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.


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.

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