having an affair with the other director. What do you take from working with Arnaud to, say, Julian Schnabel or to the set of a James Bond movie?
Amalric: Every director is very different; what would there be in common…? Hmmm. I try not to arrive with any principles. I am a virgin. It’s true. But then technically, I work hard, but my goal is to be as light as possible for the director, not ask questions, or very concrete and precise questions. It has to do with the state of stupidity, which is very important to have as an actor.
BRM: You’ve just solved American celebrity culture for me… (laughs)
Amalric: (Laughs) Yes, ok, but American actors come ready, and they are difficult to change, they don’t want to be stupid, it’s too frightening. They don’t want to belong to someone else. They did their work on their own, they constructed something else. But stupidity has to do with everything being possible, it’s important. It’s also maybe why directors like to work with other directors, because actors that are only actors can think they believe in the director as “god”— that he will know everything— and they want to be loved, they want to be accepted, so there’s a lot to do with psychological seduction and taming. When you’re a director, you know the solitude of the director and you know that he feels he is pretending to know everything when in fact he simply hopes the toilet is nearby because it is so scary. So, you try to be generous and listen to the music and rhythm of the performance. The reason movies are so fun to do is because they are a collaboration, you feel like it is an orchestra with a common tempo.
(photo by me)
BRM: You also direct… how do you work with other actors then? You’re entrenched in the filmmaking community in France, everyone seems to know everyone else…
Amalric: I’m part of them, so it’s natural. I know how it is. I know directors who have never acted who somehow think actors are miracles, you have to say the magic words to open them up, or like a romantic relationship. Directing goes through the body, a way to move on set. It’s not the words. Acting is another handcraft, which is why I love movies. That’s why I think it has nothing to do with being an artist; we’re not painters or writers or musicians. Movies are like a circus, more impure, you just try to do what you can, and it is never what you dreamt of. You have to manage reality. And I find that way more freeing than staring at a blank page and you have to invent the world everything is possible. in a movie? Nothing is possible. So, we struggle and you hope a little miracle happens.
BRM: Jimmy P. is Arnaud’s first film in America, and as a lover of cinema, can you talk about shooting this film here together, a period film that draws on the American landscape? It really draws on the history of American film.
Amalric: Not acting in your own language brings its own challenges, but then there is this way of making each word precious. Words, when you work in another language than your own, are precious. And it also has to do with exile; two men who are trying to become Americans. Yes, there is something about the history of the construction of this country, the dream, the acceptance of different cultures. For us in France, racism is a problem in this regard. We have this sickness everywhere else in the world; identity. For America, it’s not the same problem, everyone is from somewhere else. American cinema, too.