Bright Lights Film Journal

The Human (Tragi)Comedy: Talking to Arnaud Desplechin

Of Kings and Queen and other subjects

I met with Arnaud Desplechin in New York last April before a sneak preview of Kings and Queen at the BAMcinématek in Brooklyn. As you might expect, Desplechin is charming and generous in conversation, quick with a joke or a bon mot but also quite forthcoming about his artistic motives. We had a wide-ranging discussion about his new film, the aesthetics of his craft, and his oft-repeated conviction that a dramatic film should contain four ideas every minute.

Damon Smith: One of the things that I find so stimulating about your work is this generous capacity that you have for creating complex characters, for observing human behavior in its full range. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, your films contain multitudes. You must film an enormous amount of material.

Arnaud Desplechin: Yeah. [Laughs] Someone was asking Emmanuelle Devos what was unique about working with me. And she said, “I consider the films I am making with Arnaud my real job.” When I’m working with an actor, I’m not asking for a result. I’m asking them to try things, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if we didn’t dig in all directions. Sometimes it can be just one take, where you realize that you said everything you had to say about the situation or the character. But sometimes you realize that you could go in another direction, that instead of crying you could laugh, and so we try to give the actors things to play with, just like with kids, and do everything we are able to with these lines or situations. And I think they dare to do that with me because I will not judge them. I say, OK, do you want to try a comfortable take just to see how it feels? Or do you want to try something more brutal or softer? So I have all this material they are giving to me as actors because I am not asking for a result. I’m asking them to give me something true.

It’s apparent that you have an extraordinary trust in your actors. I wonder how much you allow for improvisation.

Each time I work with an actor, I notice they are freer if I am providing them with lines. When they are forced to improvise – usually what I notice on their other films – they sometimes [resort to] clichés or realistic stuff. But it seems to me that realism is not true; that way of depicting the world is a convention. You can see a film which is unrealistic but which is saying something so true about yourself or your life or the world we are living in. So if the actor is obliged to invent his own lines – plus to create something bigger than life, something beyond himself – it’s quite confusing. If the words are slightly strange, suddenly it becomes more than realism. We have to make it believable, to make it natural, so that you see it as pure improvisation. Then you have this real spark and it’s so precious, so cinematic.

Many writers have said the only way to achieve truth is through fiction. And your films are so novelistic in the sense that there’s a strong emphasis on dialogue.

I can’t try small talk. It would be too silly to write a guy who turns to his friend and says, “Do you want some coffee?” [Laughs] It’s boring. If the guy wants to say, “May I have some coffee?” OK, I will ask the actor “Can you say that?” and that’s it. The small talk and all the technical dialogues I prefer to write during the preps. I do my homework in the evening and I’m quite early on the set. So after the shooting I write again because everything is changing between the shooting. Then you realize the character was even deeper than you thought, so you have to manage. I’m trying to give fresh material to surprise the actors. But about the novelistic aspect, you know, I am clumsy. Perhaps it’s because your question is about precisely what my job is. You spoke of Walt Whitman, but there is this line of Emerson’s that I really love which is to “return words to home.” And I love this idea that it could be a task of the cinema to take all these wonderful words – the abstract words or the poetry, everything that belongs to high class or the university – but to bring them back home, in a very simple, natural way. That is what cinema is about, it belongs to everyone.

Why do you think you’re interested in focusing on artists and intellectuals of a particular age?

Well, there are characters who are not that. Part of my relationship with the actors is they know I won’t be tough, because I am too shy for that. But they know I will be quite obsessive, that I will love each character for a very specific reason. Only the one playing the part will know why I love this character, how I identify with that character, so I can help him. I feel close to Elias when I am looking at the performance of Valentin Lelong. I can understand everything. And when I’m looking at Nora’s father, who’s a writer, I feel very close because I’m not a writer. When I saw that scene from Manhattan where Allen says to Diane Keaton, “Oh, I can smell the perfume of Nabokov,” I thought: It’s wonderful because now the characters are allowed to be as clever as the director, to have their own references. We are at last equals. I love that idea because I thought it was so insolent. Because the cliché would be to say a character is not allowed to have heard about a guy named Sigmund Freud. But why would a character be more stupid than us? I don’t particularly like well-educated characters, but why not? Because suddenly all the characters were free. And before this invention, and this was Woody Allen’s invention, the characters were not free, they were obliged to be stupid and uninteresting. Twenty years later, you discover all these characters on Seinfeld, you know, who are making private jokes complicated with allusions, and they are as free as us, so it’s quite bizarre. That’s why I’m not afraid if the character has read more books than me.

The story of Kings and Queen is structured around the lives of Nora and Ismaël, who are polar opposites. I wonder if you imagined them as twin halves of a basic human archetype.

At the end of the process, I could see that. But when we were writing, it was more about storytelling and perhaps about a few moral issues. On the set it’s so intuitive. But yeah, what I loved in Nora’s journey is the fact that she has to go through very dark situations. If I depicted her with just one word, it would be “Appollonian.” She sees the bright side of things even when the situation is so dark. I think “Dionysian” is a good adjective for Ismaël’s behavior, so in a way it worked because they were opposites. And I love the paradox. People who have been through the worst know the very price of lightness – of not complaining. You know, “Kings and queen never complain, never explain.” Because Nora has been through so many horrible curses and ghosts and so on, she knows the very price of being neat, clean, soft, never obscene. I love the way she approaches her son, saying “Hi, how are you,” not covering him with kisses. She wants a quiet life now, and that’s priceless. Only people who have really experienced tough things know that. And what I love in Ismaël’s character is that he has experienced nothing. He has the best lawyer, the best psychiatrist, the guy is full of money and he will never pay his taxes. I mean it’s really a shame. And he’s complaining for the entire film. [Laughs] He’s saying, “Nothing is hurting me, but it could be hurting me!” So he’s really a little devil, but I think it’s just because he hasn’t been through what Nora has been through, so he complains before the shock. And Nora is so stunned by the violence of her shock that she knows that the priceless thing is to be elegant. Just like Holly Golightly, who has an awful life.

Nora also has a very complicated relationship with her father, Louis, which has something to do with the way you introduce the myth of Leda and the Swan. She brings her father a lithograph depicting the myth, which is a story of seduction, and that’s exactly how she characterizes her relationship with Louis at one point in the film, as a kind of seduction. And yet he is a changeling figure in the sense that, by the end of the movie, he has surprised her and shocked her with that letter he leaves in his manuscript. So what significance did that myth have for you in depicting this father-daughter dynamic?

One of the very first lines that I wrote was the father’s letter. And it was so shocking. I thought, This is forbidden, I’m not allowed to write such a thing and the police will come and put me in a psychiatric hospital. It’s disgusting, it’s too violent. So my question was not what does it mean, but how is it actual, so I can feel the character and try to understand. What can I say to an actor to make it “actable,” not just mean or stupid or brutal. After that we tried to dig into the characters, like investigators, to find out what had happened exactly. There are so many photos of the two sisters when they were kids, there are photos of young Elias as well, but there are no photos of a mother. They never speak of any mother, so it is a family deprived. But you never hear about the wife of King Lear. She is never mentioned in the Shakespeare play, it’s really bizarre. He has three daughters and no wife. So I guess in a way the only man who could be sort of a father for Elias was her own father, Louis. I think she has been loved in an incestuous way by her father, which is so terrible, and which is exactly what happened to Cordelia. Cordelia is absolutely right when she says “I can’t say I love you, because one day I will marry someone.” It’s quite relevant. But the father can’t bear it. So that’s what I thought, and why I was quoting Hawthorne. It’s monstrous but it’s so human.

Connected to that is the thematic element of psychoanalysis in the film, particularly with Ismaël’s character and Dr. Devereux, who I presume is based on George Devereux, the ethnopsychiatrist. The dream Ismaël discusses with her in the therapy session is loaded with meanings and metaphors. Were you trying to make a connection between Devereux’s theories and Ismaël’s efforts to work out what’s going on in his head?

There was that book by Devereux that I loved, which was written when he was working on Native American reservations, called Psychotherapy of the Plains Indians. And I loved the opposition between the two characters: One is this little guy from Hungary, shameless and brutal; and the other’s this huge Indian who has been through the war and has some problems and is so shy and hesitant to speak about his problems. And I thought, yeah, the savage is Ismaël. He’s the idiot and the clumsy one. So it was quite important – also as a political statement for me – not to show the psychotherapist as a European. I wanted to ask an African actress to play the part so I could have the same dynamic. I think that’s what friendship is about, to be different. So they are opposite, and they are best friends. But on the other hand, I would love that someone who had never heard about Devereux would just love [the scene] when Ismaël’s writing the name [on a piece of paper] and showing it to the nurses. It’s the magical name.

There’s another allusion to Devereux toward the end of the movie, where Ismaël is asking Elias if he remembers a certain tree, and you cut to the tree shot from above and there’s Native American chanting running over the soundtrack.

My job is so bizarre, which is to put things into a frame praying that you won’t notice them. [Laughs] Why I do this, I don’t know. But all the crew is following me, saying “Yeah, put that in there,” but no one will notice it. It fills the frame, it’s nice, they’re like small enigmas, and I hope that you won’t notice them, that you will just feel them. When Ismaël is going to see his mother in Roubaix, she says “I saw your viola.” And you have a close shot of the viola, and just at the bottom of the grandmother’s bed, there is a dreamcatcher, which is quite bizarre for a French old lady of 85. But I thought it was nice as a souvenir.

Like many of your characters, Nora’s often shot from different vantage points in the room, which makes us aware of the editing process. Do you think that provides an extra layer of visual meaning in terms of the storytelling?

If it looks more vivid, if it’s not too chic or old-fashioned, it’s okay with me. Laurence [Briaud, editor] has to do it with elegance, not to shock the audience. The point is that the characters come first. So if there is one facet which is beautiful, why not show it? And that’s why she’s a great editor, because she doesn’t start to edit the scene thinking, How can I make you see that I’m a good editor? She starts by saying, “OK, I love this character,” and wants to show all the facets of what the actors gave. So after that we try to find a way, not too clumsy, to show all these facets. And that’s what [cinematographer] Eric Gautier’s doing too: filming what the actors need, not the actors as myth. They are both awfully good technicians. They are interested in cinema even beyond their own specialty. Eric Gautier is a genius, he’s the best photographer. He knows the lights and all that by heart. But to know even the small stuff you can do with chemistry, again he is really good. And we can talk about stories that we like. So his way of thinking is beyond the technical, and I can speak about that with him and Laurence, too, who sees more films than I do.

In all your features, you seem to favor modernist classical music for the soundtrack. But in scenes where there are large gatherings of people, you use loud hip-hop music, like Black Sheep or the Fugees. What is the role of music, as you see it, in those two senses?

I consider my job to be just a storyteller and music has to do with that. But I have a problem editing sound. I was looking at one of Lubitsch’s late silent movies, and there was dialogue throughout the film, but you have no sound. And the dialogues were so funny. I don’t know what they were saying. So I have a problem editing scenes. What I do is take out the sound, using just the images. We try to have a nice story that anyone can understand without words. And if it works, visually, after that, you put the words in and the dialogues are even better than the ones you wrote because it changes the order of the sentences. So yeah, I do think that cinema has to do with music. I wouldn’t like to use music as if Berg and Schoenberg or the new American classical music had never existed. So I’m trying to use something slightly more comfortable, and I don’t want to be “modern,” but not to ignore that classical music changed between the 20th century and now. And that’s not sad. I like when Ismaël is playing a tune and it sounds quite close to Stravinsky – it’s just like music for kids, so lively and so on. And Prospero says “I love that,” and Ismaël says, “Yes, it’s Viennese.” But hip-hop music is really the music of my generation. I never liked songs. I’m French. And French songs are really bad. French rock n’ roll? It’s a real shame. So at last in ’78, you have hip-hop music. Okay, that’s our music. I decided to use it and I think it has to do with politics. You know, in La vie des morts, it was forbidden to use hip-hop because it would have sounded too trendy or obscure. But it’s music that’s happening now, so why not put it in the movie? And why use tunes of the ’70s. Beatles songs? Come on. It’s music for my parents. I don’t want it in my films. No, I want strictly hip-hop.

So many filmmakers use music to evoke emotion in the audience. What you’re describing is a more intuitive blending of image and sound based on your preferences. But I do think there are two exceptions in Kings and Queen. One is Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” which bookends the beginning and end of the film. The other is when Nora is telling her sister Chloe over the phone about their father’s cancer, and a Randy Newman song is playing. That seemed like a more deliberate use of music.

Truffaut, quoting André Bazin, said, “Cinema doesn’t use literature, it has to serve literature.” And I think you could say the same with music. It’s relevant to use Afrika Bambaataa or the tune by Marley Marl, who’s such a wonderful DJ, because the words are so melancholy. The only words are “Do you remember,” and the track is made by quotations of all the tunes he made with the great rappers of the eighties. It’s something like, “Our youth is ending, but do you remember how brave we were?” So it’s quite nice that Ismaël’s too old to be breakdancing, you know, because he’s 45 and it’s pitiful. But at the same time, it’s brave because he does remember those golden years. Even someone who didn’t hear “Moon River” at the opening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s can feel that Nora’s lost, but she is not showing her fright. So yeah, it’s absolutely deliberate. To propose it to an audience I have to find even a very hidden reason, which you would never know, that would make it kosher for me. We did edit that scene without the music. The main song by Randy Newman is about a man who lost someone he will never see again, and he is saying, “‘Every time it rains, I will remember you. I know that my life will be different.” When I removed the music, the father was not there any longer. It was just the two girls. It was more realistic, but in a bad way. You couldn’t see how deeply they were suffering, how far they were from each other, how close two sisters are again after all these years. When I added the song, suddenly the scene was working with three characters – the two girls, and the father who was not there. And to dare to compare those kinds of feeling – a love story and a father dying of cancer – permitted me to understand better the color of their soul.

One of the things that characterizes your films are these great shifts in tone between melodrama and broad comedy, cruelty and tenderness, often in the same scene. Characters say awful things to one another and then in the next moment, they’re spooning. Are you consciously striving to bring that dynamic to the story?

It depends on the situation for each film. With Kings and Queen, because there are two films which are absolutely opposing, I was forced to go fast. It’s bizarre because the film is two hours and twenty-five minutes long, but we have two feature films of one hour and seven minutes and also a small film of twelve minutes about the kid. We had to make it fit. So we were obliged to shoot all the emotions as one. If my line is “I hate you,” and the other actor says “I hate you,” it’s not interesting. The question is why. Am I not saying I love you, and why I am so clumsy that I’m saying that I hate you? So it permits me, with the actors – if they agree, if they want to play the game and be a part of it, if they start to have fun with that – to make it much less clichéd. If you consider the terrible letter Louis brands his daughter with, or this scene with Ismaël’s cousin who says, “Oh, by the way, I’ve hated you for twelve years,” it’s a pure nightmare. But if you consider the two characters as two boys who’ve been in love, and that the guy is jealous, and he’s pissed because the other one never went to bed with him, then it’s more interesting, it’s more fun. I mean, why not? Then you add a level and make the lines more ambiguous, therefore more funny or more dramatic. If not, life would be too simple.

So your objective is to make the action go faster?

I love slow films too. But I wouldn’t like to do them. You know, I was reading some of Truffaut’s scripts, notes he was sending to his cowriter, a guy who cowrote movies with Antonioni. And he was saying, “How can you dare to write such a scene? It was four minutes, and you use it just to say one idea!” But in cinema, you have to take each one-minute scene and put in four ideas. It’s funny because he was saying this to the man who worked with Antonioni and that’s why I never understood him. He’s a great filmmaker and I’m full of respect for his work, but I’m not able to be part of the audience of Antonioni’s movies because there is one … fucking … idea. What do I do for twenty-four minutes? I get the idea, and then there is another one, and then it’s the end of the movie. I can’t look at it. I just can’t. It’s not my way of living, perhaps. I know he’s such a noble man and a master, but I prefer it to go faster.

You would have made a splendid novelist. Why did you take up filmmaking as a career?

I love the fact that it’s a popular art, that it’s humble. Is it that French? I’m not sure. I loved the idea that I’d choose a job where I didn’t make any studies. I’m trying to put in four ideas each minute, ones I know that no one will catch. I’m trying to tell good stories – shocking, funny, very sad, popular – that anyone can see. Not everyone, but anyone. Strangely, you can reach the very soul of someone in Japan or the USA. Film doesn’t belong to high culture, and I can use bits of stuff – poetry that I remember or classical music I learned because a friend of mine taught me how to listen to it – that I can offer to an audience who has made no studies. There is no difference between the people who have the knowledge and the people who have none. That’s so precious. I’m still amazed by that, the fact that a popular art can produce something so deep which is a popular way of thinking about central issues. I will quote briefly just two films, the two amazing dialogues in Kill Bill 2, the one about what is evil, does a kid know what evil is, and the story of Big Fish. This idea, which is even deeper and weirder than that, is do we spend our life thinking this absurd idea that we are not heroic at all? Or do we awake like common people and realize we have to progress in life, to become superheroes? It’s a fundamental question. After September 11th, or when you read Bob Dylan’s book Chronicles, everything has to do with death, with what it is to be a hero in common life. And I think all Kill Bill is speaking about is that sometimes we feel like shit, and sometimes we feel like heroes, so it’s a moral statement. Anyone can understand that – except someone in the university. And I love that. People of the street can get it and people of the university can’t. It’s so lovely.

What do your actors give you that motivates you to use them over and over?

Mainly it’s the other films they are doing with other directors. There I can see them as I adore them because I’m not spoiling their job any longer. They are just free. I hope that on each film, the crew or “the gang” becomes larger and larger. I love the performance of Hippolyte Girard [in Kings and Queen], but it was just like an appointment between two lovers. We knew that we’d work together one day – it’s been 20 years – but at one point, at last the crew can grow, so it’s quite nice. There are a few actors I absolutely miss, but they know it – a few French actors. We just didn’t find the time or the right part. With Catherine Deneuve it was an appointment. We both knew that one day we’d find something fun. But the other thing is France is not that large. You’d never ask Ingmar Bergman why he’s always working with Bibi Andersson or Gunnar Björnstrand. It’s because Sweden is a small country, so there are not a lot of actors. In France, we don’t have the amazing tradition of acting that you have in the US or England, or even in Germany. To find a new quality and a new glance, yeah, I love that.

If there’s an overarching theme to your work, maybe it’s characters searching for their own humanity and at the same time trying to find humanity in others – like Paul Dedalus, who struggles to empathize with other people. Is that a theme you see as well in your work?

I try not to think about it. When I’m working, it’s more that it’s new. People notice that my films are by the same director. But in my dreams, they’re not. I guess there must be something my films have in common. An idea that seduced me a lot is that I’m not born – and I don’t think any one of us are born – as human beings. I think we are becoming human beings. On Léo [i.e., Playing in the Company of Men], when I was working with that young actor who is three years old, it was difficult to direct him, to find the right words. I couldn’t say, “I’m not fond of that take,” because “take” has no meaning for a three-year-old boy. So I had to find a way to see that he was absolutely human. He could speak even if he wasn’t speaking. I asked him, “Perhaps your sister will be jealous if you’re an actor in my movie and she’s not,” so I invited his young sister to take a part. I told him, “It’s a sad story, it’s about a mother, so it will be very violent for the actress. But it will be funny for you.” Because the little boy doesn’t give a shit. He sees a mother crying but it’s not his mother – she’s here [on the set] – and so he accepted and everything was human. But in each small moment of my life, I like this idea that I have to become a human being. It’s not just a given.