The BRM’s Greatest Hits | Interview: Arnaud Desplechin, A Christmas Tale (2008)

In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!

This is my second interview with Arnaud Desplechin, this time focusing on his film A Christmas Tale. Again, among my favorite pieces I’ve ever done, a film I love so much, a filmmaker who moves me deeply.

If you enjoy these interviews, I will be reposting my Fred Wiseman interview here asap, and I have interviews completed with Mia Hansen-Løve (Goodbye, First Love), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardene (The Kid With A Bike) and Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) in the bag, all coming soon. Thanks for reading!

The original date of publication was November 5, 2008.

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There comes a moment in preparing to interview a filmmaker like Arnaud Desplechin where you’re faced with a problem that I can only assume haunts mathematicians, physicists and priests; where do you begin talking about something without responding to the urgent need to understand everything? Take each of Desplechin’s films on its own terms and you’re left breathless by the incredible emotional and philosophical range of the filmmaking. But once you’ve been hooked, beware; despite the director’s humble refusals to the contrary, it is almost impossible to see Desplechin’s work without experiencing a sublime architecture, the sensation of being pulled back and forth across a dazzling array of rhymes; images and situations, characters and dialogues, each film, each moment adding exponentially to the mystery of the whole.


Arnaud Desplechin

In early October, I sat down with Desplechin for the second time as an interviewer. The director was in town for the New York Film Festival, helping to promote his latest film A Christmas Tale, and I was honored that he took time out of his very busy schedule to speak with me again. As I am neither a priest nor a physicist, I decided instead to begin the discussion talking to him about A Christmas Tale, but as it turned out, this was the fastest thirty minutes of my life! There is so much to discuss, to know; maybe someday soon we might be able to devote the time required for an in-depth conversation about his work as a whole. I remain hopeful; my fingers remain crossed.

Back Row Manifesto: When we last spoke, you said the following about the process of creating your stories:

“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.”

Tell me about the fairy tales and the nightmares that lead you to the conception of A Christmas Tale?

Arnaud Desplechin: This time, I came to the story through this idea that I was going to be making a Christmas movie. How can you take this family, this material and make it a good film? For me it was important not to be too nice. Who wants to see a family where everyone gets along? It would be boring! At the same time, it cannot be too terrible; if it is too terrible and cruel, it doesn’t make for a good movie. It doesn’t work.

Take this idea of the transfusion for Henri, who hates his mother. Could we make it where he refuses the transfusion and lets his mother die? No, it would be too much. At the same time, should it be that yes, Henri receives this transfusion and comes away from it as the good son who loves his mother? That he has been changed by the operation? Come on! This would be too corny. So, it has to be something in between. For me, it is how do I get this balance?

The story took off from there, and yes, there was the influence of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the idea of these characters landing in the middle of this celebration and spending the night, not sure if they are awake or dreaming, falling in love with one another, switching beds, and in the morning, unsure of what happened to them. Was this real, did this really happen?

BRM: I understand that you were reading a book on genetic disease, La Greffe (The Transplant) by Jacques Ascher and Jean-Pierre Jouet, which deals with the relationship between transplants and their psychological impacts. Can you tell me more about how this mind-body connection inspired A Christmas Tale?

AD: It’s true, I was reading this book about these transplants and I was fascinated by the fact that this very transplant (the bone-marrow transplant) was the one that takes the greatest psychological toll on the person receiving it. For some reason, receiving the marrow, people feel like they are no longer themselves, that something about them has changed. The marrow invades the body, it comes in and takes over and the (recipient) feels as though they are not themselves. The marrow is a foreign body, it becomes its own thing, an invader. I thought about this specific set of characters facing this specific problem, this foreign body, and that was the beginning of the idea for the film.

BRM: All of this operates on a mythological level as well… this passing on of these issues in the blood of the family members, this classical idea of bloodlines and their connection to the family drama.

AD: Yes, even the name. In the book, it’s a very technical book for specialists, but even in medicine, the transplanted marrow is called The Chimera. That’s the actual name for it. What is fascinating is that, in a way, the person becomes something else entirely; They are no longer themselves, and they are not the person who gave them this blood. They are something in-between. Who are they?

Also, there are other elements of the story that had this mythical, theatrical quality that you speak of; in the very beginning, we have a courtroom scene that is like something out of a Russian play, and the sister stands up and says, “You are banished!” So, we are playing with this very old idea of banishment. We also have this very naïve shadow play at the beginning, telling the story of the death of the son with these puppets.

On the same level, we could discuss Junon. I wanted to reverse this idea of the parents; Here we have a mother who doesn’t nurture her children and father who runs around mothering everyone. I liked this for these characters, this reversal. I like the idea of the nurturing father and the fatherly mother.

BRM: Yes, Junon has an almost imperial presence…

AD: Yes, precisely. At the same time, it is Catherine Deneuve… I wanted to play with her status as a movie star, as this larger than life figure on the screen. The character’s name is Junon, but you might as well call her Jupiter, it would be just as accurate.


Catherine Deneuve in A Christmas Tale

BRM: Do you see a relationship between madness and family? I am thinking of the character of Paul in the film and how he sees himself in the mirror…

AD: For me, there is the powerful moment that you speak of, when Paul is sitting there and his reflection stares back at him and gives this frightening grin. I think the young actor did a wonderful job in this moment; he gives it the feeling of horror. I wanted to show that with Paul, he has a conflicted reaction to this moment. He is afraid, but at the same time he feels the thrill of this power; He holds the life of his grandmother in his hands, and it is thrilling for him to feel powerful. This character is such a dull character; he doesn’t speak much, he doesn’t do much, but he is really the key to this scenario.

As for his relationship to Henri, you see that Paul is the one who sets these events into motion; He chooses this Christmas to reunite his three uncles and have the family together. Emotionally, Henri is rough with him, but by the end of the film, you understand that Paul is okay with Henri. Paul wants to know how he will end up: like this uncle? Like that one? Which path will he follow? You can even see in the final scenes how these two begin to look like one another; it’s strange, but it’s true. I watch them and I think how much alike they seem in the end.

When Henri is in the hospital for the transfusion, I wanted it also to be a sort of horror. This hospital is a dramatic, horrible place. I don’t like to shoot on sets, I use real locations and we shot these scenes in the real Roubaix hospital, so that the nurses are talking and working as they normally would. But the transfusion itself is almost like a Cronenberg moment in this hospital. It’s frightening, a nightmare.

BRM: Let’s talk about the use of signs in your films. Watching your movies, it seems that one should begin looking at these films like you might look at paintings, with coded signs embedded in them. Can you discuss your use of signs? What would you like the audience to take from these?

AD: I do not want to trick the audience. The idea of these things, these signs, is not meant to be a surprise; yes, it is there, but it is not meant as a trick. What I mean is: for sure, meanings and signs appear on a screen. But it’s not my will. My job, as a director, is just to give to all those strange meanings a nice shape, a nice form and a good pace.

My feeling is that, as soon as reality is screened, it starts to mean. It’s not the director who’s doing that, it’s the cinema itself. A simple corridor transforms itself into a threat, or a refuge, or a path, a birth, a death, an evocation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whatever; a white napkin transforms itself into a gloomy sheet (Shaft Returns), the bed sheet transforms itself into a cinema screen (Notting Hill), and the blanket of It Happened One Night becomes a wall between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

I couldn’t call them “signs”, because, as a spectator, I don’t feel compelled to interpret them. Or worse, to give the “right interpretation”?! No, it just happens when reality starts to shine, to glow. My job as a director is just to notice these odd rhymes that happened all the time, and to use them in the storytelling. Yes, the grave of Joseph that you can see in the graveyard in Roubaix was inspired by Waldo (Emerson)’s grave in Concord. But I hope no one in the audience will notice it. It just helps me to draw a nice mythical grave, to draw a dream that you can inhabit.

BRM: You are putting so much into each frame, we’ve only just discussed one minute of the movie…

AD: But this is not all meant to be for the audience to be aware of! This is just my job of being a good pupil and making sure it is there.

BRM: How should the audience see these things? Is this why audiences come away from your films feeling their depth but, as is often the case, being unable to articulate why the film they experienced feels so rich?

AD: My goal is not to have the audience search for all of this. I want them to be entertained, to be dazzled. This is what I mean by being a good pupil. These images, these sounds; they come out of the screen in waves. Each level of the image, all of the (images) in (a single shot), the sound; they come out off the screen on many different levels and directly to the audience. I want them to come away from it like the movie has dazzled them.

BRM: These waves are like layers of meaning? Are audiences taking all of this in at once?

AD: Yes, precisely. I think so.

BRM: You mentioned in an earlier conversation that you couldn’t say everything, because the images in your films have “hidden implications”. Can you elaborate on this idea?

AD: It is just as I said. For example with The Ten Commandments; Catherine Deneuve comes from a family where her father was a famous French voiceover artist. Her father did the dubbing on many movies, and the first movie she ever saw in the movie theater was The Ten Commandments with her father’s voice as Charlton Heston. So, here I filmed her watching this movie, listening to her own father’s voice and I think we get something unique this scene of watching her watch the film. Or with this use of Funny Face; Is it a comment on the theme of transformation? Okay, sure. But for me it is a little love note to Emmannuelle Devos because I think she has a funny face. It’s both.


A Christmas Tale

BRM: Let’s talk about the location, Roubaix, which has featured in your last two films (A Christmas Tale and the documentary L’Aimee). At the center of these, and even La Vie Des Morts, there is this wonderful family house; the rooms, the paintings; it all seems to be an expression of your personal history. Now, I know you resist the idea that your films seem to inhabit one another…

AD: I am not allowed to agree…

BRM: But this seems clear in …

AD: I am not allowed to agree! (laughing)

BRM: I’ll take that as a yes… (Desplechin laughs). But truthfully, how has this place (Roubaix) shaped your work?

AD: It’s funny; I showed the film Esther Kahn to my cousin and his comment to me after the screening was “You’ve certainly gone a long way out of your way to make a film about Roubaix.” Of course, that’s right. It has that same brick feeling, that same… How can I put this? Roubaix is crappy. It is a pitiful town to look at. But for me, the idea was to take this family, this family that sees itself on this mythical level, and put them in this very humble environment. At the same time, it was a challenge to put this town in the movie and make it seem like the place for this family, so we played around with it.

BRM: A little more about Roubaix: There is a lovely scene in the middle of the film where Abel reads a quote from the preface to Nietzsche’s book On The Genealogy Of Morals (this English translation is from the book, not the film’s subtitles):

“We remain unknown to ourselves, we seekers of knowledge, even to ourselves; and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves– so how should we one day find ourselves? It has been rightly said the ‘Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also’; our treasure is to be found in the beehives of knowledge. Imagine someone who, when woken suddenly from divine distraction and self-absorption by the twelve strokes of the loud noon bell asks himself: ‘What time is it?’ In much the same way, we rub our ears after the fact and ask in complete surprise and embarrassment ‘What was that we just experienced?’ or even ‘Who are we really?’ Then we count back over in retrospect every one of those twelve trembling strokes of our life, our being– and alas! lose our count in the process. We remain a mystery to ourselves, we fail to understand ourselves, we are bound to mistake ourselves. Of ourselves, we have no knowledge.”

Abel reads this to Elizabeth to explain her sadness, and you immediately cut to these very poetic shots of Roubaix… This moment has the physical texture of memory and feels very personal against this Nietzsche text, almost an unreal or estranged quality. Two questions: When seeing these images of Roubaix, do you as an artist share Nietzsche’s sense of estrangement? Can you tell me about this moment and how you created it?

AD: My challenge in that scene was to take those big words, which are so abstract, so intimidating, and to make them simple. “To bring the words back home”, as one said. Then, the situation is so simple.

Elizabeth feels lost, her father wants to comfort her. And it’s hard to find the right words. Then, he juts picks this book and starts to read. And I’m sure that it reminds him when Elizabeth was 9 or 11, and came in his office. And Elizabeth remembers when her father was forty and powerful. Yes, Elizabeth fucked up, but he doesn’t want to lecture her; that’s why he’s just reading these lines, as an obscure reproach he could say about himself.

Already in the script, I knew I wouldn’t keep all the lines, that the sound would dissolve in these empty shots of Roubaix. I couldn’t force a spectator to listen to them, but I wanted to permit to the audience to hear the mutual and clumsy affection between Abel and Elizabeth. I need to have the feeling that somewhere, a 14 year-old girl or guy will get the scene, that it will connect with her or his personal experience of life. At the end of it, what do we hear? That, in a way, we all had an appointment with ourselves and we’ve all missed this rendezvous. What did we experience? We don’t know!

It was a hell to have these empty tracking shots in the street with the right snow! We shot them in January, with Eric (Gautier, the film’s cinematographer) and a very small crew. I guess we did it this way because it’s my only way to understand those lines. Not the intellectual way, or an academic way. But through a scene, through the 2 characters, and this rough town, I thought I was able to say what I understood of those lines.

BRM: On now to personal sacrifice, which is huge issue at the center of this film. Can you talk to me about this idea of sacrifice, from Abel and Junon’s individual reactions to the loss of their child to Henri and Paul’s competition to donate bone marrow for Junon, how these competing parent-child sacrifices found their way into this story?

AD: I’m not that keen with the idea of any sacrifice. I felt the bigger risk was (making) a film that happens at Christmas. Is it because I was raised as a Catholic? I guess! But you know the awful kitsch of Christmas! No, I like it as nice feast for kids, period; the magic of it, not the sacrifice.

I think Henri is doing this transplant for himself. He will do it, but he doesn’t think it’s a generous gesture. I loved the competition between the nephew and the uncle because you can think Henri is a monster; he’s bashing his nephew all the time. But at the end of it, think if Paul would have been the donor and Junon would have died? The kid would never become a man! He would have been crushed under the guilt. Henri is the only one who can bear this guilt and get rid of it.


Mathieu Amalric in A Christmas Tale

Finishing the movie, the last day of the mix, I was moved to tears looking at the nightstand of Abel, with the photo of Joseph. I realized that Abel and Junon never spoke about Joseph’s death. Did I regret it? I think that, in this family, loss is a thing that you can’t share. Perhaps it’s nice, in a way, to admit it. The loss was such an absolute disaster than there was nothing to share in it. Abel can speak about Joseph, but only in a pub, with a pal or in a cemetery with his son. But the only things he has to share with Junon are their silence and their love. They are a brash couple; for them, mourning is a thing you do alone.

BRM: You mentioned previously that you feel as though A Christmas Tale is less sensual than your previous films. And yet, here we have a lovely romantic scene, very sensual, between Sylvia and Simon. Can you elaborate on this idea? In what ways do you see your work as sensual and how does A Christmas Tale fit into your work this way?

AD: Did I? Oh, I hope it’s sensual! I love the scene with Simon out of the frame and Chiara undressing. To me, her performance is amazing. It’s so sensual, or so physical I could say.

To me, it’s much more interesting rather than ‘poetic’, it’s precise! As if each gesture is a precise evocation of all the gestures of physical love. She almost laughs, with the pleasure of discovering herself, because a man is discovering her body. I love this scene!

During the shooting, I couldn’t stop to think of this shot of Catherine Deneuve in La Sirène du Mississippi. Belmondo is out of the frame, and he describes her face to Catherine, barely daring to touch her eyebrow, chin and cheekbone. Catherine’s face transforms into a landscape. She is magnified when she realizes she has such a power over this man. He starts to belong to her, because of the way this man is looking at her.


Chiara Mastroianni in A Christmas Tale

BRM: We also spoke last time of the ghosts that populate your films; This time, we have Simon, “the ghost”, who loves his cousin’s wife from afar and even Anatole, the unseen wolf who haunts the family basement. You said to me last time that “perhaps, all theses ghosts are spoors, cinematic appearances of the past in the middle of the present.” Can you elaborate on Simon’s place in your pantheon of ghosts?

AD: Hmm… perhaps am I unable. His love reminds me the way Paul Dedalus loves Sylvia in My Sex Life. He knows nothing can make it work, that any rival would be better for such a woman. But he can’t stop loving her. I love these men who can accept that they’ve lost. I’m sure I’ll find him again and again in my next film, if I have the chance to make another one!

BRM: Speaking of which, in this film we have another Paul Dedalus! This time, a younger man who is on the verge of schizophrenia, much like the previous Paul’s own dreams of madness, his own confession of wishing his parents dead in My Sex Life… How do you see the relationship between the two Pauls?

AD: Let’s say this name came as a gift to the character. I knew Paul would be this young man who can’t allow anything to himself, who can’t grow up and who can’t become anything; a character who doesn’t succeed in becoming what he has to be. And I knew that he couldn’t be the center of the movie because I had all the other characters in the house. Here you have this gang of big mouths and one adolescent, so shy, totally crushed by his family.

One day, I chose to call him ‘Paul’. As a promise; “Ok, boy, in this movie, you’ll have a hard time. But don’t worry, in ten years, you’ll end on a couch, with your psychoanalyst, you’ll have nice fiancés, and a good life. How do I know it? Because I already filmed your life when you will be 30.”

It was lovely when we filmed the footing with Paul and Henri, to see the blossoming of a strange friendship, as if, at the end, they even start to look alike. The nephew surely missed this uncle. We always need a bad example; it can be useful and warm. And Mathieu was the right man to do it; he played Paul in My Sex Life!

BRM: Can you tell me about your relationship with your amazing editor, Laurence Briaud? This film feels so much lighter, quicker, than your previous films… She is really brilliant. You have worked together since your first feature film, and with each movie, your collaboration seems to grow deeper. What is this process like, how do you work together?

AD: (pauses). Yes, it is very a deep connection. We begin by making a ‘best of’; we take all of the best moments and assemble them into a very large version of the film and then we start the process of looking for the way to tell the story within these moments. As we do this, we are forced to take things away and the movie becomes smaller and smaller, and we continue to find ways to tell the story. Sometimes, Laurence will assemble some footage and I will ask myself “Would I do it this way?” and I take it aside and play with it on my own, moving things around here and there. But it is mostly this commitment to using the best of what we have.

We also use music to edit the film. For example, the opening sequence with Junon making tea, these very simple shots; what would she be thinking of? Of love? Of her grandchildren? I was watching (Jean) Renoir’s The River at the time, and I was listening to these Indian ragas quite a bit, so I put the music down over these shots in the editing room and that is how the scene found its meaning. It made sense of what we were doing with the scene. That’s often how it works.

BRM: Your collaboration with her continues to grow?

AD: Yes, very deeply.


Desplechin directs Amalric on the set of A Christmas Tale

BRM: A Christmas Tale is being released by IFC Films, using their so-called ‘day-and-date’ program that brings the film to cable TV video-on-demand on the same day it is released in a few theaters. I am wondering what your thoughts are on this, and on the fact that, according to numbers recently reported, films on television video-on-demand are outselling the theatrical release at about 2 to 1 in the United States. Does this new strategy excite you as an artist?

AD: I really can’t say. I have no opinion on how the films are released. It would distract me from my work, which is just to give them the best film I’m able to create. But, it seems to me Ryan Werner is a great man, don’t you think? (ED– Yes. yes I do.)

BRM: What can we expect next from you? What stories are you working on? The last time we spoke, you mentioned a 1970’s family drama about teenagers—

AD: Yes, that one! It’s not about family, but about the teenagers and drugs and hip-hop. I took the family out of this idea and made A Christmas Tale, and this new film is the other part of the same idea. But since it is hip-hop, it is no longer set in the 1970’s. Instead, I moved it to the 1980’s, 1983, and it is really about this time, the drugs and the French hip-hop scene with teenagers.

BRM: You had also mentioned you were working on a Philip Roth adaptation…

AD: Ah, the Philip Roth is… I don’t know. I need to find a way to make this the right way. I worship Philip Roth as a writer. I love his books. But I think it might be impossible to make a film that is worthy of his book. There have been some movies made of his books, and… You have to be sure that you make the movie as good as the book. I would die of shame if I made a film of his work and it wasn’t worthy of the book.

No, there is another project, a spy movie. It is about this bizarre, cold world we live in today, it is very much about this time. I was very moved by (the tragedy of) September 11th; the world has become so strange, especially Europe. This would be going back to something like La Sentinelle, but with a lot of action, and it would be examining the changes in Europe, whatever that is. What is Europe now? This is something I’d like to explore, and I think the best way to do it is to use spies, this secret world, to examine it.

BRM: Arnaud, thank you so much for talking with me.

AD: Thank you… my pleasure.

The BRM’s Greatest Hits | Interview: Arnaud Desplechin, Kings and Queen (2005)

In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!

Today’s Greatest Hits post is probably my favorite thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. This interview with Arnaud Desplechin, my favorite filmmaker, was my first time meeting him and one of the best professional days of my life. To be able to ask all these questions and to get these thoughtful answers was a dream come true. Looking back on it, I also see him being pretty guarded about some of the bigger issues that come up in his work. In person, it didn’t feel that way at all, but words on the page? Hmm. This piece is an amalgamation of two posts, one on indieWIRE and one on my own blog, merged into its original form. This is the first time the interview has been presented in full.

The original date of publication was May 12, 2005.

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Arnaud Desplechin: The Back Row Manifesto Interview


Arnaud Desplechin

Meeting artists can be a dilemma of sorts. It’s a rare and wonderful thing to meet your favorite filmmakers, and I have probably been luckier than most in that regard, so I was determined to treat the moment as a special one. While it is always exciting to be able to engage them directly about the ideas and intentions behind their work, I am always leery of the possibility that perhaps the man will not be as generous to me as I feel his work is. Too often, you find when meeting Directors in a professional situation that they are only there because they are professionally obliged to be, not truly at ease and simply exhausted by answering the same questions about their work and their lives, over and over again. A junket is no fun. I imagine myself in their shoes and it feels somewhat like living in the eternally annoying, repetitious hell of No Exit.

So naturally, when I walked into the offices of Susan Norget PR in SoHo and saw Arnaud Desplechin in the flesh, rising to shake my hand and introduce himself, I was conflicted and a little bit nervous. Here I am, on a cool, sun-drenched spring morning, meeting the person who has created so many of my favorite films. Knowing that he was facing a full day of questioning, I was determined to get down to business. I dropped my backpack, set up my camera, and hastily got everything ready to record our conversation. But Arnaud instantly calmed me down by offering me a simple glass of water and smile. I took a sip, gathered myself, and smiled back.

As generous a man as I could have hoped for, he spoke with me for about 45 minutes, deeply focused on the conversation and offering me long, in-depth answers. Without his thoughtful, open-minded approach to our talk, I wouldn’t have had much to share. Instead, he gave me more than I had hoped. So much in fact, we only got to about half of my questions. I have tried to preserve his answers word for word because he is such a wonderful interview subject. Much like his films, talking to Arnaud Desplechin involves receiving signs on many levels, each answer layered with meaning, intent and a smile. I can only hope I have done his generosity justice with my questions.

Back Row Manifesto: The title of the film, Kings & Queen, seems to be a commentary on the characters of Ismaël and Nora, but looking back over your films, kings and queens have been there all along. There are two Esthers, and even Paul in My Sex Life says, “Rabier wants to be the King in my place.” So, the title feels like an extension of earlier themes in your work.

Arnaud Desplechin: It’s bizarre because usually I just find the title at the very end of the process of writing. Usually we use stupid, awfully long titles as flags, so that we don’t get lost and can organize the material. So we used a French poem for this film, something I could translate as:

King without kingdom/ Queen without a scene/ Castle broken/ Bishop betrayed/ Fool as a brave man.

It’s just like chess. So when we were lost, we’d say “Ok, King without kingdom? It’s the father. The Queen? That’s Nora. The fool? It’s Ismaël.” So, we could play with these two plots and the model was quite useful as this model of chess. And I loved that there was just one queen surrounded by all these men. She starts the movie surrounded by all these men who define her and at the end, she is standing on both feet and she doesn’t need any men. Ismaël is surrounded by these wonderful characters, friends and enemies, but throughout the movie she is alone. So I thought would be nice that she is alone in the title as well, but as a queen. Bigger than life.

BRM: Upon the release of Esther Kahn you spoke with indieWIRE and discussed your next project, which has become your latest film Kings & Queen. In that interview, you characterized the film this way:

In My Sex Life, there was some humor and there was some melancholy. I was thinking that it would be great instead of just having some humor, to be comical, brutally comical, and instead of being melancholic to be brutally dark and violent, to just make a brutal film and try to be just a little bit obscene. But I will do it in a soft way.”

Do you feel you have accomplished what you set out to do? How did the film change?

AD: 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.

BRM: 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.

BRM: 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.


Valentin Lelong and Mathieu Almaric in Kings & Queen

BRM: Let’s talk about Nora. In the beginning of the film, she is moved by a painting of Leda and The Swan, which she purchases as a gift for her father. This purchase leads to all kinds of trouble for Nora, but it also seems to parallel her character. Can you talk about Nora, Leda, and how you created this complicated character?

AD: I knew it was so novelistic, and therefore so cinematic, the idea that this woman gives birth to child after the death of her lover. We talked before about how we were really pushing these two different genres, how we had two dark fairy tales. One would be a Hawthorne style dark fairy tale, the other a Shakespearian comedy. I was also thinking of these German short stories by (19th century author Ernst Theodor Amadeus) Hoffmann. It’s a weird, old sort of story: A girl enters a shop and buys an image, but she doesn’t know exactly why she is buying that image. Strangely, this image is the image of her fate. What kind of woman had a kid without a father? In this one gesture, I could say more than I could with dialogue.

BRM: Ismaël’s mythological parallel is Hercules. In fact we see Hercules in the moment before we meet Ismaël, and also in the hospital. Later in the film, Ismaël dons a super hero cape, underscoring his heroic character and unveiling himself. After this, he is able to talk to Elias (Nora’s son) so precisely; it is as if his rationality has been restored.

AD: When I was writing the script, I thought, in order for the audience not to be lost, we’ll have to find a simple process for them to jump from the melodrama to the comedy. If we have a Greek image of The Virgin Mary, what kind of Greek image of the Christ can I use? I think Hercules is funny. All the kids love Hercules. I think Jesus is quite boring in movies, but Hercules is fun. Its also the depiction of Ismaël’s adventures, they are meaningless. He goes from one catastrophe to another, just like Hercules. Even when you aren’t sure what the myths are, you can know that when you see Hercules you are in the Shakespearian comedy, and when you see Leda you are in the Hawthorne melodrama.

BRM: 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.

BRM: 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.

AD: 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 like to listen to their voices to see if it is funny or if it is sad. 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 am just trying to use different types of music. There is rap music in all my films. 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.

BRM: Emmanuelle Devos and Matthieu Amalric have been in many of your films, and in this film, they do some of their most accomplished work. How did you initially come to work with them and can you talk a little about your process for working together? How have you evolved together over time?

AD: On each film, it is more and more scary to propose a role to them. At the beginning I was calling them, now I feel so embarrassed because we made all of these films together, I write to them. (Laughs) So, I wrote to them and said “Ok, Emmanuelle,” (I will sound boring) “I could have something interesting for you but don’t feel embarrassed at all, just pass it by your agent.” They were both very busy. She was working on another film at the time and Mathieu was prepping for a film that didn’t get made. But we are shier and shier. It’s really bizarre. Not on the set, but when I propose to them.

But I think with Mathieu, I think it was digging deeper into something that we started before. But with Emmanuelle, something really strange happened when we were shooting, but it was something that happened in her career. Before films like Read My Lips, earlier in her career, she was digging for humble things, things like I feel when I feel pitiful or cheap or abandoned. But something happened. I could quote Liv Ullmann’s humanity, as if in her 30′s she said, “Now, I will depict only the nobility of the character. No more humility.” And I love that. She’s changing all of the movies she’s acting in because she wants to paint the bright side of the character, even if the character has to go through dark episodes.


Emmanuelle Devos in Kings & Queen

BRM: 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.’

BRM: 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!


Summer Phoenix as Esther Kahn

BRM: 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.

BRM: 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 that her 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.

BRM: 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!

BRM: 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.

BRM: 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 enabled 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 Léo with this gun he has to present to the weapons dealer? The trail of his bullet-loader could be the trail of his love and 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.

BRM: In many ways, all of your films play on these same themes, these same character situations. 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 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.


Mathieu Amalric in Kings & Queen

BRM: 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 at 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.

BRM: What are you 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.

Things That Scare Me: The BRM’s Top 11 Horror Films

It’s Halloween time, need I say any more? This is one holiday that is all about atmosphere, and I am a big fan of setting the proper mood, so please follow this recipe before reading the rest of this post:

…. As a preface, Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain from Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Give a look…

Play this very loud!


…. Turn the lights very, very low… lower… lower…
…. Make yourself a nice, warm glass of apple cider. Add something stronger if the spirits move you.
…. Scan the room… Is anyone there? Hello? Sorry, I thought I heard something…

Everything set? Ok, there are a few films that I really think deserve a special mention around Halloween, films that deal with fear, fright, and scare the pants off of me. You’ll notice some glaring omissions (The Exorcist? Not for me. Suspiria? Nuh-uh), but to each his own. In honor of 2011, try one of these eleven films for the long, scary nights of the Halloween season. You’ve probably seen them before, but they’re still scary good!

11. Dead Ringers by David Cronenberg (1988)

Dead Ringers
It Hurts Just To Look: Elliot Mantle’s tool set from David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers

This one is for the ladies. I have no idea what drugs David Cronenberg takes for recreational purposes, but oh, what I would give to have been a fly on the wall when he pitched Dead Ringers to Twentieth Century Fox…

“Ok, here’s the idea: Twin gynecologists, one dominant and one submissive, trade lovers. Slowly, they develop a co-dependent drug habit which coincides with their development of extreme gynecological tools and botched procedures…”




Cronenberg loves the concepts of penetration and body modification, but nothing he has made is scarier than his use of this theme in medical, and reproductive, circumstances in Dead Ringers. Few movies in history have dangled impending horror more deftly than the moment when Elliot Mantle (one of two roles played by Jeremy Irons) goes to pick up the gynecological tools he has had made. If you can watch the revelation of those tools and not be filled with dread for the film’s remaining run time, well, you’re made of stronger stuff than I.

10. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens by F.W. Murnau (1922) and Nosferatu by Werner Herzog (1977)


The Face: Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu

If you EVER doubt Murnau’s mastery of the cinematic form (and how could you?), I suggest a double feature of Sunrise and Nosferatu. The best vampire movie of all time, Murnau’s Nosferatu is a lesson for all film fans in how to generate fear purely in images. The first time I saw Max Schreck’s Count Orlock slowly rising from his grave was in the Bowie/Queen video for Under Pressure; it scared me then, but that was only a small sampling of the horror that awaited when watching the film itself.




As an added bonus, give a look at Werner Herzog’s remake and marvel at Klaus Kinsky’s performance in the role Schreck made famous. Kinsky is so committed to the part, it seems as if he is about to eat everything on screen (including the scenery). Herzog’s remake doesn’t attempt to tonally match Murnau’s film, but then again, how could it? Instead, the film has an oppressively formal feeling that delivers a tension all its own.



9. American Psycho by Mary Harron (2000)

American Psycho
It’s Hip To Be Square: Christian Bale in Mary Harron’s American Psycho

That’s right, American Psycho. Wanna know why? Because if you want to see the model upon which the current economic crisis was built, there is no finer cinematic example. This movie is a hilarious and dignified transcendence of its source material (the novel, not the Regan administration), and it also is very, very frightening. Frightening because it is a perfect excoriation of greed, selfishness, and ego run amok; it shows the invisible, moneyed yuppie class for what it truly is. Highlights abound, but Christian Bale’s delivery of nonchalant insanity like “Sorry, I have to go meet Cliff Huxtable at the Four Seasons” and his menacing monologues describing the glories of Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, and Huey Lewis and the News are terrific fun.


I STILL Can’t Get A Table At Dorsia…(100% NSFW)

But at its core, this might be the most politically relevant horror movie of the past decade. Politics have always been at the core of horror films, and with all the debate about “corporations as people” raging in the country right now, no movie distills the psychopathy of corporate “personhood” any better than this one. Of course, you could just watch Fox Business Channel or CNBC and get the same level of insanity, but why not at least have some fun?

8. Poltergeist by Tobe Hooper (1982)

Poltergeist
There Is Nothing Scarier Than An Evil Clown: Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist

As a child, and clearly childhood has a profound influence on my list making, no movie fucked me up more than Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. Is there a sequence in this movie that did not make me shit my pants in fear? The killer clown? Check. The trees coming through the window? Check? The woman peeling her face off in the bathroom mirror? Oh my God.”They’re heeere…” Ahhhh!
I can’t really talk rationally about this film, which is my favorite in the “ghost story” genre, because it has left such a huge impression (okay, scar) on my psyche. I think I saw Poltergeist four or five times in the theater, and it scared me to death every time. I’ll never move to suburbia.




I also think this movie is rather under-appreciated as a horror film; because of Steven Spielberg’s involvement perhaps, or because it made shit loads of money, or because it was so accessible to children when it was released and focuses on childrens’ greatest fears– the idea of being separated from our parents and testing their love for us. Will mom and dad come through? Poltergeist puts our innermost fears to the test in a big budget frightening ghost story that I have a hard time watching to this day. Love it.

7. The Silence Of The Lambs by Jonathan Demme (1991)


You Covet What You See Every Day: Jodie Foster in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs

This film is the only one on this list to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, which tells you all you need to know about the power and accessibility of this movie. I took a screenwriting class once where a student proposed a serial killer film and the instructor replied “We have Silence Of The Lambs. How will you surpass it?” (which, terrible teaching, but also, true.) For me, the film is the perfect thriller that takes a dark turn into the realm of horror not with Hannibal Lecter, but with Buffalo Bill (played with devastating perfection by Ted Levine), the film’s main target and its most terrifying character.


Goodbye Horses


Yes, Anthony Hopkins’ rationalism and psychoanalysis is scary for those suspicious of intellectuals (or those who don’t want to be eaten by one–I could write a book on how this character panders to American anti-intellectualism, but I’ll save that), but it is Clarice Starling’s pursuit of Buffalo Bill that drives the film onward and hurtles it toward its amazing conclusion. As much as I want to find something not to like about this movie, and there are so many things that should drive me nuts, it does absolutely everything right. I can’t watch it without being sucked in every time. By the time Clarice rings the right doorbell and dives in to Bill’s world, there is nothing that can pull me away.

6. Halloween by John Carpenter (1978)

Halloween
The Shape: Michael Myers Haunts John Carpenter’s Halloween

All hail the king of the slasher films. Any horror movie list that does not feature John Carpenter’s genre defining Halloween is essentially worthless; this is the blockbuster that forced studios to invent their own ultra-violent killers, the movie that put the audience behind the murderer’s mask, the movie that picked off over-sexed but otherwise innocent teenagers one by one. The score? A classic. The killer? That white mask will forever be etched in the memory of everyone who saw the film. The heroine? Jamie Lee Curtis at her “scream queen” defining best.




What stands out for me, though, is the way in which Carpenter establishes the tension, using Michael’s slippery presence in slow driving cars, behind bushes, in backyards and schoolyards to set the atmosphere for what is to come. And when it does come, the movie shifts into an entirely new gear, quick and deadly. I was tempted to put in my other favorite Carpenter film, The Thing, here but Halloween remains first and the best.

5. Night Of The Living Dead by George Romero (1968)

Night Of The Living Dead
Guess Who Doesn’t Die First?: Duane Jones in George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead

Night Of The Living Dead makes the list for its place as the transformative horror film; there are the movies that came before, and there are the movies that came after. It was also an incredibly transgressive response to the era of free love and Vietnam; graphic cannibalism, an African-American hero, a child murdering her parents and zombies, those apathetic American ciphers, all made a huge impact on horror storytelling while describing the state of world.




There are so many amazing aspects to the film’s story– the non-existent budget, the fact that the distributor naively allowed the copyright to lapse, which inadvertently put the film in the public domain– but ultimately, it is an utterly frightening template for a million films to come. There are better zombie films, but none as important or as primal as this definitive movie.

4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by Tobe Hooper (1974)

Texas Chainsaw Massacre
This Will Not End Well: Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the best of the 1970’s horror films, which puts it near the top of this list by default; the 70’s redefined horror for all time, bringing intensity and graphic violence to the service of low-budget, independent filmmaking. After Night Of The Living Dead set the bar, films like Last House On The Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre took the disillusionment of the flagging counter culture, its assumptions of innocence and idealism, and put it through the meat grinder of cynicism. For this alone, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is something of a masterpiece; the film works both as an allegory for the end of an era and as an unfathomably depraved story of the worst family in history. Sure, it also launched an entire genre of films that demonize uneducated rednecks, but that sin is more than absolved by the potent urgency of the film, whose violence comes tortuously slowly and then suddenly, without warning. The triumphant psychopathy of Leatherface at the end of the film, swinging his saw as he dances in that 1970’s sunlight, lens flares exploding on the screen, remains one of the images that has haunted my dreams for decades.


3. Alien: The Director’s Cut by Ridley Scott (1979)

Alien
In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream: Ridley Scott’s Alien

Ridley Scott’s career is, for me, divided into two sections; Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma And Louise and Black Hawk Down (yay!) and everything else (bleh!). People often forget about Alien when thinking about horror films, probably because the film is set in outer space and therefore has been classified as sci-fi. Also, the franchising of the film’s titular monster has only detracted from the reputation of the original film. Let me tell you, when the digitally-projected Director’s Cut of Alien played at the Union Sq. Cinemas a few years back, it scared me shitless all over again. This is one instance where the ‘Director’s Cut’ has resulted in a superior film; the pace is slower, which allows the tension to build and the audience time to explore the insanely creepy sets. There is no movie with better design.


Dinner Time…


It also features a revolutionary heroine, removing horror’s unfortunate trope of women as screaming victims in favor of the proactive badass. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley would come to define the genre, bringing women into the horror/action fold in a whole new way; Linda Hamilton in Terminator? Carrie Anne Moss in The Matrix? The entire oeuvre of Angelina Jolie? All of them are indebted to Ridley Scott who, despite some films that don’t work for me at all, has proven to be a true feminist and deserves praise for changing the roles of women in these films. But no matter what your opinion is of the film’s gender politics or which edit you prefer, this movie is a masterpiece of tone and storytelling. The dinner scene alone will live forever. Makes you wonder how this man could possibly be the same guy who made Hannibal

2. Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock (1960)

Psycho
The Eye: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho

True story: At my mother’s 40th birthday party (sometime in the mid-1980’s), a friend of hers she had not seen in decades took to the podium to tell a story of their friendship from 25 years prior. In 1960, the two teenage girls went to see Psycho and they were completely freaked out by it. The next morning, while my mom’s friend was taking a shower, my mom grabbed a knife and snuck into the bathroom, tearing open the curtain and scaring the absolute shit out of her terrified friend. Twenty five years later, the friend was still unable to shower with the curtain closed. That story is not a testament to my mother’s perverted teenage sense of humor (who hasn’t pulled the Psycho gag or had it pulled on them?), but instead to the power of Hitchcock’s movie, which remains a definitive film in the genre.


Most Influential Scene Of All Time?


Not only was it influential in its use of editing and camera (how many of the shots from the film have been stolen? what other movie has endured a shot-for-shot remake?), it remains plausibly terrifying some 51 years later. Hitchcock’s perversity and fetishes are in wicked form here and if the movie doesn’t top my list (it’s not even the best Hitchcock movie), it must come near the top of the discussion because it is an utterly incredible piece of filmmaking made by a master of the form. If only there were another film or filmmaker that could top it… oh, wait….

1. The Shining by Stanley Kubrick (1980)

Shining
Oh, Danny Boy: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

This is the scariest movie of all time. Period. End of discussion. I think of The Shining as one of those fortunate, perfect moments when an artist’s technique and his chosen subject matter converge into a flawless harmony; this story of a family wrenched apart by a nervous breakdown in a haunted hotel was seemingly written specifically for Stanley Kubrick’s camera. Of course, it wasn’t (Stephen King reportedly dislikes Kubrick’s version), but this movie is an absolute masterpiece. Call me a charlatan, but I think it is Kubrick’s best movie, and that is saying something. Of all the films on this list, it is one film where the camera, slowly prowling around the Overlook, is the most frightening character in the film; it’s as if Kubrick himself is the evil soul of the hotel, showing us precisely what we fear. I could list the shots that will live forever, but i might just have to recite the entire film; the elevators, the twin girls, the sound of Danny riding that Big Wheel across the carpets and hardwood floors, the axe going through the door of the bathroom, the chase through the maze, the haunted ballroom, the corpse in the bathtub, and on and on. The atmosphere of dread in this movie is unfathomably great; no one has come close to duplicating the tension achieved with Kubrick’s simply gorgeous cinematographic style.


Perfection (scene ends at 1’59″)


I will never forget the first time I saw this movie. I can describe the sofa I was sitting on when those elevator doors spilled blood, the color of the blanket I used to hide my eyes when the dead woman sat up in the bath tub, and the memory of sitting bolt upright for the film’s final 30 minutes. I hate to sound fucked up, but I CAN’T WAIT until my kid is old enough to watch this with me. I plan on spending the whole time just watching his face. On a primal level, the idea of the family turning in on itself is utterly terrifying, and this film is the most frightening vision possible of that most intimate of fears. The definition of cinematic horror; a perfect film as far as I am concerned.

Bonus Selection: My Favorite Horror Movie Sequence

The film is not on the list, probably because I saw it too late in life, but Ti West’s House Of The Devil (2009) features my favorite horror movie sequence of all time. Why? It is a perfect representation of the horror tropes of my youth and it is simply a great use of cinematic tension (sound, the editing, earphones blocking out the dangers lurking in the house, the nonchalant dancing a counterpoint to the horror behind the doors, etc). And those camera moves; straight out of the 1980′s playbook! I can’t help but get giddy. Of course, the whole thing hinges on that cut to the black basement, looking up the stairs, the sound suddenly changing to an external reading of the headphone music; this is just brilliant work. It comes at a point in the movie that has been defined by slow, creepy silence, then suddenly, the Sony Walkman (yes!) comes on and a whole new tone is established, equally troubling, with a wink and a smile as well. I just love this sequence, so as a parting gift, here it is. Turn it up! Happy Halloween!

The BRM’s Greatest Hits | Is Sith An Anagram? (2005)

In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!

Today’s Greatest Hits post is a review of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of The Sith, which is a truly anomalous post for my blog. First, it is a negative review, which I go out of my way to avoid; movies usually have it hard enough and I don’t like wasting my energy as a writer on negativity. Second, this is perhaps the most reviled post I’ve ever written. When indieWIRE migrated blog engines in the years following this piece, this post lost all of the comments that were left by fans of the series. Needless to say, this post received more comments than anything I’ve ever written. I don’t think one of them was positive. A badge of honor? No. I felt like a curmudgeon for even posting this. That said, I was telling my story in truthful way, explaining my relationship to this film and to the Star Wars franchise. Speaking truth to power… *ha*

The original date of publication was May 27, 2005.

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Is Sith An Anagram?

Review | Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of The Sith

In the summer of 1977, as a six-year-old boy in Mt. Pleasant, MI, my dad took me to the Cinema Twin on Mission Street (now a Walgreen’s Pharmacy*) to see the movie that had kids across the Mid-Michigan area lining up in hyperactive droves. Of course, the movie was Star Wars. I can’t be sure anymore whether I had begged to be taken or if my father had suggested it; those were different times and I am not sure how media savvy I was or how much about movies I would have known. What I do remember is the film itself, which captured my imagination like no film before it had; a seemingly perfect blend of action, drama, and fantasy that created a moral universe of right and wrong, good and evil, that could be easily accommodated by my six-year-old brain. I probably saw the film five times that summer and, because of my younger brother’s addiction to the series, innumerable times in the years after its theatrical release. Star Wars (now officially called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) is a touchstone for my generation, the first and greatest blockbuster to inspire a slave-like devotion to a movie series and a brand name whose sequels were guaranteed to knock your socks off.

Of course, the idea of fantasy cliffhangers and sequels started long before Star Wars with the wonderfully camp serials of the 1940′s and 50′s that provided Writer/Director George Lucas with the inspiration for the series. My dad was a fan of the serials himself, and I am certain part of his attraction to the film was its direct aesthetic relationship to the movies of his youth; the crazy wipe transitions, over the top plotting and unambiguous heroes and villains. While my six-year-old attentions and those of like-minded fans were drawn in by the stunning special effects (the glowing hum of light sabers, the laser beam screams of the fighter ships battling one another in space), I am sure my dad experienced the aesthetics of the movie serial as a nostalgic trip down memory lane, spruced up by state of the art filmmaking techniques.

Interesting, then, my own experience when attending a recent screening of the latest and thankfully last film in Lucas’s six-film box office behemoth, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of the Sith. I am now roughly my father’s age when he saw the original Star Wars and I went to the film hoping to experience my own sense of nostalgia; the unique brand of escapism that only a Star Wars film could deliver. Heartened by great word of mouth and the promise of a return to form, I optimistically walked into the theater and took a seat. As soon as the movie started, however, I experienced another kind of déja-vu altogether. Just as I had at the two preceding films, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of The Clones, I left savagely disappointed in not only this movie but also the entire series. It’s sad but true; the last three films have completely ruined my previous admiration for and memory of Star Wars.


Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of the Sith

Numbers, however, don’t lie. The Star Wars franchise is a cultural phenomenon. But like most things franchised and obscenely popular, it is a turgid but empty shell offering little in the way of quality or craftsmanship. Instead, the entire endeavor smells like good business. Despite Revenge of the Sith‘s claims to the moral complexity and character motivation that have been missing from a George Lucas film since 1973′s American Graffiti, Revenge of the Sith is perhaps the most wooden, ludicrous, and awful movie to hit the American multiplex since Attack of The Clones. There are so many problems with the film itself that it barely seems worth running down the plot, but at this point, the entire planet has seen the movie, so why not indulge ourselves?

Revenge of the Sith details the final machinations of Senator Palpatine’s Machiavellian campaign to overthrow the Republic and turn the universe into a Sith empire, ruled exclusively by himself and his evil lackeys, the Sith Lords. Apparently, there is a deep shortage of these Lords, so the Senator decides to recruit one from the ranks of the freedom loving Jedi Knights and he chooses our sullen protagonist himself, Anakin Skywalker. Having seen a vision of his pregnant girlfriend Padme’s death during childbirth, Anakin is bamboozled into believing that by giving in to the seductive ways of the Senator’s ‘Dark Side of The Force’ he can save his lover and simultaneously rule the universe at the side of the scenery chewing Palpatine. Obi Wan Kenobi has other ideas, and chops off all of Anakin’s limbs, but the newly elected Emperor Palpatine saves Anakin and turns him into a black suited Frankenstein named Darth Vader. The Emperor consolidates his power by killing off the Jedi in a sequence that hilariously echoes the final baptism sequence in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. This forces the remaining Jedi into hiding. Padme has died despite the promise of Vader’s ‘dark side’ conversion, but she has given birth to twins, a boy and a girl, who are put into hiding by the Jedi in the hopes that they may one day prove to be the prophetic saviors of the Republic.

I wish I were joking, but that’s the plot.

The film itself is a stunningly gorgeous example of the impact of computer animation on the art of filmmaking and features amazing landscapes and architecture. Of course, when inanimate objects do the best acting in your film, you generally have a problem. It is clear that Lucas’s attentions to the awesome detail of the computer imagery has pulled his attentions away from traditional Director’s duties like working with actors, creating a coherent story and making sure that shots match. There is an incredible sequence in the middle of the film, when Anakin and his lover, Padme, stand on what appear to be opposing balconies and seem to be thinking of one another with great longing. At least I assume this is what they are doing, since the editing of the sequence itself provides not a single clue as to where either character is located, what they are thinking, or why this montage is included in the story. But this is just a minor example of Lucas’s disastrous decision to literalize every single dichotomy in the plot by cutting between two individual stories, underlining the narrative relationship between the film’s moments with a thick stroke of his pen.

There are numerous examples of this cinematic bludgeoning; The battle between Yoda and Palpatine intercut with the battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin, the absolutely unnecessary battle on the Wookie planet (which seems nothing more than a clumsy way to introduce the character of Chewbacca) juxtaposed with Obi-Wan’s battle against Count Dooku. All of these sequences are visually compelling, but by cutting back and forth between them, Lucas loses the narrative steam and moral energy of the scenes themselves. This film might be the apotheosis of the Attention Deficit Disorder generation. Wielding every single screen wipe known to man with the subtlety of an amateur iMovie enthusiast, Lucas jumps across the universe so quickly that the film loses track of its own sense of time. It takes Anakin longer to get across town to visit his friends than it does the Emperor to cross the universe and save him from an almost certain death.

Of course, the jump cut machinations of the overly complicated plot could be forgiven if the story itself had any real emotion behind it. Billed as Lucas’s darkest film, Revenge of the Sith is really a straw man made up of loose ends carelessly tied together, a way of creating moral opposites where more complex relations should exist.

In discussing the Star Wars series with journalists, Lucas said that the films were originally intended to be a way of responding to the war in Vietnam. In our War in Iraq era, Revenge of the Sith has already caused a stir with its critique of political and moral absolutism (literally verbalized in the film’s climactic battle). If only things were that simple. I am not sure which is more upsetting, the fact that Lucas could compare the complexities of the Vietnam war to the moral universe of Star Wars or that people on Capitol Hill were actually concerned enough to take the time to comment on a Star Wars movie. Where are we as a society when Star Wars dominates the public debate about public leadership? I have used this space to argue for a society that takes art seriously, but maybe I was asking for too much in assuming that we could discern the wheat from the chaff.

Regardless, there is not much behind any of this bluster. Like the serials that inspired them, the Star Wars films are simple morality tales best suited for a child’s wide-eyed Saturday afternoon popcorn munching. But in trying to raise the stakes and provide a deeper, darker connection to real world issues, the already laughable plot and dialogue become something even worse; an oversimplification that reduces real life concerns into the stuff of fantasy. I don’t mean to sound a moralist; there is nothing wrong with escapism at the movies, and no harm in good clean fun. Unfortunately, the film’s wooden, nonsensical approach to storytelling provides neither. My inner six-year-old is sad that it had to end this way, but after seeing Revenge of the Sith, the adult I am today is just glad its all over.

The BRM’s Greatest Hits | In Vino Veritas: SIDEWAYS (2004)

In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!

Today’s Greatest Hits post is a review of a film that I still love dearly and one which I revisited recently. Alexander Payne’s new film The Descendants is coming in a few weeks, and a look back at his body of work brought me to Sideways, which remains my favorite of Payne’s films (sorry, George Clooney). I stand by this review; I still think this is one of the movies of the decade. Fun side note: the “local movie theaters” referenced in the first paragraph had their links removed (they are dead now), but feel free to visit your favorite online movie ticketing site to see how little the multiplex has changed…

The original date of publication was December 5, 2004.

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While other critics and film writers prepare their ‘Best of the Year’ lists, priming the Oscar pump and launching the 2005 awards season, I have decided instead to hold off on a general list of 2004′s best movies until January and take some time for an in depth exploration of what I consider to be this year’s finest film, Alexander Payne’s Sideways. For those who have not yet had the chance to see the film, I can only assume that the oncoming tsunami of award nominations and wins for this film will propel it into wider release, where it deserves to be seen by a broad audience. So, hang in there America. While Christmas With The Kranks and National Treasure currently occupy 10 screens at the local movie theater, I’m sure someone at the multiplex will wake up and realize that perhaps one or two screens might better be dedicated to showing the best movie of the year.

Alexander Payne is an intensely gifted filmmaker, and Sideways is the best film he has ever made.


Sideways

To watch each Payne film in chronological order (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and now Sideways) is to witness the development of a master filmmaker who would be a perfect match for Hollywood, if only the studios could learn how to build for the future. Instead of spending $140 million dollars on the latest Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay or (insert ego-maniacal baby boomer male filmmaker’s name here) fiasco, studios could make 4 to 5 smaller, quality films that truly deliver on the tradition of the true masters of the Hollywood form. Instead of creating another Pearl Harbor, perhaps the studios should spend their time trying to create the next Billy Wilder or George Cukor and fulfill the true promise of the Hollywood film, a promise I so desperately miss; Warm, humanist movies that tell great stories and speak to the current generation of adults who are looking to find their own lives represented on the big screen.

Sideways is, in every way, the fulfillment of this promise. Essentially an updating of the classic “buddies on a road trip” genre, the film tells the story of Miles (Paul Giamatti), an aspiring writer and gourmand trapped in the body of a middle school English teacher, and his best friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a former soap opera actor turned hunky voice over talent who is on the way to the altar. The two friends drive from Los Angeles to the wine country of Santa Barbara County in order to celebrate the last week of Jack’s bachelorhood by enjoying the good things in life; delicious food, a few games of golf, and some of the best wine in California. Actually, a lot of the best wine in California. At their first dinner stop in wine country, Miles’ insecurities are made manifest by a beautiful waitress named Maya (Virginia Madsen) who expresses an interest in his unpublished novel. Miles’ ineptitude in matters of the heart is matched only by the raging charisma of Jack, whose womanizing ways remain unimpeded by his pending wedding.

As the bachelors’ week unfolds on the screen, so too does a wonderfully authentic portrait of male friendship and a sun-drenched tour of longing, hope, and regret that is an exquisite, universally recognizable representation of adult relationships. At the center of the film is Paul Giamatti’s performance as the deeply flawed Miles. Giamatti is perhaps the most under-appreciated actor in American movies, and after his recent turns in American Splendor and Sideways, one can only hope that somehow, his greatness can be recognized and utilized properly by a film industry built on the perfectly chiseled features of young, toothless eye-candy. There is a moment in the middle of the film that is transcendent, and it is one of those moments in the movies when a director and an actor are working at the height of their powers, creating something that feels like true magic. Miles and Jack meet Maya and her sexy friend Stephanie (Sandra Oh) for dinner for the first time, and Miles gets drunk, then more drunk, and then more. In the hands of any other director, the lens would blur, speech would be slurred, a glass of water might be spilled. Payne and Giamatti instead deliver a beautiful montage of dinner conversation, the drinking of wine, the passing of wine bottles, and a pivotal drunk dial, all scored to the melancholy strains of timeless jazz. The scene feels like a note-perfect memory of every rousing, tipsy dinner party you’ve ever been involved in.

Like all great filmmakers, Payne understands the magic of the movies and in scenes like the dinner montage or the wonderful exchange between Miles and Maya about the rationale for their oenophilia that simply bristles with sexual tension (and features the best movie monologue in recent memory) shows that the essential dramatic concern of a great film is not so much action, but the human possibilities of finely drawn characters. Sideways is soaked in the possibility of inertia and the character’s potential inability to do what they so desperately want to do with their lives. The film flows not from a series of clichéd plot devices or pre-determined destinations, but from the examination of life undertaken by the characters that leads them to rediscover their own agency, and thereby, the ability to pursue their goals and their own ideals with dignity. The real story of Sideways is less the story of two male friends arriving at a fork in the road of their lives and choosing divergent paths, but more the story of two men who come to realize they have a choice in determining what is valuable, and thereby possible, in their own lives.

Like any good explorer charting the interior landscape of his characters, Payne makes certain that the visuals of the film provide a wonderful subtext and, at times, counterpoint to the dramatic action that unfolds. Watching the warm, earthy landscape of wine country roll by as Miles and Jack travel from vineyard to vineyard on a wine tasting tour, it seems impossible that the oncoming existential crises of the characters are on the horizon. The film looks and feels like a memory, the memory of a road trip taken in the 1970′s; all sunshine, winding roads, and the discovery of true love. Never before has the good life looked so good. When Miles learns of his ex-wife’s recent re-marriage, he runs down a hillside, wine bottle at his lips, as Jack pursues him into a vineyard. After running himself into exhaustion, Miles tosses the bottle aside and grabs his knees, only to be confronted by a bunch of grapes on the vine. He extends a hand and touches them with an aching tenderness; we learn all we need to know about Miles’ capacity for love in a single gesture. The film is full of wonderful, unexpected resolutions like this, and these moments, coupled with the seemingly psychic comic chemistry of Church and Giamatti, create a mood of wistful melancholy that sweeps you off of your feet.

If About Schmidt hadn’t already done so, Sideways assures that Alexander Payne, who has long been associated with the bratty, wise-ass filmmaking generation of directors like Wes Anderson, David O. Russell, and Paul Thomas Anderson (I am a fan of all of them), has broken away from the pack and established himself as a truly masterful filmmaker. There have been few films this year that are worthy candidates for recognition, let alone the price of a movie ticket, but Sideways would stand above the crowd in any year. A glance at the movie listings at any multiplex tells you all you need to know about the state of American movies; we live in the era when in-your-face, big-budget event films have become so ubiquitous, there is literally no room for the smaller, thoughtful drama in a movie theater. As television becomes more and more driven by the staged interactions of competing non-professionals on reality shows and Hollywood continues to generate enormous, $150 million spectacles (with equally massive marketing campaigns) geared toward international profitability (thanks James Cameron!), what is left for the rest of us who long for quiet, thought-provoking stories that, through the beauty of well-written drama, show us something of ourselves we might not otherwise have found? Sideways is a simple revolt against big Hollywood; a welcome reminder that the best thing a story can do is to show us the truth about who we are and who we might aspire to become. If only more of us were looking.

The 2011 New York Film Festival | Collective Destiny: LE HAVRE

Aki Kaurismäki is the cinema’s hardest working modernist, a director for whom a commitment to a particular aesthetic universe and a singular style has provided an incredibly fertile landscape in which to explore a variety of stories. Typically, Kaurismäki dabbles in darkly comic, noirish tales of heartbreak and triumph that are distinguished by their flat, presentational performances and gorgeous, painterly compositions. And, equally typically, the Finnish director aims his satirical eye at the Scandinavian cultures, focusing on the working class underbelly of those proudly inclusive nations. But in his surprisingly charming new film Le Havre, Kaurismäki heads to the titular port city in France to explore something bigger than his usual concerns; the shared interests and alliances between working class people and Europe’s ever-expanding immigrant communities.


Le Havre

Le Havre is the story of Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a shoeshine working the streets of the city by day and enjoying the stability of a long, happy marriage to Arletty (Kati Outinen, who fans will remember from The Man Without A Past) by night. During one of his lunch breaks, Marcel encounters Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an undocumented migrant boy from Francophone Africa who escaped the clutches of local authorities when the shipping container in which he and his family were stowed away was mistakenly delivered to Le Havre instead of England. Marcel soon offers Idrissa shelter from local law enforcement, lead by detective Monet (Jean-Pierre Daroussin, who is pure Kaurismaäki; noir, deadpan and hilarious), whose search for the missing boy will lead him to Marcel’s doorstep. But with Arletty in the hospital and Idrissa having a mind of his own, Marcel begins to depend on his small community of friends– the owner of the local boulangerie, the café proprietress and the local green grocer– to help him meet his familial obligations while searching for a way to reunite Idrissa with his family in England. The resulting solution is so hilarious, so perfectly Kaurismäki, I will refrain from spilling the beans here. Needless to say, happy endings are indeed possible and seemingly pre-determined by fate and the power of miracles.

Like most of Kaurismäki’s films, every frame of Le Havre is beautifully designed and stripped to its essentials, allowing the sumptuous lighting to give the movie a classic sensibility. It is this modernist aesthetic, and here I mean modernist in the literal sense, that allows Kaurismäki’s irony the space to resonate; there may be no shoeshine in the history of movies with such a beautiful collection of mid-century objects. The analogue clocks on the walls, the rotary telephones, the period vases that hold a single flower, the furniture, the appliances– Kaurismäki’s world is completely, wonderfully anomalous to contemporary life without being “period” in any true sense of the word. The cinematography and lighting design, created once again by longtime Kaurismäki cinematographer Timo Salminen, could come straight out of, say, Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A, but they also carry a painterly warmth that would not be out of the place in the work of Edward Hopper. It is a treat to see these choices put in service of the lives of working people, whose lives, dilemmas and passions are heightened by their location within Kaurismäki’s dramatic universe.


Le Havre

But Le Havre is about more than simply inserting everyday life into a specific aesthetic universe; it is also about politics, about community and responsibility, about the need for Europeans to embrace the changing faces of their societies. The film, which premiered at Cannes this year, comes at a frightening time for European politics; arriving in the midst of economic trouble in the eurozone countries (a group to which Finland and France both belong), with austerity measures clashing with immigration laws and cultural assimilation and with the looming threat of continued political violence like the tragic attacks in Norway this past summer, Le Havre is a much more daring film than its warm surfaces may suggest. It is a bold statement in many ways, a deeply ironic distillation of cultures in crisis. By placing this story in the midst of a working class community, by aligning the interests of immigrants and natives against the authorities and making an argument for a humanist approach to cultural identity, Kaurismäki shows the just how deep his particular brand of satire can cut. Le Havre is a savvy play for hearts and minds, a daring piece of art, expertly made, that understands what is at stake for Europe but which, in the tradition of the best gallows humor, still finds a way to smile in spite of it all.

The 2011 New York Film Festival | Portraits

It was a great year at The New York Film Festival, but what else is new? It remains my favorite film festival, a near-perfect annual survey of the kind of cinema I love. I will be reproducing my NYFF coverage here as part of the migration from indieWIRE, but writing aside, I was excited this year to break out my camera during a few of the NYFF press conferences and grab some photos. I didn’t make it to every conference (although I only missed a few), but I really enjoyed taking pictures this year. Lots of fun. Enjoy!

Michael Fassbender
Michael Fassbender, Shame

Elizabeth Olsen
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Jean-Pierre Dardenne, The Kid With A Bike

Bérénice Bejo
Bérénice Bejo, The Artist

Richard Peña
Richard Peña, Program Director, The Film Society Of Lincoln Center

Mia Hansen-Løve
Mia Hansen-Løve, Goodbye First Love

Luc Dardenne
Luc Dardenne, The Kid With A Bike

Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen, Shame

Jean Dujardin
Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Sean Durkin
Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Lola Créton
Lola Créton, Goodbye First Love

James Cromwell
James Cromwell, The Artist

Scott Foundas
Scott Foundas, Associate Program Director, The Film Society Of Lincoln Center

Michel Haznavicius
Michel Haznavicius, The Artist

If you like these photos, feel free to reproduce them online under the Creative Commons license, but please toss me a credit. Also, I am available for weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, Christenings… *ha*

The BRM’s Greatest Hits | Wither Grassroots (2005)

In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!

Today’s Greatest Hits post is a piece that I keep returning to in my thinking as a film programmer; the massive problem we have getting audiences connected with a wide array of foreign films. I think the argument has changed somewhat with the rise of VOD and the loss of a few other companies (Wellspring R.I.P.), but the problem remains some six years later.

The original date of publication was January 8, 2005.

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Wither Grassroots (or How Commerce is Hurting Foreign Film in America)


The World

In a recent article, Anthony Kaufman, one of my favorite indieWIRE bloggers and writers, presented an optimistic assessment of the state of foreign film in America. The article focused almost exclusively on the distribution business, citing box office numbers as the ultimate gauge of success or failure in the broader culture. Of course, if any domestic film studio were to utilize the standard of ‘breaking the million dollar mark’ as a cause for celebration, there would be some executive’s head sent rolling down Sunset Blvd. Clearly, foreign film is being judged by a, shall we say, special set of standards. The article also presents a key quote from Ryan Werner of Wellspring, one that I find pretty chilling:

We didn’t expect these films to make huge amounts of money,” says Ryan Werner, head of distribution for Wellspring, which released both “Goodbye Dragon Inn” and “Notre Musique.” “But I think we’re going to have to be more careful about doing smaller films, like ‘Goodbye Dragon Inn’ in the future. It’s not like we can’t make them work, but I had to do everything in-house. Was it worth it at the end of the day? I guess it is.

Clearly a cause for celebration when a wonderful film like Goodbye Dragon Inn is a used as a cautionary tale. But the numbers are encouraging, and the domestic box office has, in fact, increased. Let’s say cautious optimism, shall we?

Taking a similarly celebratory approach to the state of the world is A.O. Scott’s recent N.Y. Times Magazine piece featuring Jia Zhangke’s The World as a central metaphor for the state of foreign film’s relationship to isolationism and personal alienation. I would recommend that everyone read this article (it is one of my favorite pieces of film writing this year) but to save time, I’ll quote the following, which pretty much sums up Scott’s argument:

“Movies may be universal, but they are universal in radically distinct ways. Some of them we regard as foreign, a word I use with some trepidation. Though my purpose here is to wave the flag for movies from around the world, it is a banner whose slogans make me cringe a little. The phrase ‘foreign film’ is, after all, freighted with connotations of preciousness and snobbery, and too often accompanied by dismissive modifiers like ‘difficult,’ ‘obscure’ and ‘depressing’ (all of which I happen to regard as virtues, but never mind). Our own commercial cinema is increasingly devoted to dispensing accessibility, comfort and familiarity, which can also be virtues. It is not necessary to rank, or to choose… In any case, I am most concerned with American audiences, and in particular with the parochialism that results from living in a country with a film industry so powerful and productive, so frank and cheerful in its imperial ambitions, that it threatens to overshadow everything else. It is not just the setting and content of a movie like ‘The World’ that may seem foreign but also its visual strategy and storytelling methods, and above all its unsentimental commitment to the depiction of ordinary life, to a kind of realism that is in some ways more alien to us than the reality it construes. Hollywood studios, as they try to protect their dominant position in the global entertainment market, are ever more heavily invested in fantasy, in conjuring counterfeit worlds rather than engaging the one that exists, and in the technological R&D required to expand the horizons of novelty and sensation. And while we, along with everybody else, often go to the movies to escape from the pressures and difficulties of the actual world, we also sometimes go to discover it.”

That is to say, if I may combine the two Tony’s arguments, that there is an audience for foreign film in America, that more people than ever are recognizing the commonality of real-life (or dramatic representations of real-life) experiences across cultures and are using foreign films as way to explore and understand one another. I certainly agree, and count myself among that audience as one who loves to examine the broadest scope of real life experience by consuming as diverse array of foreign films as I can.

However, there is a fundamental disconnect between the creative community, telling stories that bring the world a little closer together, and audiences, who enjoy the escapism of both fantasy and what I will call, because I can’t think of anything better, ‘exotic realism’ (or cinema as insight into another culture or lifestyle.) That disconnect is the international film business, and the nature of distribution in America, by both foreign and domestic companies. Putting Hollywood aside, and thereby putting aside 99% or so of all screen space in America (let’s be real), the argument I wish to make is not the Us vs. Them battle between the studios and foreign productions for the hearts, minds, and wallets of American filmgoers. I believe we can honestly admit that Los Angeles won that battle years ago. Instead, I am talking about the small group of domestic and foreign film distributors and sales agents who make agreements as to what will and will not be seen by American audiences.

First, some background. My perspective on this issue is not one of a businessperson who is trying to make money from the distribution of films. Without distributors dedicated to bringing foreign film to America, things would be much worse than they already are, and I salute them for their advocacy of foreign titles. Instead, my perspective is that of a film festival programmer, a person who is working in the non-profit world in order to find what I consider to be powerful, resonant, and diverse films and to share them with communities that might not otherwise be able to see them. I assume that most programmers are like me; they love film and they love being able to curate a program for their audiences that is challenging and gives voice to filmmakers, foreign and domestic, who otherwise would not be heard from in the marketplace. However, it is increasingly difficult to bring foreign titles to US festival audiences.

For foreign filmmakers, the process of finding a US audience usually begins at the film festivals with large markets, Toronto, Berlin, and Cannes, followed by the AFM at the end of the year. Note that three of the largest film markets in the world are outside of the US. If a US distributor buys a foreign title at a market, the film comes into festival/theatrical play based upon its targeted release date. Of course, foreign titles with distribution in the US are pretty much treated by distributors as domestic titles, and each company has their own strategy, each of which I believe has valid reasoning behind it. Festivals also receive a smattering of foreign submissions, although in some cases, internationally focused festivals like Miami, LAIFF, etc., excel at finding international films that may not yet have distribution deals in the US. These festivals often work with foreign sales agents, and I am sure some of them pay upwards of $1600 a film in print rental fees (a different, and equally disturbing, point).

This is my greatest frustration as a programmer. While independent filmmakers long ago learned the value of the festival circuit as a launching pad in the quest for distribution, a place where they can find an audience for their films and try to gather momentum, attention, and press coverage for their films with the ultimate goal of securing a distribution deal, many foreign film companies seem to be focused exclusively on markets. This means that many great films are withheld from smaller, non-market festivals that may generate interest and buzz, instead playing only at markets (and thus primarily for buyers) and hoping for a sale.

As an example of this situation, I will confess that, in my recent programming efforts, I have contacted several foreign sales agents for titles and have been almost universally rejected. The reason always given? ‘We are hoping to secure distribution, so we don’t want to play anywhere else until we have finalized a deal.’ I have searched high and low for these titles at other festivals as well, festivals I assume are programmed by people who are also interested in broadening access to foreign titles, and the films are nowhere to be seen. How can it benefit a film to be silent in the marketplace? I can guarantee that almost none of the films I (and I assume others) have sought to feature at a domestic festival, some of which recently appeared on indieWIRE’s Top Fifteen Undistributed Films list– none will see the light of day in a commercial film theater in the United Sates. Anyone else wondering WHY these films aren’t getting distribution in the US? It’s simple. There is no campaign to build demand.

What really unnerves me about the ‘distribution only’ approach taken by most foreign companies is this bizarre (to my mind anyway) idea that by playing US festivals, the film’s chances of finding a deal are diminished. Maybe I am naïve film festival employee who doesn’t understand the cut-throat nature of the film business, but is there a distributor reading this article who, after expressing interest in the commercial potential of a foreign title, would call off a deal because of a series of festival screenings to build word of mouth? I sometimes receive the same argument from domestic distributors, people who cite a film festival play as cutting into the bottom line, a blowoff of potential ticket sales (and revenues). And of course, rarely if ever do the titles in question ever go on to explode in the marketplace. In fact, these films often never even make it to the town where they would have been programmed in the festival. Certainly, Hollywood’s absolute rejection of film festivals as a potential marketing tool and word of mouth builder is an example of the commercial mindset at its most overblown. And while I understand the desire to maximize profits for any business, for foreign films working in the slimmest margins of the American film business, I am dumbfounded as to how to explain this approach to film marketing.

Of course, maybe the argument is that film festivals don’t really have impact as a marketing tool anymore. As the independent film business has grown into a series of studio owned ‘mini-majors’ over the past few years, the importance of regional film launches at smaller festivals may have become passé. When companies can do a major launch at a festival like Sundance or Toronto, why even bother with the smaller cities and communities full of film fans glued to the internet, alternative newspapers, and national TV shows and magazines? Additionally, with the ever-increasing number of film festivals, the availability of films, premieres and talent from these companies must be reaching the saturation point. And so, putting festivals off to the side, how else can we maintain a film culture, preserve a grassroots network of festivals, film lovers, and professionals who I truly believe love and want to see the wider acceptance of foreign work? What other institutions are in place aside from the random smattering of art houses, museums, and festivals to provide a screen and audience for these works? I don’t think there are any.

I personally believe the ‘sales and profits only’ strategy to be fatally flawed, and I would argue that the relatively small business done by foreign titles, and their almost complete absence from the non-urban consciousness, can be partially blamed on the fact that it has become increasingly difficult for advocates to build interest in these films. Films like those listed in the indieWIRE undistributed list don’t remain undistributed because there is no interest in them, they are undistributed because they are being treated like rarified objects, goods only for sale. Without broader inclusion in film festivals, cinema clubs, film society screenings, and the like, there will never be any more screen space. From where will the demand grow if not these audiences? There are a million and one people out there who are willing to help create a market for films they love. How can we spread the good news from the international creative community without access to the projects?

The film community in the US needs to do a better job of presenting foreign titles, of fighting tooth and nail for every screen and every film in order to allow the foreign film market to grow. I believe American distributors of foreign film are, for the most part, trying their best to maximize distribution for their films. They are, after all, serving the bottom line. But I believe without a grass roots push, without building the same kind of momentum and community that was built around independent film in the 1990′s, foreign film will continue to be underrepresented on American screens. Foreign companies, domestic distributors, film festivals, and film lovers can all pull together to change things, but first, we need to examine the state of affairs, admit to our flaws, and start working together to bring about changes. Otherwise, A.O. Scott’s words may ring truer than he intended; The theme park in The World may indeed serve as the central metaphor for the foreign film market in the US– a desolate, under-utilized curiosity, representing the long, unbridgeable distance between people. Leave it to the dollar to make it so.

The BRM’s Greatest Hits | Kings And Queen (2004)

In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!

Today’s Greatest Hits post is a piece that is very important to me; my first piece of writing about the work of Arnaud Desplechin. There will be more of Desplechin in the days ahead; no other filmmaker thrills and moves me so deeply. I have had the chance to talk with him a few times and I’ll be reproducing those interviews here as well, but for today, a chance to revisit my initial reaction to what remains one of my favorite films, a chance to revisit the story of my discovery of Desplechin’s work. Today is a rainy day in October, 15 years (ouch) after I first saw My Sex Life on another rainy, blustery October day in another city in, seemingly, another life time. A perfect time to revisit this post…

The original date of publication was September 16, 2004.

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Toronto 2004 REVIEW | Rois et Reine (Kings and Queen)

Transformation is a powerful thing. The first time I ever saw a film by Arnaud Desplechin was one of the cinematic moments that changed my life. Close your eyes with me. Imagine that feeling of walking into a movie theater unaware and walking out a new person. It’s 1996, I’m 25 years old and living on poverty wages in Washington, D.C. spending my days in an exhausting government job and my nights hopping from one movie theater to the next. My favorite of the bunch, The Biograph, had closed and been replaced by a CVS pharmacy. All that remained, aside from the relatively mainstream fare, was the snobby Kennedy Center and The Key Theater on Wisconsin Ave., one block north of M Street (it is now a Banana Republic, a fact which makes it hard for me to walk though the doors of that particular chain store.) The theater was well kept, and I slid in, dripping wet from the rain on the streets, grabbed a seat near the back and watched what has become one of the cornerstone films of my life; My Sex Life…or How I Got Into An Argument. There are moments you never forget at the movies, and I can remember almost every detail of that night; the smell of the space (popcorn and expensive perfume), the shape of the head of the person in front of me, the texture of the floor beneath my feet, the lumpy contours of the cushion in my seat. The epic scope of the film, the honest exploration of real and complicated feelings, those messy interactions of people my own age; it was literally transformative. Matthieu Amalric’s performance as Paul Dedalus, so flawed, selfish, egotistical, manipulative, and so very alive, resonated with me in a powerful way, but so too did Emanuelle Devos as the heartbroken Esther and Jeanne Balibar as the manipulative Valérie. Every character in the film feels like a part of me. The jilted lover, the lothario, the confused student, the rival– all of them share something of me, and the impression they made on me in my mid-20′s, was profound. The cast in the film has gone on to become the face of contemporary French cinema, and seeing them perform in other films (particularly Devos in Read My Lips, Balibar in Va Savoir? and Amalric in another favorite, Late August/Early September) feels like spending time with old friends whom I miss dearly. I have since seen every film Desplechin has ever made (save for Love Without Pity, which I have been unable to track down), and when I saw that his latest feature, Rois et Reine was rescheduled for a new screening time at Toronto, I jumped at the chance to spend my night with my favorite director. I have literally seen over 22 films since the week began, many of them excellent, but no film has moved me as powerfully as Rois et Reine.


Kings and Queen

Rois et Reine reunites Devos and Amalric on-screen as Nora and Ismaël (yes, the literary puns certainly apply), former lovers whose lives have diverged onto two very different paths. As Nora confronts the death of her father, Ismaël is forced into a psychiatric hospital in order to prevent him from hurting himself with his erratic behavior. The two story lines could not be more divergent at first; the gravity of watching a beloved daughter handle the death of her elderly father played against the hilarity of Ismaël ‘s own confrontation with his anxieties, his unhelpful therapist, and his drugged up lawyer. But the thematic overlaps become clear as soon as Nora’s father checks into the hospital and we start to see the institution at work– the doctors are unable to save his life, much like they are unable to free Ismaël from his neuroses. Similarly, the dysfunction of Ismaël’s family life is played against the strength of Nora’s character and her devotion to her familial responsibilities, a strength that comes into question when Nora makes a profound discovery after her father’s death (to give away more would ruin the experience of the film.) And so, Desplechin juggles rhymes and themes much like the poets and philosphers his characters constantly quote. Life is comedy and tragedy, illness and vitality, love and death, cruelty and compassion, crime and charity. All of these qualities are reflected in both Nora and Ismaël’s experiences, and if in the beginning our sympathies lie with Nora’s grief at the expense of fully empathizing with Ismaël’s pleas for freedom, by the end of the film both characters have been so thoroughly changed and made equivocal by their actions, we come to find worth and humanity in both of their experiences.

Desplechin has once again taken the epic approach to intense personal experiences, but his confidence and ability as a director to illuminate life through the power of small details shines as brightly as it ever has. The use of music in the film ALONE could warrant a 5 page review. Desplechin uses music like no other director working today. The choices he makes sometimes literally underscore specific emotions. Other times, music is a tool to rhyme situations and characters. This affords him a powerful weapon in his creative arsenal, allowing him to use sound to add layer upon layer of meaning in his films. I am surprised that more filmmakers have not picked up on his technique and utilized it. On top of his incredibly intelligent presentation of the rhythms of the personal moment (the director’s signature jump cuts within a shot are deployed to great effect) Desplechin proves that he is as profoundly talented a comedic director as he is a dramatic one. Amalric’s performance is as good as you are likely to see in any comedy this year, and the visions of him break-dancing to a French rap song during a group therapy session and crashing a college party in a theatrical cape will forever bring me pleasure. But once again, much like her powerhouse turn in La femme de Gilles, the movie is practically posessed by the subtle beauty of Devos’ performance as Nora. Her portrayal of a woman trying to keep it all together while being engulfed by loss is exceptional (Devos is a world class crier), and the work I have seen from her in the past two years alone has launched her into my personal pantheon of great actresses. I could simply watch her forever. Desplechin is a great actor’s director, and Rois et Reine is all the proof anyone should require. I was moved so deeply by the character’s choices, became so invested in their lives, I truly wished the movie never ended and I could spend more time with them.

This time, however, I was certainly more experienced as a fan of Desplechin’s work and as a moviegoer. Despite my own fatigue after days of endless screenings, I felt so alive in that theater, was so actively engaged in the story, the filmmaking, the performances, I was literally vibrating when I walked out into the night, alone with my thoughts. I clutched my bag against the dark night and let my experiences of Desplechin’s work echo down the empty streets of downtown Toronto, a feeling that filled me with that rainy night on Wisconsin Avenue back in 1996. Transformed again, as new and as alive as the first time.


Kings and Queen

The BRM’s Greatest Hits | In Defense Of Michael Moore (2004)

In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!

Today’s inaugural Greatest Hits post is the first piece I ever posted on my blog, a defense of the non-fiction films of Michael Moore. It was a controversial post, drawing unexpected ire from some of my colleagues. Looking back, I still stand by this post, especially the thoughts about the relationship between documentary filmmaking and “facts.”

The original date of publication was June 14, 2004.

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In Defense Of Michael Moore

On Saturday, May 22, 2004, an extraordinary event took place in the Grand Théatre Lumiére (perhaps the greatest movie theater in the world,) in Cannes, France. Michael Moore, former Flint resident and America’s provocateur number one, was awarded the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, without question the greatest prize in world cinema, making him the first documentary filmmaker to win since Jacques Cousteau won in 1956 for The Silent World. The award was given for Moore’s new film Fahrenheit 9/11 and was the culmination of a long, strange journey for the film and filmmaker.

Michael Moore is a polarizing figure in the Flint community, where many believe he is responsible for portraying Flint in a negative light, holding up the community’s struggles and failures, which are indeed legion, to national scrutiny in an unflattering, and often satirical manner. There are also those who agree with his tactics and his storytelling techniques, recognizing that in order to illustrate his arguments about the nature of power in America, it is important to demonstrate the reality of the economic and political abandonment of working class communities. Whatever side of the Moore divide you choose to fall on (I am in the camp of the latter group), there can be no doubting his effectiveness as a documentary filmmaker. In fact, Moore’s brand of pot-stirring is so divisive and powerful, there are several websites that have been established for the sole purpose of attempting to debunk his films and his arguments, the most salacious of them going so far as to say that ‘Moore fixes upon a conclusion and, when the data do not exist, simply invents them.’

The truth is that all film is storytelling, and in the case of documentary, even more so. Whereas a fictional films can utilize invented scenarios and dramatic events in order to illustrate greater human truths (see The Last Temptation of Christ for a clear illustration of how this can be as divisive as non-fiction), documentary films must generate drama from the stuff of real life, and then only what is captured by the camera. In addition to its dramatic charge, a great documentary, like all great films, must have singular and powerful point of view; it must make an argument. Some documentaries, like the classic Salesman or Grey Gardens by the Maysles Brothers, or Titticut Follies by the incomparable Frederick Wiseman, use the technique of removing the filmmaker from the proceedings on the screen, allowing the documentarian to make his point of view clearly known in the editing suite, through the selection and ordering of scenes and materials. Moore had great success in Roger and Me by establishing himself as an onscreen character, a piece of the story integral to his subjective style of narrative. But don’t be fooled. All documentary film is predicated on a subjective narrative. There is a subject, but the artist behind the camera records and selects how the film looks, what footage will be used, in what order, and to what end. Documentary film is not news reportage; it has more in common with fictional cinema, simply deriving its dramatic content from real life events. In order to make great art, the documentarian is charged only with telling the truth.

Of course, this calls into question the fundamental notion of truth in film. Is the truth of a situation or event only to be told chronologically, through as many subjective viewpoints as possible, and presented as broadly as possible so the audience can glean the so-called objective reality? That may be the goal of scholarship, but it has never been the domain of great art. What art is and should always be about is a filtering of events and ideas through the artist’s sensibilities, to be presented back to an audience through the artist’s point of view. There is no doubt that Michael Moore has a unique and powerful point of view, yet some still wish to believe that a passionate work of art, commenting on the world in which we live, should seek objectivity and balance. Having seen what ‘balance’ has wrought on the supposedly objective television news business (the appallingly partisan Fox News Channel, a channel whose jingoistic, hawkish ‘reportage’ has lowered the bar for civil discourse in our country), one can only hope that balance and objectivity be forever withheld as criteria for artistic validity.

Cannes has always been a hothouse meeting between art and politics, never more notoriously so than in 1968, when filmmakers (among them François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard) shut the festival down in solidarity with student protesters. So when Quinten Tarrantino, the president of this year’s Cannes jury, announced Moore’s name as the winner of the Palme d’Or, not only was the artistic credibility of Moore’s work irrevocably validated, his cinematic approach and tactics were also brought into the official pantheon of great art. Of course, Moore’s art and his politics are inseparable. Politics are the center of Moore’s arguments and his artistic vision, and based on his body of work, they clearly inspire his artistic choices, admittedly not always for the best. In previous films, Moore’s use of his on-screen persona has been a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is the power of the camera and his unflinching desire to meet confrontation head-on that has enabled him to capture some incredibly profound and dramatic moments on film. On the other, by so firmly placing himself in the center of his narratives, he has allowed many of his critics to associate his personality solely with his politics and ignore his artistry. This technique, however, is gaining in popularity, and a slew of new documentary filmmakers, inspired by Moore’s approach (most notably Morgan Spurlock’s must-see Super Size Me), have begun to create works of art that not only document current political stories, but also track the filmmaker’s subjective journey in search of the truth.

Of course, no film really matters if it is never seen by an audience, and the Disney Corporation’s refusal to allow its subsidiary Miramax to release Fahrenheit 9/11 because it doesn’t want to be involved with so political a film during an election year was not only a failed attempt to silence political speech, but also a decision that promises to generate even more money at the box-office for Lions Gate and IFC. As Moore finalized his new distribution deal, Disney continued to pour gasoline on the firestorm that the film created. All of this means an exciting time for documentary film fans, and the certainty of Fahrenheit 9/11‘s broad distribution. And of course, Michael Moore gets to bask in the glow of his Cannes win. Politics aside, Moore’s name is now listed among the giants of world cinema, names like Buñuel, Wilder, Welles, Fellini, and Kurosawa. I believe, like any community that nurtures and inspires a great artist, Flint should celebrate this incredible honor right along with him.

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