Saturday, October 11, 2008

FCN: A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noël)—Q&A With Arnaud Desplechin

A French film festival in San Francisco has been long overdue and highly anticipated, as was proven in force by the capacity audience for the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now ("FCN") opening night screening of Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noël) at San Francisco's Clay Theater in the Upper Fillmore.

After acknowledging the festival's sponsors, Graham Leggat—Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society ("SFFS")—then generously shouted out to loyal SFFS members Netta and Mike Fedor for celebrating their 30th anniversary at the opening night of FCN. "What could be more romantic than an evening of French cinema?" Leggat beamed.

"Over the next five days," Leggat continued, "you will see entries from all sorts of genres addressing all aspects of the human condition." Encouraging FCN's opening night audience to come back during the course of the festival to catch the Special Preview Presentation of Pascal Bonitzer's Alibi (Le grand alibi, 2008) as well as Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's film Actresses (Actrices, 2007)—"Which first surfaced at the New York Film Festival many many months ago and has had trouble getting a release in the United States because of music rights. This may be the only opportunity you get to see this film as the rights show no sign of clearing any time soon."—Leggat likewise drew attention to Benajmin Marquet's equestrian documentary Lads and Jockeys (Lads et jockeys, 2006) and, of course, FCN's closing night film, the Cannes Palme d'Or winner The Class (Entre les murs, 2008) by Laurent Cantet.

"None of that," Leggat qualified, "should draw our attention at the moment from the wonderful film we are to see here tonight. Extraordinary, novelistic, part melancholic melodrama, part indescribable fable, about a family brought together like it or not for three days during the holidays made in inimitable fashion by the most daring and accomplished French filmmaker working today." Leggat then invited Arnaud Desplechin to the stage. After warm applause, Desplechin—charming, with mirthful eyes—admitted he felt stupid for not knowing what to say.

Leggat added before starting A Christmas Tale that FCN would likewise be screening in coming days Desplechin's first film Life of the Dead (La vie des morts, 1991)—"which is almost impossible to see in this country"—as well as Desplechin's 1996 tour de force My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument (Comment je me suis dispute ... Ma vie sexuelle) with two of the key actors that Arnaud has worked with many times and who likewise appear in A Christmas Tale: Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric. [This Q&A transcript is not for the spoiler-wary!]

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Leggat welcomed Desplechin back to the stage after the screening of A Christmas Tale to field questions from his appreciative audience, with interpretive assistance from Donald McMahon. Leggat started the questioning off: "Where to begin, Arnaud? This film is so restless, always moving, all the scenes from a different angle, a different approach to the viewer, a snow storm, a thousand fragments. How on earth did you put this together? How much footage did you have in the editing room? How many shots went into creating this universe?"

"A lot, I guess," Desplechin grinned. After the laughter subsided, he offered that one lie producers frequently advocate is that film is expensive, when actually film is not that expensive. He doesn't count shots; he just films.

"I understand," Leggat pursued, "but, you must have had an enormous amount of material to work with. Did you edit it? Or did you work directly with the editor?"

Desplechin claimed that—since he was a student in film school—he has frequently worked as a director of photography or as an editor on small, short-budget films. Film is, after all, a collaborative project; it is not a novel. He couldn't imagine not collaborating with the editor or fellow writers. For example, on A Christmas Tale he worked with Emmanuel Bourdieu, with whom he'd worked on his earlier films Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument and Esther Kahn (2000). Sometimes he works with a lot of material because it's required to catch a scene's poetry; other times everything he has to say is achieved in a single take.

Leggat reminded Desplechin that once in an interview he said that when he's working with actors, he's not looking for a result; he wants them to try and so they dig in all directions. "Certainly to me, to us, it seems very much like that in this film; but, tell us something about the process of working with a cast this big with so many individual stories, with so many glimpses."

Desplechin remembered that interview with Film Comment, and offered: "I couldn't work with an actor if he's giving me just the 'right' performance because actually I do not know exactly what is the 'right' performance, you know? I'm writing lines—I hope they are good lines for acting—and after that I just hope and pray that something happens on the set, that I will have another understanding of those lines that I have written." What he loves is when his actors, as human beings, strive to find several meanings in his written lines. Unable to completely translate a saying in French that amounts to the idea that stage directions are cheap lines, Desplechin offered by example that—though the script might say "she cries"—it might be more truthful to the scene if she laughs. As a director he waits and tries to create the conditions on the set where, hopefully, something mystical, religious, or miraculous might appear.

As "a straight and simple example" Desplechin mentioned the scene towards film's end where the daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny)—who, incidentally can likewise be seen in Pascal Bonitzer's Alibi—forlornly asks her father Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) why she is always unhappy and what is missing from her life? Her father protectively answers, "Your brother." When Desplechin wrote that line, he wrote it "almost stupidly", he just thought it was a good line for the scene and it wasn't until the actors began performing it that they discovered a complex tension within the line. It's quite possible that when Abel says, "Your brother", he is obsessively referencing his dead son Joseph; but, Elizabeth understands and accepts her father's remark as her own obsessive preoccupation with her brother Henri. They are so sure they are communicating and that they have an emotional connection; but, in truth, they are actually speaking about two different brothers. This is the true meaning that the actors, through their performances, add to the cheap lines that he wrote. It makes the scene much more interesting and human.

Abel tries to soothe Elizabeth by quoting from Nietzsche's prologue to On the Genealogy of Morals (which Desplechin exquisitely renders as his camera slowly pans the snow-laden streets of Roubaix): "We don't know ourselves, we knowledgeable people—we are personally ignorant about ourselves. And there's good reason for that. We've never tried to find out who we are. How could it ever happen that one day we'd discover our own selves? With justice it's been said that 'Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.' Our treasure lies where the beehives of our knowledge stand. We are always busy with our knowledge, as if we were born winged creatures—collectors of intellectual honey. In our hearts we are basically concerned with only one thing, to 'bring something home.' As far as the rest of life is concerned, what people call 'experience'—which of us is serious enough for that? Who has enough time? In these matters, I fear, we've been 'missing the point.'

"Our hearts have not even been engaged—nor, for that matter, have our ears! We've been much more like someone divinely distracted and self-absorbed into whose ear the clock has just pealed the twelve strokes of noon with all its force and who all at once wakes up and asks himself 'What exactly did that clock strike?'—so we rub ourselves behind the ears afterwards and ask, totally surprised and embarrassed 'What have we really just experienced? And more: 'Who are we really?' Then, as I've mentioned, we count—after the fact—all the twelve trembling strokes of the clock of our experience, our lives, our being—alas! in the process we keep losing the count. So we remain necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not understand ourselves, we have to keep ourselves confused. For us this law holds for all eternity: 'Each man is furthest from himself.' Where we ourselves are concerned, we are not 'knowledgeable people.' " (Translation by Ian C. Johnston.)

"Speaking of the father and Joseph," Leggat queried, "and how Joseph's death has created the father, did you imagine always that you would start with that scene at the graveyard where he addresses the camera?"

Yes, Desplechin affirmed. When he started to write A Christmas Tale, he wanted to work with the popular American genre of the Thanksgiving dinner; but, of course, since he filmed in France, he shifted the family gathering to the Christmas holiday. Those lines that he wrote for the father at the graveyard are obscure threnodian lines that are rich material for an actor and he borrowed them from the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose own son died at the age of seven. Desplechin was admittedly confounded by Emerson's "Threnody", a poem in which Emerson strangely celebrates the death of his child, an experience which is one of the most cruel that life can offer. At the graveyard, Abel contests the value of tears and professes to be happy at the death of Joseph, claiming he has lost nothing. What a strange statement! (Additionally, it did not escape my notice that in the film's Christmas gift exchange, Abel gives his wife a volume of Emerson's writing; a lucid example of Desplechin's exquisite textuality.)

At this juncture Leggat opened the questioning up to Desplechin's appreciative audience. A cinema studies instructor expressed his interest in Desplechin's observation regarding the multiple meanings possible in a film. (Elsewhere—in fact—Desplechin has stated, "You can't stop a film from meaning things.") This instructor said he often argues with his students about intended and ascribed meanings in films. In one particular scene in A Christmas Tale, for example, the mother Junon (Catherine Deneuve) asks Henri, "Where are you coming from?" and he replies, "Where are you going?" Henri could be asking something as simple as what hospital she's going to, or could be saying something more telling about oblivion.

To argue is the point, Desplechin responded. "It's not about the will of the so-called director." The two lines the instructor was quoting—"Where are you coming from?" and "Where are you going?"—can be performed with similar signification. There is, in fact, a bizarre association with those lines in that Junon has earlier characterized Henri as behaving like "a little Jew." The first lesson you would learn from the Talmud is to never answer a question except with another question. So Henri's response is a Talmudic way of answering his mother's question. It becomes a kind of game. It provides a hue to Mathieu's character, which is like a Talmudic joke. Or you could have the other signification. The point is not what it means.

By further example, Desplechin alluded to the final scene in A Christmas Tale where there is a small shadow puppet theater above which is written "The Castle of Theseus." What does this mean? When he was 12 years old, Desplechin loved Greek mythology. Theseus is the story of an Athenian youth lost in a labyrinth. Perhaps the little boy Joseph wrote this above the shadow theater to express that he too was lost? On top of that, the script references William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in which the duke of Athens is likewise named Theseus and from which Elizabeth quotes in the film's final coda. "Which is the right meaning is not the point," Desplechin reiterated. "Is it beautiful? Is it magic? Are the actors happy? Are you happy to see the actors acting?" This is the film's created, working tension.

I then asked, "You've often stated that the characters you have Mathieu Amalric play possess the faults you wish you had. What are those faults that you love in Amalric's portrayals?"

"Oh God," Desplechin grinned, "the fact that he's so gross. I would love to be so drunk. If I could steal from my best friend. I'm jealous. When he steals the meds from Paul, it's so vile. It's so nice!"

One gentlemen was impressed with the unusual amount of medical detail in A Christmas Tale and he wondered if Desplechin had personal experience with bone marrow transplants or if it was just a subject he had extensively researched?

Hopefully, Desplechin answered, he would never have this kind of personal experience. But when he began working on the script and shaping the relationship between Junon and Henri, and exploring the theme of banishment, he came across a French volume which laid out the ethical complications of bone marrow transplants in a mythopoeic manner. The bone marrow transplant became the perfect mechanism to bring the family together. To further the script, he then visited several hospitals and interviewed the authors of the book he had found. His manner of writing was simply to imagine everything and then to confirm it for scientific accuracy. Surprisingly, his wildest imaginings proved to be medically accurate. France and the United States lead the field in bone marrow transplants, which are known not only for their physical danger, but for their psychological provocation, which intrigued Desplechin. He could understand why someone would be afraid of, let's say, a liver transplant or a blood transfusion because you can imagine a liver transplant or see a blood transfusion; but, bone marrow is an unknown substance. Yet it has this strange psychological effect fraught with poetry, either in the host, or the donor, or the family member who cannot donate. He endeavored to be as respectful as possible by being medically accurate and as realistic as possible to, thereby, achieve the mythopoeic.

Another audience member expressed his appreciation of the extraordinary usage of music in A Christmas Tale and he wondered if Desplechin shot sequences with specific pieces of music in mind or whether the music was layered onto the film afterwards in the editing room? For him it felt as if the music spoke to the inner life of the characters in an uncanny and significant manner.

Desplechin said he would love to answer that he knew which music he was going to use before he shot sequences in the film, but that would not be the truth. Rephrasing his earlier statement that he writes "cheap lines" of direction that are given later hue by the performances of the actors, Desplechin likewise uses music to enhance what is the heart of any given scene. In the editing room, he often removes the sound to see what emotions are being shown on the film, intuits which music would be most expressive, adds it and—more often than not—time and time again the music and the spoken words match perfectly.

Leggat sought clarification and asked Desplechin if he edited the film without dialogue? Desplechin replied that his first edit is with the dialogue but that if he encounters a scene which is proving problematic because it is not enough or is too plain, he removes the dialogue and converts his film into something of a silent movie, so that he can watch the emotions that are being portrayed and find a way to use music to pronounce those emotions. Desplechin reminded his audience that excellent dialogue was often written for silent movies even though you never hear it and the intertitles abbreviate the script. Some of Ernst Lubitsch's scripts for his silent films are quite remarkable. Reiterating what he has often stated in interviews, Desplechin is still 12 years old inside and—when he watches movies—he often watches them as he did when he was 12 years old. Which is to say that even though he didn't always understand what the adults were saying on screen, he understood the emotions they were expressing and—thereby—understood the scenes. He practices that still. If he is having a problem with a scene, he removes the lines to "listen" to the emotions that are being displayed. If he finds the right music, it will provide the hue to those emotions and when he adds the dialogue track back, then the words work.

Another audience member was intrigued by the Christmas play put on by the boys Baptiste (Clément Obled) and Basile (Thomas Obled), seen by everyone in the family except the quarreling siblings Elizabeth and Henri upstairs, whose ongoing enmity was ostensibly the play's central theme. As Andrew O'Hehir observed in his review for Salon, the children's play "recapitulates the central themes of the larger story in small but broad strokes: banishment, punishment, repentance, forgiveness."

"One could say," Desplechin responded, "that you have two plays; one upstairs and one downstairs." Apologizing for a lack of even false modesty, Desplechin admitted he loved that scene, even if he wrote it. He thinks the play is fascinating in the way the children come up with an answer for why the siblings are fighting (the one prince has slept with a goat) and devise a proper punishment (his arm is chopped off). Such physical mutilation inspires emotional contrition.

Desplechin was asked if he could talk about the scene with the mathematical probabilities of Junon's survival on the chalk board. The concern with the percentages of survival is a specific aspect of bone marrow transplants, Desplechin explained. For physicians it's a problematic scenario because it's quite possible they must kill two people in order to save one. Life suddenly becomes a mere percentage of chance. Of note is that the calculations on the chalkboard are mathematically correct and—during the filming of the sequence—Desplechin insured that one of the mathematicians was present in the next room watching the filming on a monitor to insure that the corrections made by the actors on the chalkboard remained accurate. The ironic truth of all this is that a life and death can be formulaically charted on a chalkboard. What Desplechin found interesting was to monitor Junon's response to this information. "It's not that nice to suddenly see your life reduced to two figures." Plus, Junon does not understand—just as Desplechin does not really understand—what the figures all mean. Once again, it reminded him of when he was 10 or so watching Alfred Hitchock's Torn Curtain on his grandparent's television. There was a scene where two scientists are arguing in front of a chalkboard, writing formulas about nuclear weapons. Desplechin didn't understand a word of what they were saying but the scene was full of pure tension, which he did understand from their facial expressions. He saw that the actors were delighted to perform these lines, secure with the mathematician present in the adjoining room.

Finally, one young woman expressed interest in the dynamic between Catherine Deneuve and her real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni and how in A Christmas Tale their characters didn't really like each other. She wondered how much of the casting influenced Desplechin's writing?

"When I'm writing," Desplechin replied, "I'm never thinking of any actor." For simple reasons. The writing process is so long—it took him at least a year to write the script for A Christmas Tale—that, if he'd had someone in mind during that year of writing, he would be bored with that actor by the time it came to shooting. They wouldn't surprise him any longer and—as he mentioned before—by the time he gets to the set, he wants to be surprised and informed by his actors. When he and his co-writers are developing the script, they sometimes think of dead actors in the roles to help formulate them; but, never live ones. Afterwards, when it came to casting the role of Junon's daughter-in-law, it took Desplechin nearly two weeks to muster up the courage to invite Chiara who he thought would be perfect for the role for fear that it would cause tension between Chiara and her real mother Catherine Deneuve; precisely because Junon does not care for Chiara's character Sylvia (except for when she betrays her husband and sleeps with Simon (Laurent Cappelluto)). Only then does Junon become intrigued by Sylvia. Despite this tension between the characters, both actresses were consummate professionals on the set and were not distracted by their mother-daughter bond.

With that, Graham Leggat closed the questioning and stated that "Tony" Scott in his review of A Christmas Tale for The New York Times wrote: "I swear, it filled me with unadulterated joy." "I think all of us here tonight felt that," Leggat concluded.

Cross-published on Twitch. Photo of Arnaud Desplechin courtesy of Robin Holland.