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All Good Films Are for Anyone

French director Arnaud Desplechin is a master of organized chaos. His work thrives on messy collisions between friends and spouses, parents and children, love and hate, myth and reality. And when he is at his best — as in his latest, Kings and Queen — it is as though all of life’s unruly pains, pleasures and lunacies have, for a fleeting moment, been pinned within the boundaries of a single celluloid canvas. Kings is the story of a boy in search of a father, a widow in search of a husband, a patriarch rallying against the onset of certain death, and a man called Ismaël, whose passions are as grand as his name. Which is to say nothing of the magisterial superstar shrink, or the looniest chemically enhanced attorney this side of Dr. Gonzo, both of whom also factor into the action. Simply put, if there’s a more humane, joyous, tragic, life-affirming movie to be found at the moment, I’m not aware of it. Born in 1960 and a graduate of the French film school FEMIS, Desplechin made his debut in 1991 with the hourlong La Vie des Morts, which offered — in its story of a family reunion sparked by a suicide attempt — an early indication of Desplechin’s interest in the disorder lurking behind carefully polished domestic surfaces. But Desplechin has never been that easy to predict. His first proper feature, La Sentinelle (1992), is an existential thriller in which a Parisian medical student discovers a severed human head in his suitcase. Esther Khan (2000), which threw even some of the director’s admirers for a loop, is an English-language period piece about a young Jewish woman’s rise from East End garment worker to West End stage star — and a better film than its reputation may suggest. But his breakthrough, and the movie closest in tone to Kings and Queen, is My Sex Life . . . or How I Got Into an Argument (1996), an idiosyncratic ensemble drama whose philosophy-student protagonist, Paul Dedalus, embarks on a journey of such extraordinary ordinariness as to rival that of his literary namesake, be he ancient Greek or modern Dubliner. The movie’s tempestuous, on-again, off-again lovers were played by Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos, who are reunited in Kings as Ismaël and his ex-wife, Nora, and it is but one of many respects in which the new film echoes the earlier one. During his recent trip to Los Angeles to promote the release of Kings and Queen, I met Desplechin over lunch at West Hollywood’s Sunset Marquis Hotel. L.A. WEEKLY: There are multiple cases of adoption in Kings and Queen, and adoption seems to function as the movie’s central metaphor, as though you are saying that, even for many of us who are born to natural parents, we come to have two families — the one we grow up in and then another that we find in the course of experience. ARNAUD DESPLECHIN: There are families we come into not by blood but by choice. The only good family is the one you are building and not the one you are hating. It’s work. You have to make it happen. I thought of Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet, about this kid who finds a father figure, and I thought it was so cinematic. For once, it’s a theme which I think really belongs to cinema, the idea of someone choosing to be a father or choosing to be a son and so on. That choice doesn’t belong to stage or literature or to poetry — it belongs to popular art. In Million Dollar Baby, it’s so moving, because this guy fucked up his private life, and you don’t know a thing about what he fucked up with his daughter, and then he gets a second chance to make it work, and it will fail again. In these times we’re in, it’s just floating in the air, this way of depicting feelings. I’m sure it’s a metaphor for something, but I don’t know for what. But I love the idea that it’s a job to be a son or a daughter. All the natural families in this film do not work: The relationship between Nora and her father is absolutely too incestuous. The relationship between Ismaël and his sister doesn’t work, because she is too much in love with him. What works is what you build, not what is given. You mention Kings and Queen being a very cinematic story, and yet one of the things that is most striking about your films is their hybridization of forms. Here, the voice-over narration and multiple storylines are very novelistic, while the choice of having Nora talk directly into the camera invokes the world of theater, which you also explored in Esther Khan and Playing in the Company of Men [Desplechin’s experimental 2003 adaptation of the Edward Bond, not the Neil Labute, play]. People are always talking about art films versus mainstream films and other such divisions, which I really hate. All good films are for anyone. You know when you are looking at a film by Godard that this will be for a smaller audience, which is fine. But a good Godard film is still a film that anyone can see and comprehend on some level. The same goes for this idea that there has to be some kind of split between what constitutes a novel and what doesn’t. Because who knows? I think that today among the most interesting and wild directors that you have are definitely the Farrelly brothers, because what they are doing is sometimes so shocking, so new and so politically straight to the point. They are only speaking about what is really embarrassing in American society. But the first time I saw a Farrelly movie, I thought it was nothing — it was my nephew, who’s 14 years old, who told me, “Come on, man, this is great.” And when I saw the movie for a second time, I thought, “These guys are really clever.” What I love in films is that you are always stealing from the noble arts and putting them in a popular form. It’s like songs. When I’m listening to a Bob Dylan song, I can hear that he knows everything that he has to know about Yeats — that this song comes from that poem of Yeats, this one comes from Eliot, and this one comes from Cummings for sure. But in a popular way. I could describe the history of the American cinema as this wonderful dialogue between the East Coast and the West Coast, between the noble arts and Hollywood. When Eugene O’Neill’s plays were on Broadway, guys on the West Coast were reading the newspapers: “What’s that name? O’Neill? He’s great? Okay. Let’s buy it.” They hired John Ford and they were making a screen adaptation, and that’s what Lubitsch was doing too. Later on, what was Sidney Lumet doing? He was on Broadway directing theater, so he was perfect to do a film like Dog Day Afternoon, because it’s just one set and three characters. Even now, you have the HBO film Angels in America, because Tony Kushner is a fucking good writer. And if you look at Seinfeld, that is the best of the popular theater — onstage, it would be perfect. But why not steal it from the stage and put it on the screen? Well, of course, it’s the French who have this wonderful euphemism for cinema — the seventh art — which suggests that movies are in some way the summation of all the other art forms that have come before them. And your films seem alive to this idea in a way many movies don’t. For example, in watching My Sex Life, we may think of Ulysses, and not only because a character is called Dedalus . . . But you can think about Friends too, because Friends is a good TV show. That’s what I love about films — there’s no scale of value. And that’s what I love about Ismaël. One minute, he’s playing baroque music, then he switches to hip-hop, and that’s fine with him too. I love when he’s able to quote that obscure German poet, in German, and then he starts referencing Batman, and they’re almost the same thing, because there’s no scale of value. They’re just things that are beautiful — a corner of the street, a line of a poem, a song. The decision to reunite Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos inevitably recalls their memorable pairing in My Sex Life, where they were a similar pair of wayward lovers. I think you’re right, but I only realized it after speaking with audiences for Kings and Queen. The plots and the characters were so far apart, and I don’t write with specific actors in mind. When I’m writing characters, I try to make them surprising, and my work becomes to try to understand their mysteries. If I was thinking of a particular actor, it seems to me that it would shrink the part in some way or restrain my writing, because I would start asking stupid questions like: Is he able to say this line? Is she able to say that line? And what I’m interested in is the line that’s impossible to say, and to find a way of saying it, to discover a new path. But the idea of a couple, a love story, there was a kind of a link. It’s funny, because each time you make a movie, you have this dream that it will have no connection with anything you did before. You do everything you can. You say, “They were students before? Now, no more students. They were staying in cheap apartments and hanging out in trendy cafés? No more cafés. They were philosophers? This time they will be musicians or run art galleries.” Then, when you finish the movie, the spectators come and say, “Great, it’s just like the one before!” But if I was self-conscious about those connections, I think it wouldn’t be good for my work. So I have this dream that I will make a film that will not be directed by Arnaud Desplechin, but by me. In your films, the camera achieves such intimacy with the actors that it almost seems like a soft hand gently caressing them and saying that everything will be okay. Can you tell me about your collaboration with the cinematographer Eric Gautier, who has shot four of your films? I think Eric is one of the most talented cameramen in France, because he knows all of the chemical processes and how to use the wonderful new film stocks. Everyone now is speaking about video, but the real innovations now are the new film stocks. You can do amazing stuff. I remember the light in Unforgiven, when they are in the saloon and the light is just coming from the windows. It’s so daring to do that. And because Eric and I are from the same generation, we were also influenced by the same cameramen and filmmakers — all these guys who arrived in America from Eastern Europe and were using lots of natural light. Without them, Taxi Driver would not have been possible. The American movies of the 1970s were so new, not just from the director’s point of view, but from the cameraman’s point of view too. Very recently, I realized that one of the filmmakers who influenced me so much in my work with Eric — because he’s so careful with the costumes and the sets and the props, the quality and texture of them, the kind of fabrics — is Milos Forman. You can think that Milos Forman is quite an intellectual kind of director. But what strikes me is the sensuality of his filmmaking. He’s the only filmmaker where I can remember thinking of his scenes, “Oh, it was cold that day.” “Oh, it was warm that day.” Or, “The fabrics were quite heavy and I wanted to take off my jacket.” I have physical sensations when I’m thinking about Valmont or Ragtime. I can remember when it was foggy, when the food was good, et cetera. And Eric is fascinated by that, by the sensuality of what he’s shooting. Yet you did use video yourself for parts of Playing in the Company of Men. There were bits on video, bits on 35mm, bits on all other kinds of formats. There are good films made on video. There’s one film, I think it’s a great film, The Anniversary Party. But when you look at the crew, it’s one of the older, classical cameramen, John Bailey, and that’s why the lights are so soft and so sharp. So, okay, it’s shot on video, but why not? And the plot permits it, because it’s a sort-of home movie, with people filming each other and actors playing themselves and so on. And of course, Eric Rohmer used video quite well in The Lady and the Duke. Yes, and it looked like D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm, the way he was painting the sets and so on. At last I understood why he liked Griffith when he was 20 years old and seeing those films in the Cinémathèque Française. I wanted to ask you about one particular scene in Kings and Queen, which is the flashback in which we see Pierre, Nora’s first husband, kill himself. It almost seems to be taking place on a stage, with a black background and just a few props roughed in for effect, like in Lars von Trier’s Dogville. I was scared to death to film that scene. Why does this guy commit suicide? Yes, I had a clue, which was that Pierre and Nora love each other like brother and sister, and so it cannot work. They are too young, they don’t know yet how to love each other like man and woman. But I saw so many clichés about suicide, so many clichés about human struggle, and I was sure that if we were shooting on location in a real student apartment, I would just see clichés and the actors would overact, or it would be crude or too sad. So, I thought to create a laboratory, an empty set with just the props of the drama —one table, one bed, one gun, one door, one window. Except that everything is black. The acting was amazing, and I decided we’d shoot that way and, one week later, we’d go to a real student apartment in Grenoble and shoot the scene again, and the acting would inevitably be different. And our clever production designer, in the real student apartment, he placed black curtains here and there to create a continuity of background. The editor then played with those two kinds of acting. When we needed to have the brutality and the realism of a real apartment, we used those takes. And sometimes when, on the reverse, we wanted to show something bigger than life or like a stage play, we used the material I shot in the laboratory. Nora is lost. She’s trying to figure out what exactly happened. So I thought in a way it was moral to mix these two different levels of acting. Some people seem to get intimidated by the length of your films. My Sex Life is a romantic comedy that runs almost as long as Lawrence of Arabia, and Kings and Queen is itself two and a half hours. But the films actually move quite briskly, and it is possible to think of many shorter films that seem much longer. We try everything that is possible, so it takes a while. What was specific to this film — not just in the editing, but in the writing too — is that there are two complete plots that could be, each one of them, a feature film. So in a way it was two films of 90 or 100 minutes, and we were obliged to go faster, to go straight to the point in each scene, in order to take out half an hour to make it fit. All the starts of the scenes are brutal. The dialogues are brutal. But at the end of the film, you understand what Nora’s life was and what Ismaël’s burlesque adventures have been, but we’ve told it in just two and a half hours instead of three. So for the one price, you have two films.


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