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Michael Guillén: Arnaud, I feel a bit ill-prepared because I feel I should really watch A Christmas Tale at least three more times before discussing it with you. When I caught it at the press screening with a friend, we argued for an hour afterwards about who loved it more. [Desplechin laughs.] After watching A Christmas Tale, I was reminded of that wonderful line in James Goldman's The Lion In Winter when—after King Henry's three sons Richard, Geoffrey and John have mercilessly connived against each other, amidst many other court intrigues—Eleanor of Aquitaine wistfully remarks, "Ah well. What family doesn't have its ups and downs?"
It seems in this year's crop of films there has been a strong focus on family. In your particular filmmaking, I'm intrigued by the tension you establish between individuals and family. As an individual, you can stage your civility whereas with family you cannot hide. The family gathering becomes the crucible in which the individual gets cooked and no one captures that alchemy better than you. Can you speak to your frequent exploration of this tension between individuals and family?
Arnaud Desplechin: It's funny you mention that because in previous films people have asked me why I like to show the family of the characters, which reminds me of how we used to joke around when I was 8 or 10 about how embarrassing it was when schoolmates met your family. It was always a shameful experience. Your friends would meet your mother or your father or your sister or your brother and they would have all these bad jokes about, "Your mother is like this or your father is like that." There's a shame in showing your family to friends because all the family's naked imperfections are revealed. You can't hide how ridiculous they are. When you're with your family, you can't pretend. Each time I work on a character, I'm curious to know things about his or her family. Suddenly the character can't bullshit me any longer. I know their mother. I know their father. They can't pretend they're such a hero or anything like that. In this film it was even more fun because the family was just so funny. Sometimes when people see that A Christmas Tale is so much about the family, they react to the film by asking me if I'm pro or anti-family; but, I can't say I'm either pro or anti-family. Families just happen. I don't think a thing about the rain; it's just raining. That we are each here today means we were both born and have a family—I don't think much about it—but, this particular family is funny. I've never felt that a family has to work or not work. Of course every family is dysfunctional. Friendships work because you work at them; but, families…?
Guillén: Exactly. Friendships are choices; the family, no choice. Essentially you need both. But let's talk about the families you create. In your last film Kings and Queen you had a father who hated his daughter; in A Christmas Tale you have a mother who hates her son. Is hatred a necessary feeling in the family dynamic? Why is that important for you to show?
Desplechin: The two families in the two films have quite different dynamics. I can see the contrasts and the similarities that you're setting up—the father's hatred in the one film; the mother's hatred in the other—there is a rhyme between the two films, or a resonance. The hatred of the father for his daughter in Kings and Queen had a flavor of King Lear. It was an incestuous kind of love. In that film, we never see his wife. We see the father and his two daughters. We never know his wife. There's not even a photo of her in his apartment. After all the years of living together, the love between Nora and her father became quite dangerous, which is similar to Lear's love for Cordelia. On the other hand, in A Christmas Tale the hatred of Junon [Catherine Deneuve] for Henri [Mathieu Amalric] is more of a political statement, which is that women are not obliged to love their kids. It's silly and reactionary to think otherwise. You can be a woman and you can happen to have kids but that does not mean at all that you are a mother.
Guillén: Well, that political statement was so charmingly portrayed by Deneuve that she won an award for it! [Laughter.] Which underscores an acknowledgement of its truth.
Desplechin: Some think the truth is that a mother should love her son or a father should love his daughter. It's written in Freud. Wrong! We've all experienced the reverse of that. I mean, c'mon. How many young boys who are only 2 or 3 years old are madly in love with their father and not at all with their mother? Which can be more frightening than the Oedipal fantasy: a boy who loves to be physically held by his father whereas he finds his mother's embrace strange. Or the absolute love a little girl can have for the body of her mother. It's almost sexual. It's something that people may not talk about but it's obvious in everyday experience. Little boys love their dads and little girls love their mothers.
I was also playing with the idea of genre. I wanted to make a French version of a Thanksgiving movie. Usually in a Thanksgiving movie, you're obliged to wait an hour and ten minutes, after which the mother will confess to her son while crying and sobbing, "I never loved you." I love that kind of movie—it's fun, it's popular—but, I think it's a loss of time. Why wait for such a long time? With this family, the Vuillard family, they confess this in the opening scene. They are terrible, brash and bold, saying the forbidden thing to start each scene. After that, you can see how life actually happens. And is it all that bad? No! If you start a conversation by saying, "I'm not that keen on you. I've never loved you. You were born too late and you couldn't save your brother. I don't feel anything for you"; after that, they will spend a good moment together because all the worse has been confessed at the beginning.
Guillén: Their relationship was completely intriguing and vivid. Your films are known for their stylistic density. J. Hoberman has written that in your films plot is frequently trumped by texture. And I'm aware that on the set of Kings and Queen you used Truffaut's maxim: "Every minute four ideas." A Christmas Tale is equally intriguing for its wealth of articulated ideas. For me they were like Pandoric boxes, which—when opened—released much unexpressed emotion. In other words, the ideas contained emotions, which once released—to use Hoberman's term—did texture and complicate the film. Michael Koresky has likewise written that the experience of your films is an "earned emotional catharsis." Can you speak to that dynamic between ideas—which you love—and emotions, which are so strong in your films?
Desplechin: That's a beautiful question. I guess what I'm calling "ideas" are very material. A close-up, not so much on a face, but on the props and details on the set: the white glass of milk in Hitchcock's famous movie, for example, with poison in it. That's an idea. It's not an object any longer. What does it mean? I don't know exactly. I'm not a philosopher. But you can feel that the shot is full of ideas. You can see that it's an idea. In Hitchcock's movies you have a lot of ideas like that. It can be a way of acting: laughing instead of crying; crying instead of laughing. It's complete. Yeah, I love that. So when I'm saying "ideas", I don't mean intellectual concepts; I mean practical, aesthetic emotions. It works if you have the absolute involvement of the actors in their characters. If there is a pure purpose and their performance is not just a game. They create the tension.
Chiara [Mastroianni] told me after shooting a scene that she was surprised when she saw how I had placed the camera on different things, inserting these details of objects, when she—as an actress—was giving her full strength to the emotions in her performance while I as the director was playing around with these different things at the same time. [Laughs.] I wasn't able to pick up every magical, scintillating moment that came through in her performance. I had to count on the fact that the actors were playing their roles to the max and then I would catch the various glints, glimpses, glimmers of emotion.
Guillén: Another way you texture and complicate your films is through cinematic citation. Here, as we're talking, you're already referencing Hitchcock and his use of objects. Kings and Queen definitely bore many traces of Hitchcock. Would you say that in A Christmas Tale you were more consciously informing the film with Bergman?
Desplechin: Yes. The main thing is that it's not a game. It's not a trick. It's more a goal, or an aim, a target, a direction. For me it was a wild rose. No complaints, always fighting, boyish girls. What is cinema if it is not action? You have to provoke actions in each scene. In the process of writing A Christmas Tale, the script appeared as a comparison between two films, which were released in the same year in France: one was Saraband and the other was The Royal Tenenbaums. The Wes Anderson film was quite desperate and full of anxiety and Saraband—though a brutal movie—is full of fun in an odd way. The suture of the two of them was so close to A Christmas Tale that I had to use them. Each time that I was afraid I was copycatting Wes Anderson, I would switch to Bergman and then when I became afraid of copying Bergman, I would go back to Wes Anderson. But c'mon. The feel of all three films is about a house with brash characters, an incestuous flavor, and desperation; but the goal is to have a good show that is full of energy.
Guillén: But in fairness to A Christmas Tale—even if you were using these two other films to navigate and rudder through your creative process—the film is distinctly, uniquely your own.
Desplechin: It's always such an anxiety.
Guillén: Another citation I found quite interesting was when the family was watching The Ten Commandments on the television. I've been in family get-togethers where we've watched The Ten Commandments, almost like we're narcoticizing ourselves. [Desplechin chuckles.] It's like we're trying to get away from the family by watching television.
Desplechin: I loved their deep concentration and how the sounds of the film run all throughout the house so that when Moses parts the Red Sea, you think the family might vanish.
Guillén: Can you speak to the references to Hitchcock's Vertigo throughout the film?
Desplechin: Vertigo is about a dead woman, a dead wife. I used it as a musical motif. Mathieu's character Henri had a wife and it's a fact that she died. He doesn't complain about it—he doesn't really even talk about it—but, he is clearly surviving the death of his wife. When Junon takes off it's because she doesn't know how to deal with her illness and the prospect of the transplant and she too is like a woman, a wife, who is going to die. So the musical theme moves from Henri's mourning to her husband Abel [Jean-Paul Roussillon]. She's not okay with the idea of making him a widow. It just worked. Plus, it was in this scene where she is shopping in the big mall with Faunia [Emmanuelle Devos], buying dresses, and saying mean butch lines, fun sexual stuff, but actually it's absolutely desperate because she's thinking, "I'm so old. It's the last year I will buy a new dress. Next year I will be dead, or too old, and it is finished. It's the last year because I am sick. I have this cancer." Faunia, on the other hand, is young. Both of them are pretending to be brash funny women but the scene is melancholic. Junon is thinking, "Abel will mourn me in one year because I will be dead. This is the last time I will be buying a dress and this dress that I'm looking at is not that nice. I would have preferred to find a really nice dress if it's going to be my last one." The Hitchcockian theme from Vertigo pronounced the melancholy.
Guillén: Yet another way you texture the film is through the use of cinematic devices such as the iris shots and montages; my favorite being the one of the heart locket spinning against Roubaix as a backdrop. Absolutely lovely and thrilling! Can you speak about where that came from? I know what I felt when that image came onto the screen but I can't quite articulate it. What were you hoping people would feel in that image?
Desplechin: That's what I'm calling an idea. I can't quite articulate it either. There's something childish about it, something about the lost adolescence of Elizabeth [Anne Consigny], perhaps Spatafora [Samir Guesmi] was Elizabeth's lover? Perhaps the locket doesn't mean the love of this boy for Elizabeth? Perhaps it just means the love Elizabeth feels for her mother? We don't know. It's just turning, like a game, like a merry-go-round. It's just a heart and it's moving. And at the end of the movie Elizabeth places the heart locket at the foot of her mother's bed while she's waiting, not knowing if she will come home. It's a game. That's why I call it an idea, precisely because I cannot articulate it, except through an image and editing.
Also, the heart carries over into the scene where Faunia is leaving the house and Paul [Emile Berling] is so clumsy in his adolescence, so embarrassed, and Faunia draws a small heart on his hand as a gift. It's like his first kiss. So you have the heart moving from Elizabeth to her son.
Guillén: And true to the theme of the film because—though there is so much bitterness in the Vuillard family and the threat of death—there is so much heart in the film. You've been quoted as saying that actors have taught you everything you know and with your preference for ensemble pieces, by now you must know quite a lot? What is the value of working with the same actors again and again?
Desplechin: I've said this a number of times, each time I'm very apprehensive about having to do that. I don't want to do something that has become trite and hackneyed because it's been done before. It's like making love, you know? The first time it's easy to make love and have it work and be impressive….
Guillén: Well, for some.
Desplechin: [Laughs.] But by the 30th time, it's a lot more difficult. When I approach Mathieu and Emmanuelle, or when I asked Catherine, I felt, "She saw me work on Kings and Queen. She will say, 'This guy, I know all his tricks.' I just have three tricks. It's miserable. It's pathetic." The first time working with an actor it's easy; I can show all three of my tricks. They either like them or not. The second time I have to find new tricks or a refreshing way of creating something else. It seems to me that I'm not trying to continue, or to dig the same path, which is something I do admire in the work of André Téchiné; it seems to me the two of them are still digging the same path but going deeper and deeper. They've worked on five films together. As a writer, I have to reinvent myself and reinvent my actors every time.
Guillén: But is such repeated reinvention possible for a true artist?—and I consider you a true artist—is not the truth more that each artist can only be who they are and create what they have within them to create? It's like the oak in the acorn. You become who you are. Each artist has their constellation of themes that they express. Your oeuvre becomes a process of having expressed, albeit in various ways, who you fundamentally are.
Desplechin: As a spectator, I do agree and share the same point of view. When I'm looking at the films by all the directors I do love, I see that. But in my job, I can't afford the illusion of a self. I'm just making a film. Sometimes I'm doing it because I'm trying to forget who I am, to dream the idea that I can be a new man, having no relationship with any of the previous films I have made, and that what I'm making is absolutely brand new. On A Christmas Tale it was difficult to feel that because I was using so many of the same actors I've worked with before and the plot was so close to plots I've used before, so I felt limited in a way. But when I'm making the film, I just hope—madly (and each time it's a failure)—that this film at last will be brand new and that Arnaud Desplechin didn't direct it. I have to have this solution to go on. There's a tension.
Guillén: Let's speak of Mathieu Amalric. Although it's been referenced by other journalists, I'm not sure anyone has specifically asked you if Mathieu is, for you, an acteur fétiche?
Desplechin: Oh, he's much more than that. He's a great actor.
Guillén: Of course; but, in your films, he isn't expressing your selfhood in any way? You're using him just as a great actor?
Desplechin: There's no doubt he's a great actor, a great artist, and I've no regrets about using him in that regard. But it's perhaps true that after three films or so there is something that we share that's typically French, maybe European, though I'd say French. It has something to do with the difficulty of portraying what a man is on the screen in the movies. Let's be honest, in French cinema there are 12 great French actresses who work all around the world who are well-known and universally well-regarded and who are precious to young girls in any country, in China, wherever. French actors? C'mon. I mean, it's boring, you know?
I remember Truffaut saying that he had gone too far with this character he had created with Jean-Pierre Léaud because French audiences like to see masculine actors for male parts. The French audience doesn't like to accept the fact that the man is broken, castrated, girlish, or wounded in any way. So many academics have noted that in the work of many American actors there is this feminine aspect of what it is to be a man, which is to be wounded. Therefore there is a difficulty it seems to me in France to invent good male heroes who—to my mind—are more complex like American actors. Both Mathieu and I share concerns about these representations. It's difficult to grow up in France at 11 or 12 where you don't want to become the adult men that you see in French movies. You don't know who you will become but you know for sure you can't relate to Jean Gabin. It's impossible. It's disgusting to be Jean Gabin.
Guillén: Really?! Is that true?? How fascinating.
Desplechin: Yeah. To be Paul Newman, yeah. When you're a young French girl of 11 you can want to be Catherine Denueve, or Jeanne Moreau, it's an aspiration to something which is higher than you; but, for a young French boy of 11? The only French actor I related to was Jean-Pierre Léaud because at least he was bizarre, which was something I could relate to. To try to invent figures, male heroes, that young boys can relate to is something that both of us, Mathieu and I, share a concern about.
Guillén: Is that shared concern that you want these male characters to possess an almost mythic humanity?
Desplechin: I guess so. That's something that was true also in the American classics. To become a great actor in the French classics, you had to accept that the camera would look at the girl first, and then at you afterwards. There is something bizarre between the camera and women that belongs just to cinema, which doesn't happen on the stage, it happens only on the screen. If you take a video camera and go into the street and film women, all of them, from girls to 50-year-olds, there is something that is complete, immediately you have something of use about what it is like to be a woman. With the male and film, it is not that fused. The male has to admit some feminine part.
Mathieu and I noticed that for the first time when we filmed My Sex Life. Mathieu was helping out with the direction, he was being an assistant to directors on other films, and I asked him to come help me out with the casting. He was to play a man in love with three women. When I gave him his lines the first time he acted for me, I was not feeling it. I was feeling it with the girls. But I felt the man was the main character in My Sex Life. But I didn't know this male character actually. I loved him because I loved his three wives. That's why I thought he was so interesting. I loved the fact that he loved three wives so differently from each other. It was a good character but I knew nothing about his soul. Mathieu was embarrassed for his vanity because he thought perhaps he was just there to give the lines to the several actresses we were working with but I told him it was a challenge for him to see if he could give something in his acting. That's when we realized that the right model position is to accept that the camera will film the girl first but if you're a good actor people will love you, they don't need to see your face. People go to movies to see a woman's face.
Guillén: If I'm understanding you correctly, you're talking about the long-argued equation of the camera with the masculine gaze and that—in order for a man to be looked at—he must be objectified like a woman and, as you say, reveal what is feminine about him. Or act in such a way as to retain his masculinity by serving the camera's gaze on the actress? Fascinating and problematic. It brings to mind José Luis Guerín's In the City of Sylvia; have you seen that film?
Desplechin: No, I haven't seen this film.
Guillén: You must see it because it's very much about these themes you are discussing and there is specifically a wonderful scene where Guerín takes the camera into the streets of Strausbourg and films—as you say—a variety of women who all prove fascinating just for being women, whether young, old, beautiful, ugly, disfigured, whatever. They're all fascinating in their unique ways.
Desplechin: I could put it in a different way. As a woman, when you're filmed, something of your radiance glows. As a man, your ridiculousness shows. I could take one example from a film that I love, Rio Bravo. John Wayne is playing this man who's pretending he's a big shot but is so clumsy. There's this comic scene with the Mexican bartender where the guy has bought red sexy lingerie for his wife from the big city and is having them delivered to the sheriff's office because he doesn't want to be discovered. He's so happy that he's showing them off to John Wayne, placing them in front of John Wayne, just as a female is passing by and looks in to the sheriff's office. John Wayne's character is rendered ridiculous and this is what makes him such a moving hero because he is still brave even with the red panties. You can't pretend to be Greta Garbo, no, you have to accept being John Wayne with red panties, which is ridiculous and yet heroic in a way.
Guillén: Again, if I'm hearing you correctly, women have a natural incandescence in front of the camera and the problem for the male actor is how to maximize his relationship to that incandescence.
Guillén: That being said, you have used Mathieu and Emmanuelle several times in your films and you have repeatedly kept them in relationship, which I find an interesting casting aesthetic. You could cast them so that they're not in relationship and yet you have maintained their partnership on-screen. What's that about?
Desplechin: It just works. I don't mean to go on too long about this, it just matters a lot to me, but, when I go to a movie and I want to learn something about my own incandescence—which does exist—I'm looking at the female character. And when I want to learn something about my pathetic foibles, I look at the male character. Do you see what I mean? Accepting that is something that is so great about the camera, which is deceptive in relationship to the world. When I want to learn about my own weaknesses, I am looking at Mathieu. As for the new couple that he and Emmanuelle invented for this film, their relationship is beautiful within the context of the ensemble of characters. They've never quite done this before. The fact that she is so polished and he is so brash and arrogant in front of his family and yet, alone with her, you can see that he is terrified that she will dump him at one point or another. He's behaving like he's five years old and Emmanuelle is the mother he never had, trying not to upset her, and I think that's so lovely. She, in turn, loves the power she can have over this brash man. They're a lovely couple.
Guillén: Surveying the rest of your ensemble, I absolutely adored the two little boys Baptiste and Basile. They give so much heart to your film. If you are, indeed, learning from your actors, what did you learn from those two little boys?
Desplechin: [A long pause.] It was tricky. Because they just look like nothing, they are common boys. It was difficult for them to give a good performance too. That's why I wanted these two boys because they are precisely common, they are not snobbish kids who love to act for the camera, they are just kids, period, they are plain. How can you play that? How can you play that you are absolutely common, lovely boys? Plus, there was a curious thing with the two of them because they are real brothers and there is a two-year age difference between them but they are exactly the same and you can't tell who is older. I needed that because Mathieu's character can't remember who is who—"Bastian?" "No, Baptiste!"—and so between the two of them, it's not so easy for the older because the younger is slightly taller and it's not so easy for the younger because the older is slightly more clever. That's why when they did the play, it worked because the older one was helping the younger one who couldn't exactly remember his lines; but, the younger one is like a little monster with a booming voice and has a charisma that the older doesn't have. There's a competition between them that's lovely.
Guillén: And to amplify what you were saying earlier, the eye is drawn to children like it is drawn to women. In their boyhood they have an incandescence that is lost in malehood. Which leads me to something I read where you were quoted as saying that in your mind you are 15 years old. Which, in turn, leads me to consider that frequently in your films you have adolescent characters—such as Paul in this film—who are emotionally troubled. In Paul's case he was even institutionalized because he was emotionally troubled. What are you trying to say about the young male who is so sensitive and in so much trouble?
Desplechin: That's a subject I have not talked about a lot. I certainly didn't have any idea that I wanted to impose upon the viewer; but, looking at young people—and there are many examples just looking around me—I have the impression that they allow themselves less latitude, less freedom, than I did, or than people did when I was young. Maybe they have been given less freedom than I was given when I was young? In a strange way, they almost express feelings of guilt. If I compare what's going on today with how it was for me when I was 12 or 13, to get to the movies we would hitchhike to the next town over. At 14, with a buddy I would hitchhike to the other side of France! Today that's just not done. Believe me, I'm a liberal guy, or at least claim to be, but I wouldn't allow my child to do that, no. Of course, it must have been dangerous even then when I was young; but, it seemed a part of our lives because life was dangerous, period. These days we protect youth in such a way that we take something away from them. The character of Paul came from this kind of feeling; the idea that he is overly protected, overly loved, which never allows him any room for his self. It becomes difficult just to be young, to be stupid, to be brash. Paul is restraining himself in a way that strikes me as quite contemporary, especially in France….
Guillén: I think that overprotective attitude towards youth has gone global.
Desplechin: Perhaps. Though I'm not so sure in Asia that attitude exists. When I look at Asian films, Chinese films, the youth seem more adventurous as when I was young. But, otherwise, yes, I agree it's perhaps global. Even with all my liberal principles, my so-called love for freedom, I would prefer to suppress the freedom of a young guy to make sure that he would be safe and, ironically, I was not raised like that. I lived a dangerous life and today I'm trying to protect kids from a dangerous life, which is actually stupid because life is dangerous anyhow.
Guillén: Perhaps it's a question of degree? Perhaps the dangers are different now than they were when we were young? I was the same way. I was a wild child in constant danger with a hyperimagination, hitchhiking back and forth across the United States, and I'm so glad I grew up that way. Now even as an adult I wouldn't dream of hitchhiking! Modern life has made me a scaredy-cat! [Laughter.] It's as if a fear has entered life in a way that was never there before. It's a mediated fear that has compromised a natural animal strength, especially in young people. That's why I find that theme so interesting in your films, which I think one reviewer has termed impedi menta: the psychological baggage that keeps people from functioning as they would wish.
You've had two films now where the hospital is something of a stage for comedy. I loved the scene in A Christmas Tale where Junon has checked into the hospital for her transplant and the nurse asks her, "Are you Junon Vuillard?" The timing of one or two beats combined with the disdainful look on her face is hilarious. Did you direct Catherine that way or is that something she pulled out of her performance?
Desplechin: I definitely directed it. This thing is kind of the joke behind the joke behind the joke. The fact that, yes, I tried to transform this marrow transplant into a kind of fairy tale, a fable, a tale, something magic; but, it's a process that's measured by much reality. There's a 6% chance of being killed by a marrow transplant, which means a hospital is legally obliged to cover their ass. Six years ago there would have been a police officer beside the nurse asking for a signature because injecting someone with bone marrow can be like injecting someone with poison. The hospital has to prove that you are who you say you are before the procedure because, otherwise, it will kill you. It's not a fairy tale. Junon doesn't understand at all this absurd legal ritual with the doctor handing the bone marrow to the nurse and the nurse asking her these necessary questions as if she's some kind of priest officiating over a marriage ceremony. Junon is thinking, "C'mon! Go faster!" It's funny because she's like a queen in a sordid situation. But it's very real.
Guillén: That's exactly right. I felt her reaction was encapsulated in disdainful regality. Well, Arnaud, we need to wrap up….
Desplechin: It's been a genuine pleasure.
Cross-published on Twitch.