âTis the Season
An Interview with Arnaud Desplechin
By Eric Hynes
Arnaud Desplechinâs A Christmas Tale opens this Friday in limited release. While Desplechin was in town on the occasion of the filmâs U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival, Reverse Shotâs Eric Hynes had a chance to sit down and talk with the filmmaker.
Reverse Shot: The first line of A Christmas Tale is âMy son is dead.â Did you always know you were going to start that way, and with that tone?
Arnaud Desplechin: Yes. Actually, that was the beginning of the writing process for this film. Usually what happens when I begin to make a film is I have all these bits of text and dialogue that Iâve been collecting. And I usually try to begin the film with something that I donât understand. And here I had a lot of bits of text by Ralph Waldo Emerson and many of them came from the diary that he wrote when his own son died and then also something that he wrote 20 years after the death of his son. It had a real poetic power to it. Yet because it was philosophy I didnât understand it. But I wondered what an actor could make of it. He has this very strange line where he says, âMy son detached himself from me the way a leaf detaches itself from a tree,â and I wanted to know the story that would make a father say something like that. What is behind it? And what story can I invent? So when you see the opening scene with the father youâll want to know what it was that caused him to say this. See, Iâm not able to understand it. The only gift that perhaps I could have is to sense that itâs good material for an actor. Iâm able to play itâIâm not able to understand it. Thatâs my way of understandingâto play.
RS: Thatâs giving so much credit and power to an actor. You canât make sense of it for yourself but youâre asking, in a way, for an actor to do that. Is that a gift to them or potentially too much for them to handle?
AD: You canât have the actor fear it. The idea in the end is always to make it as simple as possible. One of the things that I think cinema does that no other art does is that you can really have things that are noble and things that are not noble, and theyâre of equal value. And things that are popular versus things that are noble, and thereâs no difference. And again, it may be Emerson or Nietzsche who said that the essence of whatâs being done is bringing the words back home. So all of the words in the text are out there and the job is to bring them all together and bring them all back home in as simple a way as possible. If not, the world would belong to the rich people, the grown-ups, the bourgeoisie, the well-educated people. No, just take those big words and just put them on the table in a very simple and casual way. And say, âMy son has just died, and I donât feel anything at all.â You just have to be simple and plain and bring them back home.
RS: For Kings and Queen I know you started with the letter that the father wrote to his daughter, trying to figure out how someone could have written it. In a way, both films have to do with approaching death. Thereâs nothing more universal than deathâbut though everyone has to deal with it, itâs also inaccessible because the living canât really make sense of it. Was that your entry point, was that what you really wanted to explore with a passage like this?
AD: In Kings and Queen the letter is something very shocking. Itâs almost like a curse, an incestuous curse, and itâs terrible what this letter says. The words from the Emerson text are quite different. Thereâs a real goodness to them, a sweetness. Itâs kind of comic to think of it this way, but for this film, the absolute worst pitch that you can make is, âWell, you know, we have a child who dies, and we have cancer of the blood, and financial ruin, and we have the mother who doesnât love her children, and all of this sturm und drang.â But to present it with a good group of actors and a kind of energyâthis could all be transformed. Instead of being what it sounds like in this horrible pitch, it can be transformed into something very energetic and something very positive.
RS: There are hints of the film falling within certain genres, whether a family drama, a melodramaâitâs a Christmas tale after allâyou expect certain things, and you counteract that with a very sort of real, penetrating, philosophical inquiry. And yet those things themselves are communicated in such a human, buoyant way.
AD: Iâm delighted that you say that because thatâs exactly what I was trying to say. I donât ever want to suppress that 14-year-old adolescent moviegoer that I was who adored these genre films. So while I want to celebrate the genre, at the same time I want to work against the genre so that perhaps you can get to know the characters more, and see something more in them.
RS: You never get the sense that the characters are limited in any way, by genre or the plot, you get the sense in every scene that the characters can surprise you, become someone else or do something you wouldnât expect. Youâre giving the viewer so much credit to assume that he or she can follow and continue to respond. Is that because you envision viewers who, like yourself, want all these things, or is it that you want to challenge them to go to new places?
AD: I donât like the idea of challenging the spectator, the viewer. Thatâs not what I want to do. Iâm more interested in taking something and transforming it and making it more appealing for them. I can cite some examples for you, three or four or even a hundred examples where I look at a film and I see something, even small things, things that are a little bizarre, but that make me look differently at the film. I donât want to make a film that is hard to watch. For example, Howard Hawksâs Only Angles Have Wings. Of course now with time passing itâs become a classic, but if you look at the first ten minutes, the relationships between the people and whatâs going on are really very shocking. And yet at the same time youâre drawn in and you like the characters, right from the beginning. The same with a film like John Fordâs The Searchers, or some of the Lubitsch films where he mixes both cruelty and a great deal of complexity. Then you have Bergman where he mixes together a kind of monstrosity and at the same time a great humanity. So the idea is to not make the film a challenge but appealing to the viewer.
RS: Which you do, but itâs a very difficult thing to do. It seems to me that it comes from giving credit to the audience. You get the sense that from scene to scene, moment to moment, their characters arenât determined, they arenât fixed, theyâre figuring it out as they go. And that extends to the audience. You donât get the sense that youâre missing a lot or that itâs going too fast for youâfrom scene to scene weâre all figuring it out and discovering it. Is that your way of approaching filmmaking, that sense of discovery?
AD: I think itâs a hell of a job trying to make sure that the viewers donât get lost. You really have to reassure them; from scene to scene, you have to kind of say, as the director, âDonât worry, itâs okay, and if youâre lost now things will come back and youâll get back in.â And there are a lot of ways of doing it, and itâs through the form, through the names of the characters, and the way the film is edited. Thatâs what I love so much watching a movie: that sense that Iâm being taken care of. I can give you one example. If you look at this film, itâs basically a matriarchy. Originally Abelâs mother ruled over the house, and now you have Junon, Catherine Deneuveâs character, who now rules over the house. We were thinking about what to name the character, and we could have named her Marie-Therese or something like that, but considering the children we had on set I thought, why not give her a name like Junon? It serves two purposes. First off, for the children, itâs very easy for them to remember because itâs a very unusual name. So when you have a scene in which, âJunon is sick,â itâs easier for them to know whom youâre referring to. But at the same time for adults, a name like Junon has this reference to the wife of Jupiter. So neither party gets lost. I remember on the show Inside the Actors Studio Martin Scorsese was asked the ten questions of Proust, and one of the questions always asked is the word you like the least. The word that Scorsese said was, âslow.â
RS: And you donât like word âslowâ either.
AD: [laughs] I donât like the line, âMarie-Therese is sick. You know Marie-Thereseâyour grandmother.â If I start with, âJunon is sick,â okay next scene. Itâs better.
RS: There are expectations of what a Catherine Deneuve character might be like, and yet her character here is quite different from what you might anticipate. Also Mathieu Amalricâhaving seen him in some of your other films, you expect to feel a certain warmth toward him. Youâre going to be comfortable around him, heâs going to be demonstrative. And yet in some ways heâs the biggest bastard in the whole film.
AD: [laughs] Yes, yes, right. Heâs not that nice.
RS: But also Melvil Poupaud: heâs gorgeous, heâs a heartthrob, but here heâs a cuckold. And Chiara Mastroianni, whoâs not normally asked to be a sexpot is incredibly sexy in this film. Is that your intent in casting, and do they know what youâre up to?
AD: If they are enjoying the partsâthis time I will use the word âchallengeââif they are enjoying the challenge of it then I am sure their performance will be better. It will connect with the audience. But itâs also not just to be tricky; itâs to be respectful of their work. Take Catherine Deneuve for example. As you said itâs not the kind of part that you expect from her. But on the other hand, if you really saw all of the movies sheâs doneâthe BuĂ±uels, the Polanski, not just the conservative kind of partsâIâm being respectful of the artist she is. She often chose odd parts, even when it involved a very disturbing way of being onscreen. Sheâs always comfortable with the sorts of parts that other actresses would have refused. Since she was eighteen years old sheâs accepted parts where people ask, âExcuse me, are you playing the goodie or the baddie?â And sheâs like, âI wonât answer.â She just plays the part. So itâs not just me saying, âOh, you will play the baddie,â itâs me as a cinephile thinking, you are a great actress because youâve always been provocative. Not in a silly but in a wonderful way.
RS: Were Melvil and Chiara particularly excited about playing characters that seem so different from characters theyâve been asked to play up in the past?
AD: For the actors itâs a challenge sometimes for them to do these different kinds of roles, but for me itâs almost like we create a sort of private, very secret, intimate contract between myself and each of them. With Melvil, itâs been a very long time, more than fifteen years, that Iâve wanted the opportunity to work with him. And the thing I find about him is that he often plays the kind of person who shows that everything is okay, and makes it appear that everything is okay even when nothing is okay. This was the opportunity that we had to work together. With Chiara it was something completely different. I had played with her beforeâand that word âplay,â even in French, itâs a funny way to say itâbut here she plays a very vibrant character; she is beginning to know herself and know who she is. And here also perhaps was an actress, knowing that this might be an important part for her and that she was coming to know herself as an actress at the same time as well.
RS: Thatâs exactly how it seems.
AD: Itâs what I saw filming her. Asking her, âPlease, realize that.â I mean she already has two kids, but she never experienced her life. I could see Chiara saying, âOkay, this time I will do it. Fully and entirely. Perhaps I didnât do it before, but this time I will do it.â It was beautiful to see.
RS: And are you basically recruiting actorsâalong with your crew and the remarkable DP Eric Gautierâto help figure things out as you go?
AD: When I look for actors, I donât want them because I want them to do a performance. Thatâs not what I have in my mind. What Iâm really interested in doing is trying to work together with them to understand the character, to maybe look for things, little tricks, little hints and ideasâideas is a very hard word to useâor just a different way of acting and showing who this person is. And that itâs perhaps this process of their discovering these thingsâto make this person, this characterâthat is more interesting than the actual end that we arrive at when weâre done. This process of each one of them working is the real performance.