(Note: This interview first ran in Hammer To Nail in February of 2014. It is re-printed here to preserve a personal copy. )

I love talking movies with Arnaud Desplechin. The care and artistry he puts into every one of his films creates a platform for deep analysis and conversation about his work, and he never disappoints. His new film Jimmy P: Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian, which re-teams him with Mathieu Amalric and features a commanding performance by Benicio del Toro, has been somewhat misunderstood by American critics since its debut at Cannes last year. I sat down with Desplechin during his visit to the New York Film Festival last October to discuss the film and continue an ongoing conversation about his work, some of the finest in the modern cinema.

Back Row Manifesto: The first thing to talk about with this film is the book Reality And Dream: Psychotherapy of A Plains Indian by George Devereux. Can you talk about how you found this book and what inspired you to make a film from such an unlikely source?

Arnaud Desplechin: The book is in two parts. You have the very theoretical part in the opening chapters, but when I bought the book I opened it to the middle and I found these dialogues which, like Madelene says in the film, looked much more like a theatrical piece or a play than a psychological treatment. It was just the dialogues between the patient and the analyst and I thought it was fantastic because I realized you had this process of psychoanalysis presented verbatim, which is fairly unique in the history of psychoanalysis. And what I loved in reading the forward of this book was that it was not for some noble reason that we had this record, but it was for a very humble reason; these two guys were bored to death in Topeka, far from home the two of them, one being far from Montana and the other being far from New York, and so they had nothing to do but work together. And so, I fell in love with these two characters who are two outsiders, but who are very different, opposites; you have the “savage”, who is the shrink, and you have the very “civilized” man, who is the Native American. I loved this confrontation between these two temperaments and I thought it was fantastic material for a film.

Arnaud Desplechin

BRM: This is not the first time you’ve dealt with psychoanalysis in your films. It’s almost a common thread; there are those great scenes between Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric in Kings and Queen, etc. In your films, mental health “issues” are used as a way to punish outsiders, to keep them separated from society.

AD: I guess it is a threat. To me, it is the threat of madness. Even if it is expressed in a comical way like in Kings and Queen where the character is not that mad but is very reasonable in an odd way, still, there is a threat. In La Vie Des Morts you have the question of whether this cousin killed himself through madness or some other reason, so it’s always a threat which is surrounding the characters; will they cross the frontier between mental health and mental disease? I guess it is something I have improved in my own life, you know, this fear of becoming “mad”, which is the biggest threat I can imagine.

BRM: What creates that fear in you? There is this tradition between artists and madness; a lot has been written about schizophrenia and the creative process…

AD: I can only answer this in a concrete way by referring to my films, not in an abstract way. It’s terrible because in this film, you have in Jimmy, who is simply suffering from headaches, simple headaches, but it starts to become more than that; he starts to lose his hearing, he starts to lose his vision and because of this he says, “I don’t know whether I am awake or asleep.” And then, the hospital says, “This guy is mad and you have to put him in jail.” All because of this one line he says. And suddenly, the guy can be declared mad. You were mentioning schizophrenia; a friend of mine, who is a psychiatrist, was explaining to me that from time to time he meets schizophrenic cases and he would warn them, “Okay, right now you’re stable, but I know, because I have studied, that you are suffering from schizophrenia. We can’t cure this. And this also means that one day, you will have an hallucination, and see, for example, a dog transforming itself into a devil or something way out. But don’t worry, it is because of your disease.” And I said to him, “Come on! Don’t worry?! How can you not worry about that?” (laughs) So, yes, there is a very thin line between mental health and illness.

BRM: And what about you in your day to day work? I don’t know what your process is in terms of your day to day writing, filmmaking, etc. When you are working on these stories, do you feel you have to personally grapple with that? Not that you might be ill, but you are grappling with that line in others…

AD: I think that it cures me. Life and jogging are curing me (laughs), because it is a very boring practice that I love. I love writing, which is a very long process and very dull and stern, but I love it because it brings me to reality. You have to work on the scenes and you have to make them spectacular. So, there is nothing mythic, nothing mad about the writing process or preparing a film; it’s all so practical, you know? That is my favorite moment in making a film—when you are creating and assembling everything during the prep, which is the dullest moment of the making of a film. But it’s my favorite moment because suddenly all of your ideas are coming to life, it’s very exciting. But it’s a very, very dull process before that, I think.

BRM: Another thread in this film that ties it closely to your previous work is the idea of family and this terrible obligation to his family that is haunting Jimmy—his daughter, his dead ex-wife, although he considers himself a widower, his sister. This is in all of your films, this struggle between someone struggling to be who they are fighting against who they feel obligated to be. In the book, these realizations about his sister, his mother help lead him to an understanding of himself. Can you talk about how you translated this into the film?

AD: This is what I found in the book as well. I was talking to Mathieu (Amalric) about this and I remember him telling me, “You will be in big, big trouble with this film. It’s a double portrait—it’s you as a mad shrink, but it’s also you as Jimmy.” So, he was perhaps asking me if I would identify myself to Jimmy or to him, the character of Devereux he was playing. I am not sure which he would have preferred, but the thing that I love with Jimmy is his fear of women. The fact that his sister is so nice, but she’s essentially fathering him—she’s not mothering him at all. She’s bringing him to the hospital, but in a very nice way, she’s putting him in jail. So, you have the threatening figure of the older sister, which is a thing I already filmed in La Sentinelle—I don’t know where it is coming from. Sure, I have an older sister and a younger sister, so I don’t know if I am thinking about my older or younger sister, but it’s something that I love.

There is also this thing that always fascinates me and it’s a hidden motif for Jimmy: his bad relationship with his mother and not speaking about her. It’s like the opening lines with Devereux; the shrink is guessing the Native American word for this, and he says, “Your mother was a manly hearted woman?” So, there is this very severe mother, plus this contradiction that while she was severe, she also had intercourse in front of Jimmy after the death of her husband. You have this discourse coming from women for Jimmy and he has to recover from that, so we have this scene where he is listing all of his traumas, which I think is very important, because we see him making some kind of progress.

But then, you have this scene that is in the book and a scene I really love; it’s probably the deepest reason for me to adapt this book. It is where Jimmy gives an almost novelistic account of his life, saying, “This is the way I lived and this is the long story about Jane” (his ex-wife). At this point in his psychoanalysis, Jimmy is allowed to be his own narrator, able to tell us the “novel” that he has been through and in that sense it seems to me he is very close to Thomas Hardy’s characters, feeling that they have been cursed and suddenly being able to explain their experiences in the form of a novel of which they are the heroes. So, it’s very heartbreaking, he thinks, “I fucked up everything and this is how it happened.” You have this massive novel appearing in the middle of this film. But I don’t think it’s necessarily the deepest session he has with Devereux, it’s just the one time he is allowed to be his own narrator. Period. I am sure that five years later, he will have a different way of expressing the “novel” he has been through, but at this moment, this is the way for him to recount his own story.

BRM: And in the film, there is no great “revelation” that he discovers through this narrative act that allows him to feel he has overcome his past, it is just telling the story—the process is the cure.

AD: It is something I worked a lot on with the co-writers, because it’s something that annoys me in films dealing with psychoanalysis, the idea of revelation. Am I too atheist to believe in any form of revelation? I guess I am. I don’t think that one day, I will go to a shrink, I will say one line, and suddenly I will realize, “This is what I’ve been through!”—a hidden trauma or whatever. I don’t think this exists inside of me or of any character, something hidden that comes to light and suddenly, you are cured. I don’t believe in any revelation or magic tricks. I think it’s just a process. So, how to avoid this in the script, without the big moment, the tears? It’s not that I don’t like it; I do like it in other films, but I don’t buy it for me or my films.

BRM: How do you feel audiences have received that? People are so conditioned to expect that moment and this film refuses to give it to them.

AD: I guess they respond to it because the film is surprisingly sweeter and more gentle than the “sturm und drang” of many of the films that deal with psychoanalysis. And the film does have a revelation in it, during his relapse, when he starts having his headaches again and then he’s cured because, as the doctor tells him, he will have relapses all his life. And that’s the cure, the fact that this is his life and life will happen to him. Headaches, love, boredom—it will all happen and now that he can face that this is his life. That is his cure. That’s his revelation.

BRM: This is the second film you’ve made in English, another adaptation, this time a French writer writing in English, and while the film focuses on the dialogues, the book itself begins with an entire ethnographic study that traces, in a very political way, the treatment of Native Americans by predominantly white American culture. That is addressed in the film in a more subtle way. How did you weave these two things together in the script?

AD: The book is very elliptical, because you really have to piece together the chronology of events, as they are so interrelated and told through dialogues, ethnography, etc. It was a challenge for us. For example, the book tries to hide Jimmy’s identity, so it refuses to identify his tribe, but we wanted to know who he really was, which tribe, so we had to uncover that he was a Blackfoot from Browning, Montana. In the book, he tells us Jimmy’s mother lived near the grave of a popular writer, so of course, we had to find the grave, and that allowed us to find Browning. You also mentioned a French writer writing in English, and so we knew that Devereux’s wife had to have a great influence over the text because his English was worse than mine (laughs). So, I started by doing the adaptation in French, and then using the book, we translated that, but I didn’t want to do it like Esther Kahn where we simply translated the French script into English; I wanted to adapt the script with a co-writer, so Kent Jones came on with me.

It was so lovely; I sent him a rough draft of it, I had not done the ending, there were gaps here and there, it was unfinished. It still felt French and that I had to find the right language for it, that made it feel American. So, I sent it to Kent and said, “Could you help me find a writer you think could understand the period and the script?” and I mentioned I was on deadline. I didn’t hear from him for a day and a half and I was thinking, “Come on, this guy was supposed to be my friend!” And then I got a very short e-mail back saying, “You might never forgive me, but I had to do this…” and he attached the whole script that he had adapted and re-translated. So, I assumed that was a proposal from him, and that’s how we undertook the second step of making the script together.

As for the politics of race, Kent really was the one, this is a very American kind of thing. Kent showed me The Exiles, which I didn’t know, but is a film that just broke my heart because it was pre-1967, and the goal was not to take pride in your roots, but to assimilate. The dream was to become Elvis Presley. So, Jimmy had this shitty life before the treatment and after, and it’s a big part of the book, he still had a tough life. The politics didn’t change, but dealing with the fact that his life will be tougher than a Caucasian life, that’s part of the cure. So, we looked at The Exiles, I looked at John Huston’s Let There Be Light which, again, being French, I didn’t know this film…

BRM: Did you look at Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which also drew heavily on Huston’s film?

AD: For sure. It was fascinating to me, the difference, because you have two characters dealing with words, but in The Master, you have a magician. In my film, Devereaux is not a magician, he is not a shaman, he wants to be equal with his partner, he doesn’t want to be “The Master.” But The Master is fantastic, you are depicting a relationship where they are demonstrating how to empower someone, and in Jimmy P., it has nothing to do with empowerment. It’s really about friendship. But the influence of Let There Be Light, I just loved it.

BRM: No one I know has more passion for American cinema than you, and I know shooting this film in Topeka (where the original story took place) was a priority for you, but you never were able to shoot there. How was your American filmmaking experience and what did you take from it?

AD: Well, we didn’t get to shoot in Kansas because the original hospital was destroyed. During the writing, I thought it would be foolish for me to worry about making an American film or not making one, my task was to stay in a small office in Paris and to write the material, which was so abstract. I had to transform it into something more cinematic, build the strings that would connect the writing to these dreams and memories and create something for the cinema. I didn’t want to do anything too exotic. Really, truly, each day I was saying to the French co-writer that we have to recall that this is just like a doctor in Roubaix treating a patient. I’m not speaking about something exotic, I am speaking about my own life.

That said, I thought it was important to send someone to give me information about the locations in the story, so I sent a friend to take some photos and go through the archives in Topeka, to meet the last living people who knew Devereux. Then they went to Montana, to see what was there, and I always asked them not to send me exotic details, but very practical details.

I have this fear of exoticism, I think it is dangerous. I think it is a another way to see, but not for me. I was never thinking, “I am making an American film.” I mean, I’m French and I was coming in with Mathieu, who is like my brother in cinema, so we couldn’t pretend, like Devereux, that we were American. I’m not pretending anything, so I think the film has one step in America, one step in France and one step in Puerto Rico (where Benicio Del Toro comes from). So, I feel the film is a mixture of influences and roots. It becomes a mix of identities, in the end.

BRM: In this film, it’s really George who is the outsider. He’s a revolutionary in a lot of ways, an outsider to science, to medicine, to America, his faith. Mathieu took this and made a bright, eccentric character out of this, but how did you conceive of George? You earlier mentioned you consider him “the savage”…

AD: There is also an opposition between the two characters concerning the question of identity, which I loved the first time I read the book. It’s in the opening lines; as soon as Devereux arrived in France, despite being Jewish, he was baptized. He transformed himself from a Jew to a Catholic, and then from a Catholic into a nothing, from a Hungarian to a Romanian, from a Romanian to French, then moved from France for a time to Vietnam, and from there he became American. He was always trying to escape into assimilation through shifting his identity. In an odd way, he was always using masks to disguise himself, yet here he is recommending to his friend Jimmy to recognize his own identity, that Jimmy should be proud of being Native American. But I always want to say to Devereux, “Come on, you’re saying that when you are hiding the fact that you’re an Eastern European Jew!” It’s very strange.

But it’s also quite moving; one of them is dreaming he is no one—there was a line from The Odyssey we wanted to use that we ended up cutting from the film, which, when they ask Ulysses his name he replies, “I am no one.” In the film, there is this motif of the hidden name; Jimmy’s hidden name is his Native American name. So there is this conflict of trying to escape identity and the quest to recognize identity.

I don’t think there is a better way to be in life. I guess I am always trying to escape my own identity, but I also think recognizing who I really am can be good, too. The opposition between these two things… to phrase it in a brutal way, I always think of when I started the script, I wanted to depict the conflict, so I said to the producer, “This is a film about a bad Jew who is meeting a bad Indian. They want to assimilate to America and are refusing their own identity.”

BRM: We’ve discussed masks before in your work, it is a prevalent theme in all of your work, something that always seems to attract you. What do you think, on a creative level, fascinates you about masks, about hiding identity?

AD: I guess it brings me back to Philip Roth. I don’t think that I exist. Very deeply, I don’t think that “I” exist. I have values, characteristics, but I think, fundamentally, what makes me a human being is my attempt to try to look like a human being. But I don’t think in the morning that I wake up a human being. I think I wake up as nothing, and during the day, I am trying to construct myself and to present myself as a human being, using different kinds of masks to appear as “something” when actually, when I wake up, I’m just a baby, crying and desperate.

BRM: Who do you think you are at that primal moment of waking?

AD: Something unformed. After that, I try to assemble myself and think, “What does a decent human being do in this circumstance?” So, I try to be decent, I try to make a decent self, but I don’t believe there is one truth that is “myself.” I guess that I am a series of characters that I am impersonating.

A big smile and a raise of the eyebrows, as if to say “ about THAT?”, brings an end to our interview.

BRM Interview: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

On the occasion of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s new film Two Days, One Night premiering at Cannes, I present my interview with them from October 2011, when they came to New York City to promote the New York Film Festival screening of The Kid With A Bike.

I worry that in the eyes of some, the Dardennes suffer from being too good at their art; each of their films is probably among the greatest works of any given year, and yet, too often, the brothers’ style is considered against itself, and individual films suffer in contemporary thought as being alike, or of being various degrees of “Dardenne.” Sometimes, perhaps, it is hard to understand greatness in its living context, but for me, they are among the all-time greatest of filmmakers.

I hoped this conversation illuminates much of what makes all of their work so powerful, and while it was conducted in conjunction with The Kid With A Bike, I believe it has much to say about all of their work.

This interview has never been published and runs here in its entirety.

BRM: I want to start by asking you about one of the most striking techniques in your films, the way in you hew so closely to your characters with the camera and how their physical experiences drive your films; they way they move through the frame, the way your characters always seem to be in motion. Can you discuss this movement as a way of expressing interiority?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: The camera in this film (The Kid With A Bike) is a little further away, but we like to film our characters in movement– looking for something, moving toward something– because our characters are always obsessed with something. In this case, it is about finding his father and receiving his father’s love. So, in filming their movements, we hope it will be a catalyst for their interior movement and consequently, for how the viewer understands them. Even if I know that, in a movie, you can film someone who is sleeping for twenty four hours, that’s not our path.

BRM: Do you think this obsession leads your characters to depend on instinct? Your characters seem to spring into action.

Luc Dardenne: They don’t act without thinking, they just think fast. In this film, Cyril understands very quickly that if he wants to see his father and he can’t leave the orphanage, he has to flee the school to get what he wants. Our characters are people who are in dire circumstances and want to escape from something, so they are searching and they understand immediately that they need to escape from a situation; so, they just get to work on it. They are characters where there is no room, they’re looking for space; they’re suffocating and they’re looking for a space to breathe. When they find that breathing room, we leave them alone for a while and let them slow down.

BRM: Perhaps this is why the betrayal— which seems to happen in all of your films, maybe not in The Son, but in most, this great moment of betrayal— is so devastating to your characters? They finally find this moment to breathe and often, it is the moment when everything is destroyed.

Luc Dardenne: Precisely. In order to have space, they are forced into a position to experience betrayal. They are ready to risk almost anything to have space, and consequently, to betray others or to find themselves betrayed. It’s true that in The Son, the boy already has this space; he has already killed the other boy, but he wants to stay there in this space. He wants to stay there and he doesn’t want to move. But that’s not the case with Lorna or Rosetta, unfortunately.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne (photo by me)

BRM: Let’s talk about work in your films, labor. In many American films, work doesn’t really play a major role in the lives of the characters; the portrayal is usually vacuous or satirical. But in your films, labor plays a very important role in the lives of your characters. What drives you to depict work so carefully?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: We didn’t really decide on this ourselves, but what you’re saying is true. I think it is because we grew up in this milieu; we’ve spent our lives in this environment where manual labor is very important. And even your schedule revolves around work. In film, you can’t film the inside of a person, so we gamble that by filming movement of our characters, that we’ll be able to understand them.

Luc Dardenne: At the same time, vacation or escaping work is important for fiction. Like in Hitchcock, when the character is rid of daily obligations like work or family or whatever, that is the moment when unexpected things begin to happen. We’re available for a thriller if anyone wants us to make one…(*laughs*). But no, our characters are available for these unexpected things. Like Rosetta, she loses her work at the beginning of the story and so she is forced to be on “vacation” and it opens up the film to what is possible.

BRM: You hinted at this, but how does Seraing specifically influence this perspective? The city itself seems to contribute to this feeling in your films.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: It’s true that this region where we grew up and where we situate most of our films is an industrial area, so people’s lives are driven by industry. In the 1970’s, it started to fall apart, and that’s when we started to see young people pop up, like kids who have seen their father abandon them like Cyril, or like Rosetta, who is 16, 17 years old and feels she has no future. When the factories shut down, the structure of these people’s lives was altered and they crumbled.

BRM: On a personal level, did you feel the impact of this yourselves?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Not us, but our father’s life was impacted; he lost his job.

BRM: Another one of the major themes, as I see it, in your films, is this idea of transcendence. I don’t mean spiritually necessarily, but—

Luc Dardenne: It’s not transcending, it is immediate change. It is not spiritual, it’s human. When human beings help once another, you may call it transcendent, but hopefully it is a moment when people find their humanity again. It is a normal, primal behavior. And that’s what we try to film. It’s people who are locked in their solitude, who are alone, and at some point it becomes a question of when will they find a hand that will pull them out of their isolation and toward their humanity?

Luc Dardenne (photo by me)

BRM: How do you feel the viewer experiences this? Not the character, but the audience…

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Unfortunately, we are never going to be able to be viewers of our own films. When a film is finished, it doesn’t belong to us anymore. It belongs to the audience.

Luc Dardenne: In terms of The Kid With A Bike, we hope that the viewer will be moved by the story. It is amazing what happens, and we want the viewer to be touched by it. It’s incredible what Samantha (Cécile De France’s character) does. You walk out and you think “Wow, what this woman did… I can’t believe it, but she did it.” We had a writer who sent us a letter and he said “Samantha is a person that nearly doesn’t exist, but thing is to meet her…” So, the viewer can meet her through the film.

The Kid With A Bike

BRM: Do you hope to inspire the humanity of intervention in your films? I am sure they are not a call to action, per se, but perhaps an inspiration to help others?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: I think that each films— well, maybe not each film, but many films— can affect the viewer, can change something in the viewer. The viewer can discover things that he thought he knew but actually did not know. Movies are like that. Cinema is a form of beauty, and it inspires a reaction because the viewer is confronted by that form of beauty. It can be a landscape, a gesture, a face. A little example: we saw a friend a few weeks ago who told us that he had met a young woman, and the woman told him her life had changed after she saw Rosetta. She said, “I saw the film by chance, but I was just like Rosetta.” In her real life, she was like the character. And when she saw the film, she realized she had to push herself out of this life she was living. That’s a good thing.


BRM: Can I ask how you work together, about the division of labor—

Luc Dardenne: No division.

BRM: What is you process for settling your own disagreements? Do you have them?

Luc Dardenne: We’ve been working so long together… thirty seven years. We talk so much about the film before we make the film, that we know that one of us won’t say “black” and the other says “No, white!” or vice versa. We’ll both say “black” and what’s good is, say we’re shooting a scene, and one of us says “Maybe we should try it this way” and the other says “Okay”, and then the other says “Let’s try it that way” and the other says “Okay” and then in the editing, we see what works. The world doesn’t end with the shoot, so it works out.

BRM: The issue of influences comes up all the time with your work— obviously, Bresson gets mentioned all the time— but in the case of The Kid With A Bike, De Sica or Truffaut… How do you feel about people bring up influences in your work?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Yeah. We don’t reject it, because we’re made up of the art we know— the films we’ve seen, the books we’ve read. But it is true that when I’m feeling a little bit lost and I’m thinking about how we should do a scene— this way or that way— that Rossellini’s films come back to me because there is always something—

Luc Dardenne:— as a spectator, when you’re seeing Rossellini’s films, you get the feeling that things are always clear and evident—

Jean-Pierre Dardenne: —and that comes back to me when I am feeling a little lost. And so, I say that’s what has to guide me. I have to give life to that clarity.

BRM: Last question… Cinema is changing rapidly here in the USA, especially with video on demand services. It is likely that more people will see this film on a television than will likely see it in a cinema. What are your thoughts on this change?

Luc Dardenne: It’s true that everything is changing really fast with satellite downloads of films into cinemas and video on demand, but I think that film remains linked to the theater and the big screen. And in fact, we’re going to open, with the support of the government, four new movie theaters in Brussels. You can be touched by films that are outside of the theater; just before coming to the US, I watched PIalat’s Loulou on DVD and I saw it on a nice sized HDTV and the following day, I watched it on the big screen and the experience was totally different. There’s a point in the movie when you Depardieu is walking down a dark street, and there’s very little light and you can’t really see him at all. Well, in the DVD, it all melted together, there are flickers here and there, but you really can’t see it. You need to see it on the big screen.

BRM Interview: Mathieu Amalric

On the occasion of Mathieu Amalric’s new film The Blue Room premiering at Cannes, I present my interview with him from October 2013, when he came to New York City to promote the New York Film Festival screening of Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. While not specifically about The Blue Room, we discussed Amalric’s approach to acting and directing, which I hope might illuminate his process. This interview has never been published and runs here in its entirety.

Mathieu Amalric (photo by me)

BRM: Let’s start by discussing how you started the process of becoming an actor.

Mathieu Amalric: Nothing was expected, it was an accident. It was Arnaud Desplechin who invented me, as I always say. It’s true. I fell in love with movies and found my place in movies when I was young. I was 17 when I saw the work of Otar Iosseliani, who never picks actors; only friends or silhouettes. He directs with a whistle; one whistle you stop, two whistles you walk, and that’s it, then he does the sound in post, afterward. And I wanted to do what he was doing, which was to fabricate films. People say they are “Filmmakers”- yes, film “makers”, in English it is more beautiful. It is exactly that, you “make” films. Because it had to do with making with your hands, you head your heart— (gasps in revelation)— I could do anything with it. You never understand anything about life; the older you get, the less you understand and film is just a way to have the illusion that you grabbed something.

So, I was just working as an AD, an assistant editor, working behind the camera and directing my short films. And then Arnaud saw a short film in which I acted, because it was with my grandmother and my father, and he asked me to do some screen-tests for La Sentinelle but he didn’t pick me…

BRM: You had a small role…

Amalric: Yes, but I tested again for Comment je me suis disputé (My Sex Life… or how I got into an argument). Arnaud is an amazing director, especially with actors. The other directors thought that I was a good actor, and I am still living on that mistake. But like all phonies, you have to be very good to be a phony. Like people who do art forgeries; you have to be very, very good. So, I am getting better at false acting.

BRM: Can you describe the process of invention that you had with Arnaud? I am sure the relationship has changed over time, you must have developed a shorthand and trust by now, but at the start, how did he “invent” you as an actor?

Amalric: He told me 10 days before we started shooting that I had the role. For me, it was suddenly “Shit! I should have been better in school and learned my poems, so I had fewer problems with my memory… how am I going to learn all of this?” Because in this film, there was so much dialogue, and it was so precise, and you don’t want to change a word. It has nothing to do with naturalism; in Arnaud’s films, he is working on something else. So, ok- learn your lines, learn your lines, learn your lines— am I going to be able to say my lines not being conscious of what I’m doing?

And Arnaud, who is in love with actors and always wanting to help them, finds this way that you are occupied by tons of things to do at the same time, so that you don’t think that you’re acting, and if you don’t think you’re acting, maybe you grab some truth that belongs to you but that you’re not aware that you’re making. So, Arnaud says something like “Maybe on that line, you take the pen and then you take your cigarette there, and then you go over there.” Ok. And at the start, he would do a lot of takes, maybe twenty or so takes, and after each take he would say “I know what this scene is about, it is about that word, so we’re going to do something else.”

And so, after a moment, you cannot physically do everything he’s given you. And in that moment, something of you is grabbed by the camera. That’s how he works. And that as twenty years ago. Now, and its funny because it was specific to a film like Jimmy P., where something happens between those two men that is never named, but it has to do with friendship. Like he says at the beginning “Sympathy is sufficient… I didn’t help Jimmy because he was an Indian, but because it was in my power to help him.” That is how it is with Arnaud. Complicity, let’s say.

(photo by me)

BRM: I spoke to Arnaud about his use of masks, and often in his films, your characters are people who, underneath, are a swirl of contradictions which are always breaking through this mask they are presenting to the world. It has an almost spiritual component, where Arnaud is inventing, on the page, characters who present you with the opportunity to inhabit them and present this contradictory state to the world. Am I wrong about this?

Amalric: No no no… you’re right, and I was thinking when you were talking, that Jimmy P. is really two masks of Arnaud, one that is the Indian and one that is the Hungarian— not professor, because I think what Arnaud loves about Devereaux is that he’s a man who never presented himself as an expert— but there is something where Arnaud believes in humanity, and it is in all of his characters and its always like that. Even in his family films; he is the mother, the angry sister, the banished son. He is a great actor when he directs, he always has to get involved and demonstrate, and he plays the part to see how he would do as a girl, as an old man, as an adolescent. So, that’s why his films belong to everyone, he doesn’t tell people what to think. He wants you to take your own voyage inside all of those characters.

BRM: He also deals with outsiders, who are often set aside by society and convinced they are insane, but really, they are just alive; they’re not really insane. This is a thread throughout the work. Is this something that draws you to these characters?

Amalric: I am never driven to a character, it’s more that I am lucky that these amazing directors pick me and make me their puppet. It’s great! Acting is only abandoning yourself to someone else’s vision of the world. And it’s only afterwards that you discover the change in your perspective, that you’ve been looking at the world one way and never thought it could be the other way. It’s fascinating, it’s passion, it makes life more interesting. And then, when I go back to directing my own films, it helps me a lot.

But it’s true with Arnaud, in all of his films, he is attracted by men and women who are capable of resisting what society expects of them. I don’t think he sees them as victims, but as heroes, as in Howard Hawks films, I don’t know… strong. The women in Howard Hawks films are incredible. They are not victims crying that society set them aside, they are in the center, and they invent their own methods for placing themselves there. It is an act of self-invention; the same as Devereaux in this film, not quite anthropologist, not quote psychoanalyst- he made this new psychoanthropology. But in the end, as an actor, you just try to know your lines, create a credible accent, and you try to be like an athlete, who can do all he wants because he can control his body and be precise. And this film is so much about listening to the other, working on what is being said between the lines.

BRM: Every time I see you in a film he is not directing, I feel like you’re having an affair with the other director. What do you take from working with Arnaud to, say, Julian Schnabel or to the set of a James Bond movie?

Amalric: Every director is very different; what would there be in common…? Hmmm. I try not to arrive with any principles. I am a virgin. It’s true. But then technically, I work hard, but my goal is to be as light as possible for the director, not ask questions, or very concrete and precise questions. It has to do with the state of stupidity, which is very important to have as an actor.

BRM: You’ve just solved American celebrity culture for me… (laughs)

Amalric: (Laughs) Yes, ok, but American actors come ready, and they are difficult to change, they don’t want to be stupid, it’s too frightening. They don’t want to belong to someone else. They did their work on their own, they constructed something else. But stupidity has to do with everything being possible, it’s important. It’s also maybe why directors like to work with other directors, because actors that are only actors can think they believe in the director as “god”— that he will know everything— and they want to be loved, they want to be accepted, so there’s a lot to do with psychological seduction and taming. When you’re a director, you know the solitude of the director and you know that he feels he is pretending to know everything when in fact he simply hopes the toilet is nearby because it is so scary. So, you try to be generous and listen to the music and rhythm of the performance. The reason movies are so fun to do is because they are a collaboration, you feel like it is an orchestra with a common tempo.

(photo by me)

BRM: You also direct… how do you work with other actors then? You’re entrenched in the filmmaking community in France, everyone seems to know everyone else…

Amalric: I’m part of them, so it’s natural. I know how it is. I know directors who have never acted who somehow think actors are miracles, you have to say the magic words to open them up, or like a romantic relationship. Directing goes through the body, a way to move on set. It’s not the words. Acting is another handcraft, which is why I love movies. That’s why I think it has nothing to do with being an artist; we’re not painters or writers or musicians. Movies are like a circus, more impure, you just try to do what you can, and it is never what you dreamt of. You have to manage reality. And I find that way more freeing than staring at a blank page and you have to invent the world everything is possible. in a movie? Nothing is possible. So, we struggle and you hope a little miracle happens.

BRM: Jimmy P. is Arnaud’s first film in America, and as a lover of cinema, can you talk about shooting this film here together, a period film that draws on the American landscape? It really draws on the history of American film.

Amalric: Not acting in your own language brings its own challenges, but then there is this way of making each word precious. Words, when you work in another language than your own, are precious. And it also has to do with exile; two men who are trying to become Americans. Yes, there is something about the history of the construction of this country, the dream, the acceptance of different cultures. For us in France, racism is a problem in this regard. We have this sickness everywhere else in the world; identity. For America, it’s not the same problem, everyone is from somewhere else. American cinema, too.

The 2011 Toronto Film Festival | Interview: Frederick Wiseman (CRAZY HORSE)

Created over a career that spans six decades, Frederick Wiseman’s brand of non-fiction filmmaking is notable for both its breadth of subject and its disciplined style; no interviews, no narration, just a strict mandate to capture human interactions and then craft them into dramatic stories in the editing suite. If you were looking for a map of human activity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, you could do much worse than looking at Wiseman’s portraits of our social institutions. His new film Crazy Horse played at this year’s New York and Toronto Film Festivals. I sat down with Wiseman in Toronto, where we met to discuss the film and his career.

Frederick Wiseman (photo by John Ewing)

BRM: To begin, I’m interested to know how you got involved with The Crazy Horse nightclub. I know you’ve made a lot of films in Paris and have spent some time there; what attracted you about that institution or made you want to address it?

Frederick Wiseman: A couple of things really. I’m interested in dance; if you count Boxing Gym, which is at least in part a dance movie, this is the fourth dance movie I’ve made. Ballet, La Danse, Boxing Gym and now Crazy Horse. It’s also another excuse to stay in Paris and that’s not an incidental reason, but in terms of the films that I’ve done, a lot of my films, in one way or another, have a particular emphasis on aspects of the body. Obviously, any movie is about the body; the monastery movie I made Essene is in part about the denial of the body, Hospital and Near Death are about the wasting of the body through illness, disease and ultimately death, Domestic Violence I &II are about the abuse of the body, Boxing Gym is about controlled violence toward the body, Maneuver, Basic Training and Missile, the three military films, are about the body in the service of the state, used to protect the interest of the state, Model is about the aestheticization of the body to sell commercial products, The Store is about the adornment of the body– so, in an abstract way, the various uses of the body is a theme that cuts across a lot of movies. Crazy Horse is at least in part about the eroticization of the body in order to make money.

BRM: Yes, and that’s a real, political thing. In a lot of the films you mentioned just now, there is a very intense political subtext. Even though the films do not set out to beat you over the head with politics or make specific points–

Wiseman: No, I hope not–

BRM:–no, not at all. But you mentioned that the films have this recognition of violence underneath them. In Crazy Horse, there is a lot of fragmentation of the women and their bodies and the way we look at them.

Wiseman: Exactly.

BRM: So I’m wondering, what do you know going into this situation about how you will articulate this subtext?

Wiseman: Well, I don’t know going in, because I have no idea what I’m going to find. I was at The Crazy Horse twice before the shooting started, so the themes of the movie emerged as a consequence of the period of editing. In this case, it was a year. But, there’s an advantage you have in doing movies about plays or dances that you don’t have in ordinary films; in a performance movie like La Danse or Ballet, there are going to be rehearsals, and then there are going to be performances. So, you can shoot the same thing, pretty much done the same way, a number of times and in a number of ways. Whereas, if you take a movie like Welfare, you see an interesting sequence going on, you have one shot to get it and you have to think about the cut aways and the wide shots, while at the same time shooting it to make the content clear. That’s not true in these performance or dance movies. What I tried to do during the course of the shooting was to accumulate sequences I was interested in, shot in as many different ways as possible, so I would have choices in the editing room. For example, there’s a sequence in the movie called Baby Buns; The Crazy Horse is open seven night a week, two shows a night, except Saturday, which is three shows–fifteen shows a week. So, you can shoot Baby Buns one time as a wide shot, one time from the left hand side of the stage, another night from the right, another night of just close-ups, etc. so that six months later when you’re in the editing room and you want to make a sequence out of Baby Buns, you can do it and you can cut it as if it was staged for a movie that way, even though it wasn’t. Because the event is a repetitive one, you can create choices for yourself.

Crazy Horse

BRM: And that performative aspect is different in so many ways from what people traditionally think of with a lot of your films.

Wiseman: And correctly, because in most of the film, that opportunity doesn’t exist. The only film that that exists in prior to the dance films was Meat, and I’m not making any comparisons between an abattoir and a ballet company, but with 3000 head of cattle and 1500 sheep killed every day, you had the opportunity to follow that process and shoot it different ways.

BRM: Is there something about France or Paris in particular that draws you to their creative community?

Wiseman: I don’t think it’s about their creative community per se; I was a student in Paris years ago and it was great and the food’s good. It’s a beautiful place to live, I like walking around there, I have a lot of friends there. I’m not the sole person to think this way (laughs). In a cultural sense, its no different than living in New York; in New York you have a great choice of music, theater and dance. The same in Paris. It’s a comfortable place to live and it’s small; it’s only 2,000,000 people. And it’s beautiful, the center of the city is similar to the way it was a long time ago and they have the good sense to keep it that way. So, it’s fun.

BRM: Do you feel you have an outsider’s perspective there that you don’t have in the U.S.?

Wiseman: That’s an interesting question. It’s complicated by what you mean by “outsider.” When I went to a welfare center in New York or a public housing project in Chicago, I was an outsider because the experiences of the clients of those places were not my experience, either as a child or an adult. On the other hand, everyone was speaking the same language and the references–cultural, political, sports, movies, music– you assume, correctly or incorrectly, that in your own society, you understand the cultural cues. In France, and my French is good but far from perfect, there’s always the risk that I’m going to misinterpret a cultural cue– not that there isn’t a risk of misinterpreting something in America too, that’s certainly the case. But it’s a greater risk when you’re working outside of the culture you grew up in because you take it for granted, and maybe it’s pretentious, but you can deceive yourself into thinking you understand your own culture better. I’m more cautious about making judgements, but that caution comes up more in the editing than the shooting, because in the shooting, you have to make up your mind very quickly. Often, if you miss the first 30 seconds, you miss the basic aspect of the encounter from which the rest of the sequence unfolds. I don’t think being an outsider has been a problem, more that you have to be aware of that and deal with it.

BRM: It’s tough to say your films are objective; you’re making choices and omitting information just like anyone else in order to tell a story. But people tend to draw strong conclusions from your films based on what they bring to the experience. Your films have a very steady perspective; I’m wondering how that impacts your access to a place like The Crazy Horse or other institutions you are trying to approach. Once they go back and look at your work, do you run into roadblocks from potential subjects over how they experience your previous films?

Wiseman: I always present the person or institution that I am interested in a list and description of my previous films and tell them that I can make any of these films available to them. In the case of The Crazy Horse, both the dancers and the administration saw La Comédie-Française and La Danse, some of them watched Welfare, there were five or six films circulating among the 50 or 60 people working at The Crazy Horse. It’s very important to me to make that offer and I always hope people will take me up on it. Often, I make the offer and people don’t ask for anything. I want them to, because I want the process and the way I work to be transparent. I don’t want someone to say to me after working on a film for a year “You didn’t tell me there was no narration!” or “I thought I was going to be interviewed!” I also make that clear in a letter that I write before the shooting starts; although I don’t form a legal contract, I always write a letter in advance summarizing my understanding of our situation. The letter says basically that it’s a maximum period of ten weeks, we have to have access to everything that is going on, if there is a sequence someone doesn’t want shot, all they have to do is say no and that’s the end of it, that I have complete editorial control, that the film will be shown on Public television and theatrically, it may be shown in other countries, I own the rights in perpetuity, etc. I try to anticipate anything that might subsequently be an issue, and then I ask them to either acknowledge receipt of it or sign a copy of it and send it back to me. So, in effect its a contract where all of the potential divisive issues have been resolved.

BRM: Once you’ve started, I guess you’re alive to the moments as they are happening; I’m wondering about how surprise works in your filmmaking. With this film, were there surprises that were bigger than most of your films? How do you integrate that sense of surprise into your process?

Wiseman: Well, there’s always surprise because when I start, I basically know nothing about these places. In some ways I feel I know nothing about them in the end, too. In a sense, the shooting of the film is the research. I’m always surprised because I like to think I’m learning something. One of the interesting things for me, coming out of the experience of being at The Crazy Horse, is what constitutes eroticism and sensuality? For some people, the rehearsals may be more erotic than the performances, because in the rehearsals, the women act more naturally; there’s no makeup, they have halters on, they’re not wearing wigs– they’re just a group of attractive women dancing and rehearsing. In the show, it’s more performance oriented, often multiple women have the same makeup and clothing, and so it’s less personal. It may be more aesthetic in the formal sense– there isn’t much lighting in the rehearsals. But much of the film is asking, in an abstract way, what is beauty, what is eroticism, how do women maintain their beauty, etc.

BRM: And interestingly here, the decision makers, on the creative side anyway, are primarily men, which sets up a real question about the dynamics of power here. Also, It was surprising to see how seriously they take this work; you think of cabaret or striptease as being “low culture,” but here, the subjects treat their work as “high culture.”

Wiseman: The choreographer Philippe Decouflé is a very famous choreographer, not in the classical ballet world, but popular dance and he has his own modern dance company. He has a very good sense of humor; he was the choreographer for the French Winter Olympics. He’s a very accomplished man and the choreography in the film reflects that. It’s not Swan Lake, but it’s technically complicated and imaginative.

BRM: And he’s got a rival, in a way, which again, was a surprise to see the institution giving the keys to the super fan and allowing him to subvert Decouflé in a lot of ways. When you see something like that going on, does the hair on your neck stand up?

Wiseman: Well, my big ears do prick up. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be good for the film or not, but I concluded it would be. Some of the scenes between them, with their different styles of expression, provide some of the important aspects of the structure of the film.

BRM: What about the decision not to go outside of the club? In any of your films–

Wiseman: Right, it doesn’t happen in any of my films. In Welfare we don’t visit people in welfare hotels or in welfare apartments. My films are about the place; it’s usually one building or a very limited geographical area. These limitations serve the same function for me as the lines do on a tennis court. In other, words, what takes place in the geographical space of the building is good. Anything outside? Out of bounds.

BRM: Can you talk a little bit about your appreciation of dance? What draws you to dance as a form?

Wiseman: I’ve been a ballet fan for years. When I was in law school, I used to go in to New York City and go see the New York City Ballet in the 1950’s. I’ve been in New York a lot over the years– I was teaching a class in New York, have friends in New York– so I’ve been to the ballet a lot. In 1995, I made La Comédie-Française and was in Paris for about six months, so I started going to the ballet in France. And for the reasons I stated earlier, I wanted to make another movie in France, so I got in touch with the Paris Opera Ballet, went to see them and again, they said yes right away. That was one of the great experiences of my life making that film. The Crazy Horse idea came up by chance; I was having dinner with a French friend and she said “have you thought about making a movie about a Parisian nightclub?” and I said “Yeah, but I haven’t gotten around to it,” and she said “Decouflé is doing a new show at the Crazy Horse, maybe they’d be interested?” So, the next night we went to The Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse

BRM: What was that experience like for you?

Wiseman: Well, I had been to The Crazy Horse once before, in 1957 with my father-in-law and I hadn’t been back. I did see the potential filmic value when I went back to see the show, so I went in the next day and they said okay.

BRM: They use a lot of cinematic techniques in the show itself. It’s a very cinematic show. How much did you draw from that when you were making decisions during the shoot?

Wiseman: Some of the sequences in the film are me filming the movies that are a part of the show. Sometimes you don’t know if its a silhouette shot of the dancers behind the screen or a movie that’s being projected for the audience at the club. I knew when I saw the show that this could have great potential value for the movie I wanted to make, but i didn’t have any idea specifically of how I wanted to use it.

BRM: Can you talk about the decision to break up the performances in the editing? When you’re cutting the film, there’s got to some really tough decisions about how you’re going to assemble these sequences without violating the spirit of the pieces being performed.

Wiseman: Well, it’s very hard. In a sense, it’s harder to do it with that kind of performance than with dialogue–

BRM: Absolutely. You’d think talking would be bracketed by the natural flow of conversation–

Wiseman: Yes, you can edit a talking sequence so that it appears that it took place the way you’re seeing it in the movie. It doesn’t make any difference that the three and a half minutes of dialogue in the film came from 40 minutes of rushes that come from 50 minutes of real time. But here, unlike the ballet where an act may be 45 minutes or an hour, the acts at The Crazy Horse are four or five minutes, a couple of them maybe six minutes tops. So, it’s a question of not only finding a place where you can cut into the music, but also finding a place where you can cut into the movement so that, without suggesting you’re seeing the whole number, it doesn’t violate the spirit of the number. That was not easy, and it was further complicated by the fact, and in a problem that doesn’t exist in a non-performance film, where you have so much music. In a talk film, you can cut from one conversation or one scene to another, as long as they’ve got a visual or thematic connection. But it’s very difficult to cross fade music, because the music at the end of one scene can really screw up the new music in the next scene. One of the issues in the editing is to find little transition shots so that the music of the sequence that is finishing can fade out and you don’t have to cut– it’s terrible when you cut music abruptly. It either has to end naturally or you have to fade it so it appears to end naturally and then you need a pause, not more than a second or two, before you can begin to fade in music for the next sequence. It’s an interesting problem, and because the sequences are shorter, it was more of a problem on Crazy Horse.

BRM: Can you talk a little bit about your work process? I mean filming, editing, film festivals, starting again, shooting editing. I assume you’re making every decision on these films–

Wiseman: Yes.

BRM: — so, maybe this is not an interesting question, but your work schedule must be outrageous.

Wiseman: Well, it is outrageous. I have a knack for picking places that are open all the time. At The Crazy Horse, we’d shoot a thirteen hour day. So, it’s a long day and after shooting, we’d have to watch rushes. One of the things I like about making movies like this is that it makes demands of every aspect of your being. You’ve got to stay in shape because it’s a sport; if you’re not in shape, you can’t run around with the equipment all day and be reasonably alert to make choices and get the quality you need. It’s often, depending on the subject matter, very emotionally demanding; in a movie like Near Death or Hospital, I mean, making movies is a decent defense but you’re seeing some pretty difficult situations. And, intellectually speaking, working like this is extremely stimulating because you have to think your way through the experience in order to make the choices that make the movie. The movie is made up of hundreds of thousands of choices. During the shooting, there’s no time for analysis; you have to act instinctively and one of the reasons you shoot a lot of film is, it’s better to shoot and be wrong than not shoot and say “Oh shit, I missed it.” I always err on the side of shooting to much, because I’d rather get the sequence. All of these sequences are found sequences. You’d have to be a genius writer to invent some of these sequences, but if you’re lucky enough to be there when they happen and to recognize them for what they are, you can use them in order to construct the film. So much of making these movies is not about filming and film technique per se, it has to do with asking yourself and answering for yourself the question “why?” Why are these words being used? Why is this person moving his head one way or the other? Why is he asking for a cigarette at this point? Why isn’t he looking someone in the ye? Why did she walk away?

BRM: Do you allow yourself emotional involvement in all of this?

Wiseman: I try not to. The work is so demanding, it’s not a serious problem. There’s the joke about not crossing the line when you’re making a movie about a modeling agency or The Crazy Horse, but it’s completely unprofessional. I found myself in some movies, like Hospital, Near Death, Welfare or Public Housing or Titticut Follies, of being extremely moved and emotionally involved, but because you’re there to make a film and the equipment is a kind of defense, it’s not as if you’re there just watching; you’re there to make a movie. So, you can’t indulge personal feelings. You don’t have time, even if you wanted to. And you also know you can’t intervene.

Titicut Follies

BRM: A final question, completely different topic. You’re kind of a pioneer of self-distribution. One of things that’s fascinating now, with video-on-demand and the internet, is that filmmakers now have a real chance to put out their own movies and create strategies to control their own content. You’ve done an amazing job over the course of your career of setting up a business around your work. How has that impacted your ability to make films and are you passionate about the control you retain over your films?

Wiseman: To answer the last part first, I am passionate. I own the rights to all of my movies. A couple of the French movies, I have a French partner, but otherwise, I own them. I’ve done that from the beginning. I have complete control over my own work. I set up my own distribution company in 1971 really because I had no alternative. I got screwed so badly by Grove Press on the first two movies I did, Titicut Follies and High School; they made money on them and I never saw any money and I had to sue Grove Press. I figured there is 100% margin of error, so if mistakes are made from then on they would be my mistakes and if money came in, I got to keep it. My distribution company has been in existence now for 40 years and one person has run it for me for the last 30. She’s terrific, it’s her and one assistant and the two of them run it. Originally, it was a production company but that’s just a matter of making a budget and getting permission; she does the budgets now and I get the permissions. That aspect is not that demanding. But it was originally 16mm, then video and now DVD. I was late getting my movies out in America on DVD because nobody made me an offer and I thought it was going to be a real hassle and I just avoided doing it. Then we just decided it was time, let’s get them out and it’s been fantastically successful. I got offered peanuts by some of the big DVD distribution companies, I mean, it was such a minuscule, pitiful offer, I couldn’t take it seriously. So, for a minimal investment on our part, it’s been extremely successful and it’s all internet. I was never much of a techie and I didn’t understand the viral nature of it, but my God, it was terrific. We put out a small internet press release, bloggers and people who are interested in movies started to write about it, we had a website and the orders started coming in and they’re still coming in. I’m going to do the same thing on VOD now.

BRM: Has this empowered your filmmaking in any way?

Wiseman: Well, it’s made it possible for me to eat (laughs). I’ve always enjoyed being independent, but its made my independence possible because it’s harder to raise money now than it was twenty years ago. There isn’t as much money around for this stuff and there are more people who want to make movies. A lot of people assume I have a very easy time raising money and it’s murderous.

BRM: Thank you very much for you time.

Wiseman: It was a very good interview. Thank you very much.

–Tom Hall

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.

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.


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.