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 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.

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

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

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

The original date of publication was September 16, 2004.


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

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 My favorite of the bunch, The Biograph, had closed and been replaced by a CVS pharmacy.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

Kings and Queen

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

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

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

Kings and Queen