An Interview with Arnaud Desplechin and Mathieu Amalric
by Matthew Eng
When Mathieu Amalric arrived at the offices of Magnolia Pictures this past October for an afternoon of press for the New York Film Festival premiere of Ismael’s Ghosts, director Arnaud Desplechin snuck up behind his irrepressible, bug-eyed acting muse, wrapped his arms around his waist, and smooched him on the cheek. Amalric and Desplechin’s closeness, the result of a 22-year creative union that has become one of the most vital and renewable in contemporary world cinema, is exceedingly evident: they finish each other’s sentences, jog one another’s memory, and expand upon their ideas like knowing, longtime passengers on the same train of thought.
Their latest creation, the fascinatingly unfathomable Ismael’s Ghosts, centers on Amalric’s Ismael Vuillard, a writer-director unable to concentrate on his latest project, an unwieldy, globetrotting spy thriller. But it’s also about Carlotta (Marion Cotillard, an impossibly beguiling presence), Ismael’s long-presumed-dead wife whose casual reemergence as a sprightly, fawning spirit instigates a descent into madness for her already neurotic husband. There’s also Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Ismael’s current girlfriend, an enchanting astrophysicist who demands all or nothing of Ismael and has no interest in sharing him with his voracious wife. Then there’s Henri Bloom (László Szabó), Carlotta’s sickly father, a venerated filmmaker who serves as Ismael’s mentor and shares in his son-in-law’s abiding grief. But there’s also Ivan Dedalus (Louis Garrel), the mysterious French diplomat at the center of Ismael’s movie who may or may not be based on his real-life brother; as well as Arielle, Ivan’s jubilant wife; and Faunia, her real-life interpreter (each played by Alba Rohrwacher); not to mention Zwy (Hippolyte Girardot), Ismael’s loyal, panicky producer, who suffers great, sometimes physical pains to get his director back on track.
Ismael’s Ghosts, which received a divisive and occasionally hostile reception when it opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, surfaced in a lengthier form for its New York premiere. This “director’s cut” is a mournful, madcap portrait of obsession and reinvention, told through Desplechin’s trademark backpedaling, sidewinding, reality-hopping structure. The manic pace at which this auteur sifts and slides through tones can be overwhelming, even alienating, but Desplechin’s insistence on wandering down paths most filmmakers wouldn’t dare explore, much less envision, provides a heady, heart-searching pleasure for those of us willing to follow.
I talked with both Desplechin and Amalric about their multidimensional new filmic meditation, illustrious acting partners, Vertigo, and the evolution of their glorious working relationship.
Reverse Shot: Arnaud, you’ve described Ismael’s Ghosts as “several films compressed into one.” All of your films are such sweeping and complete cinematic experiences. I’m curious about how you discover the idea for a film like this one and then actually go about committing that story to the page, in all its detailed, multitudinous glory.
Arnaud Desplechin: I knew that I had bits and pieces about the life of a spy. Is he a spy or is he an idiot? We don’t know. His name is Ivan. He could be a spy, but he could be a moron, too. Maybe not a moron, but an idiotic, simple guy. I had a few scenes. And I knew I didn’t want to transform that material into one big [film]. But I [also] wanted to film the character of this director, Ismael, who is his brother. So, for the first time in my life, I had this idea of making a film about a director, which is always, for the producer, a fret. All the producers start to complain and say, “It’s too dangerous, it’s too dangerous.” So I had these scenes and these antics with the character of a jumpy producer. But there was one big question: who is this man, [Ismael] Vuillard? And I had no idea. And one day—I remember it so vividly—I had the idea that the guy would be a widower. [Mathieu] played a widower in A Christmas Tale, but I had so many stories that I couldn’t tell that part of [his] story. So I thought, What if I took seriously the story about the widower? And one morning, I woke up late and had a meeting with a producer. And I told him this story about a woman who arrives on the beach and meets another woman. And she asks her, “Is Ismael not swimming?” And the women replies, “No. How do you know [Ismael]?” And the stranger responds, “Because I’m his wife.” And she’s back, reappeared after twenty years. And then I knew I had the film. The film is about three levees transformed into one stream: the missing wife who reappears, the spy comedy with Ivan, and the loneliness of Ismael trying to finish his film.
RS: Arnaud, this is your eleventh feature. And Mathieu, this is your seventh film with Arnaud…
Mathieu Amalric: 7/11! We can open a shop. [Laughs]
RS: Ismael’s Ghosts registers as an oblique continuation of several of your collaborations. Various names are lifted from earlier projects, including the titular Ismael Vuillard, which is also the name of Mathieu’s character in Kings and Queen. But Ismael’s Ghosts also feels like it’s in direct conversation with these films, on an emotional, spiritual, and thematic level. Are there certain throughlines in the films and characters you’ve created together that you find yourselves consciously exploring in each new work, either together or separately?
MA: I don’t think about the continuity. So it’s better just to… [Makes a noise, drops his hands] or to think about those things maybe sometimes in some scenes. I’m thinking about a scene with the non-polite Ismael and Sylvia, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, when they meet. In that scene, I thought about some of the themes that Arnaud explores, like courageousness.
AD: It’s funny. I would say, just like Mathieu, I never think about the continuity, which is strange because sometimes my characters are sharing names. And people [ask], “Is it Balzacian?” Balzac’s ambition was to create a world with different [stories]. I do not have this ambition at all. Each time, for me, a new film is a new film. Period. But, on the other hand, when I’m sending the script to Mathieu and the character is named “Ismael Vuillard,” it means that this guy, Ismael, is going too far. Ismael is bawdy. Ismael is the character that neither Mathieu nor I allow ourselves to be in real life. He’s gross, insulting, extreme, hysterical, pompous sometimes, ashamed. And that’s too much. That’s what I love in this character, that he’s too much. And very often in my life, I think I’m not enough. So that’s why I love to depict this man, Vuillard. His name is sort of a sign to Mathieu that I will ask him to go too far. [Laughs] “Far” is not enough. “Too far” is good…
MA: [Paul] Dedalus [the character Amalric has played in Desplechin’s My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument and My Golden Days] is another color.
AD: Dedalus is not going too far…
MA: But we don’t think about that during filming. Arnaud does. But it’s only afterwards that we really think about that, when we have the pleasure of talking about the films.
RS: Arnaud, how much does Mathieu continue to feed your creative process? Are you specifically writing these characters for him at this point?
RS: Do you ever talk to each other about what Arnaud is working on in its nascency?
AD: No. On this one, I was writing the story. And there were so many stories involved that I was lost in the middle of all things. And I had two collaborators, two co-writers [Léa Mysius and Julie Peyr] to help me pick from one thing or another thing. And I also had a lot of pressure from some other French actors who wanted to play with me. And so I didn’t know—I didn’t know what I was writing. I knew that the scenes and the material were good, but I didn’t know what I was aiming for. Today, I know the goal I was aiming [for]. So I sent a rough draft of the script to this very close friend of mine, a 1st AD on my films. And I asked her, “Who do you think should play Ismael Vuillard?” And the answer from my friend, who is very ironic, was just one line: “Are you joking?” [Laughs] And I took the script and went through it and thought to myself, Who can play [this]? How many new [Marcello] Mastroiannis do we have in France? You have a lot of actors who love to be heroic or stern or mysterious or strong, but who would accept to be really gross at the same time? And that’s the gift that Mastroianni had. [He] embraced the fact that [his characters] were not perfect. They were absolutely imperfect. And the film is very much in reference to 8 1/2. I thought, Okay, I’m French. In France, we have one Marcello Mastroianni: Mathieu Amalric.
MA: [Bashfully shrugs, laughs] It’s nice to think about Mastroianni. He’s a guy who I think worked a lot. He prepared a lot and would hide it and just say, “It’s easy with Fellini.” Each time with Arnaud it’s the same, it’s true. But on this one, the influence of the women on the acting was absolutely a determining factor and the main energy. And the other woman in the film would be Girardot, the producer, in a way. [Laughs] Because it’s a love story… or a “friend story.”
AD: A buddy movie.
MA: Yeah, a buddy movie. [Laughs]
RS: This is the first time that both of you have worked with Charlotte Gainsbourg. And this is also the first time that both of you have worked in a major capacity with Marion Cotillard, although she appeared in a minor role in My Sex Life…
AD: Yeah, but it’s not the same Marion. [Laughs]
RS: Right, it’s not Academy Award-winner Marion Cotillard. So what drew you to these particular actresses?
MA: Arnaud wanted to work with Charlotte for a very, very long time.
AD: A very, very long time.
RS: She’s beautiful in this. I think that last monologue is one of the most moving I’ve ever seen put to film.
AD: She’s so great in the film, so great. And [Marion] is so wonderful in the film. It’s strange because I love—in France, it’s not common to say—but I love [La Vie en rose]. I loved it. I loved the energy of Marion Cotillard embracing the fact of acting and saying, “I’m able to act anything. Just give me the material. I’ll act it. Just gimme, gimme.” And to create the myth and destroy the myth. And what I mean by that is that, in Inception, she’s perfect. I think she’s great in [The Dark Knight Rises] and I disagree with all the bloggers [who said she wasn’t]. She’s wonderful. And then after that, she’s jumping to the Dardennes movie [Two Days, One Night], you know? She’s breaking the myth that she’s just built. She’s this woman [who is] able to build the myth [of a character] and destroy it when she’s bored with it and invent a new myth. She has this power. And I thought that it was great for the character of Carlotta to have a mythical actress for the part.
And Charlotte Gainsbourg, we’ve been running after each other for a while. And I thought of her for this part. And one evening I was speaking with a producer who was asking me, “Yes, but who do you want now that Mathieu will be in it? Who do you want for the two girls?” And I was saying the beauty of it would be to have Marion, who is so lively, and Charlotte, who can be so restrained. And on the other hand, Marion has a certain shyness. And when you see Charlotte in certain parts, in Nymphomaniac or Antichrist, you can see that she is so brave. And so the character of Sylvia is a woman who refuses a certain life, because she only wants to be with married men. And she is the fire beneath the ashes. And if you want such a character, you need to have the fire under the ashes and an actress who can make [this character] come to life. It was very, very important for me to have these two actresses who are so different in the same frame. And they brought so [much] dimension to the film. And it was strange because I know Charlotte Gainsbourg a little bit in real life. I’m not familiar with Marion Cotillard. And on the set, I was terrified of her…
AD: And [Mathieu] helped me. But on set, I was terrified because she has such a tiny voice and she’s so elegant and she’s so perfect. I was that terrified that I asked for a meeting ten days before we started shooting and said, “We have to find a way. I have to stop being impressed, otherwise I will be helpless during the shooting.” But it was great. And with Marion’s performance, the way she is… Carlotta just appears and she wants her husband back. And she’s slightly devilish on the island, lovingly devilish. And after that, her love shifts from her former husband to her father. And she wants to recover her relationship with her father, not her husband. And she finishes the film like a saint. To present these two faces that are depicting one character, that is the art of Marion Cotillard. She is great. She is great.
RS: Mathieu, what was your experience like collaborating with these fantastic actresses?
AD: It was the first time for you?
MA: Oh, yeah. First time with the two of them—or three, because there is also Alba. And, uh… You just, you know, you go there. [Laughs] You go there! I feel very close to Charlotte. I don’t know her at all, privately. But as an actress, her fright is at the same place as mine. I think she asks herself the things I ask myself: Am I an actress or am I not an actress? And so I felt [she was like] a sister, really. We were very, very close when we acted together. We were brave. We were courageous. We could improvise and go on the floor and kiss. And Marion is…
AD: …the absolute actress. [Laughs]
MA: She is so aggressive, so animal. She has direct access to performing and I was really afraid to disappoint her… I was just thinking about the situation, the characters, the path that Arnaud invents and writes for us. There can be a scene of violence and then one of pure physical attraction and then Carlotta wants a kid of Ismael’s and then he tell her to “go away” and then… You see, it’s extraordinary. After a moment, you forget the acting and you’re just in the pleasure of living immense lives.
RS: I always get the sense that there must be a flexible level of experimentation during production. In reality, what is it like on set? At this stage in your partnership, are you both working from a familiar method or is it more malleable and unpredictable?
MA: One new element is the speed, the fact that, on set, Arnaud has less time than before because of the economy of cinema and things like that. But it may be his taste, also…
AD: I’m going faster…
AD: …straight to the point, straight to the point!
MA: But Arnaud also works a lot before. Absolutely.
AD: Not during the writing. But prep is very important in the creation of a film. That’s where I decide if I’m ready or not. I think if I’m comparing my way of filming, let’s say, on My Sex Life…with [my way of filming now], today I feel more free about inventing new things on the set. So I’m absolutely ready to welcome improvisation in small shots and stuff like that. I remember this shot of Marion Cotillard eating, and Charlotte is [asking], “Did you want to sleep at home?” And Marion answers, “Perhaps. Who knows?” And you have this shot, this angle upon her eyes, where you can see how malicious she is and how funny she can be. This kind of shot I can improvise on the set now, whereas I was not able to improvise in my previous work. But today I’m going faster. And I think—I hope—that I’m more free… [Turning to Amalric] And that I’m not a burden for you.
MA: No, no, no! [Laughs] It’s that malleable. Oh, yeah. And it can depend on what you shot before of a character because we don’t shoot in order.
RS: Arnaud, you’ve cited Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Alain Resnais’s Providence as cinematic influences on Ismael’s Ghosts. But I was also struck by the influence of Vertigo, which you cited as an inspiration for the script in a previous interview. Ismael’s Ghosts certainly hints at this influence, particularly in Marion Cotillard’s character, Carlotta. But Vertigo has also haunted some of your other films, like The Beloved (2007), which incorporates Bernard Herrmann’s score. Can you talk about what Vertigo means to you and why it resonated so strongly in the genesis of Ismael’s Ghosts?
AD: I think… It’s not a “think,” it’s a belief. I believe that in Vertigo, beyond the art, Hitchcock invented the absolute myth. And it’s the absolute film. I think it’s very rare. I think perhaps you have something like… four films in the history of cinema [that are absolute films]. You have better films than Vertigo. I’m not saying that Vertigo is the best. But I think that the truth that you can read in Vertigo, it’s an absolute myth. If the cinema has been invented, it’s to film a film like Vertigo. Not being a perfect film, but there is a mystery in that film which strikes me. And I remember I wrote a text about Shoah, the Claude Lanzmann movie, and I was reproached. I was trying to make a comparison between Vertigo and Shoah. The fact that someone, a woman or a man, will die… cinema will recall that death and you are not able to stop that death. The tragedy that [happens] to the hero of Vertigo is that the same woman will die twice and [he] is unable to stop the deaths of the woman. It’s a mystery. To me, it’s a film that is absolute. I just can’t comment on it more than that, beyond that world of “absolute.” It’s a myth that is saying the deep truth about what I think it is to be a man. To be a man would be to protect the beloved from death. And, in Ismael’s Ghosts, [Ismael] discovers that [he is] not man enough and [he] can’t protect [these women] from death. And that makes you a man; this inability to protect the beloved makes you a man. Not the fact that you are able, but the fact that you are unable. This weakness makes you a man, makes you a human being.
MA: It’s funny. Both women live in your film, huh?
AD: Yeah. [Laughs]