Of Myths and Man: A Conversation with Arnaud Desplechin
by Tom Hall
There is not a more important filmmaker working today than Arnaud Desplechin. The French director, best known for 1996’s “My Sex Life (or How I Got Into An Argument)” has been challenging moviegoers for over a decade with his challenging, intricately crafted films. With his exceptional comic-melodrama “Kings & Queen,” the director is poised for a breakthrough with American audiences.
On the heels of his recent retrospective at The Brooklyn Academy of Music, Desplechin sat down with indieWIRE to discuss his latest film and the process behind his unique brand of storytelling.
indieWIRE: The title of the film, “Kings & Queen,” seems to be a commentary on the characters of Ismaël and Nora, but looking back over your films, kings and queens have been there all along. There are two Esthers, and even Paul in “My Sex Life” says, “Rabier wants to be the King in my place.” So, the title feels like an extension of earlier themes in your work.
Arnaud Desplechin It’s bizarre because usually I just find the title at the very end of the process of writing. Usually we use stupid, awfully long titles as flags, so that we don’t get lost and can organize the material. So we used a French poem for this film, something I could translate as:
King without kingdom/ Queen without a scene/ Castle broken/ Bishop betrayed/ Fool as a brave man.
It’s just like chess. So when we were lost, we’d say “Ok, King without
kingdom? It’s the father. The Queen? That’s Nora. The fool? It’s Ismaël.”
So, we could play with these two plots and the model was quite useful as
this model of chess. And I loved that there was just one queen surrounded
by all these men. She starts the movie surrounded by all these men who
define her and at the end, she is standing on both feet and she doesn’t need
any men. Ismaël is surrounded by these wonderful characters, friends and
enemies, but throughout the movie she is alone. So I thought would be nice
that she is alone in the title as well, but as a queen. Bigger than life.
iW: Upon the release of “Esther Kahn,” you spoke with indieWIRE and discussed your next project, which has become your latest film “Kings & Queen.” In that interview, you characterized the film this way:
In “My Sex Life,” there was some humor and there was some melancholy. I was thinking that it would be great instead of just having some humor, to be comical, brutally comical, and instead of being melancholic to be brutally dark and violent, to just make a brutal film and try to be just a little bit obscene. But I will do it in a soft way.”
Do you feel you have accomplished what you set out to do? How did the film change?
AD: I wanted to see that on the screen, but wanted to go slightly further.
Possibly because European films now are slightly too polite or too
restrained, it was a love letter to the films I saw when I was 10 or 12
years old. I wanted to have a real melodrama, not the pitiful story of some
girl who has to work through problems to pay the rent, but dig deeper and
see what melodrama is depicting about our own lives, and also on the comical
aspect to be raw.
iW: Let’s talk about Nora. In the beginning of the film, she is moved by a
painting of Leda and The Swan, which she purchases as a gift for her father.
This purchase leads to all kinds of trouble for Nora, but it also seems to
parallel her character. Can you talk about Nora, Leda, and how you created
this complicated character?
AD: I knew it was so novelistic, and therefore so cinematic, the idea that
this woman gives birth to child after the death of her lover. We talked
before about how we were really pushing these two different genres, how we
had two dark fairy tales. One would be a Hawthorne style dark fairy tale,
the other a Shakespearian comedy. I was also thinking of these German short
stories by (19th century author Ernst Theodor Amadeus) Hoffmann. It’s a
weird, old sort of story: A girl enters a shop and buys an image, but she
doesn’t know exactly why she is buying that image. Strangely, this image is
the image of her fate. What kind of woman had a kid without a father. In
this one gesture, I could say more than I could with dialogue.
iW: Ismaël’s mythological parallel is Hercules. In fact we see Hercules in
the moment before we meet Ismaël, and also in the hospital. Later in the
film, Ismaël dons a super hero cape, underscoring his heroic character and
unveiling himself. After this, he is able to talk to Elias (Nora’s son) so
precisely; it is as if his rationality has been restored.
AD: When I was writing the script, I thought, in order for the audience not
to be lost, we’ll have to find a simple process for them to jump from the
melodrama to the comedy. If we have a Greek image of The Virgin Mary, what
kind of Greek image of the Christ can I use? I think Hercules is funny. All
the kids love Hercules. I think Jesus is quite boring in movies, but
Hercules is fun. Its also the depiction of Ismaël’s adventures, they are
meaningless. He goes from one catastrophe to another, just like Hercules.
Even when you aren’t sure what the myths are, you can know that when you see
Hercules you are in the Shakespearian comedy, and when you see Leda you are
in the Hawthorne melodrama.
iW: Emmanuelle Devos and Matthieu Amalric have been in many of your films,
and in this film, they do some of their most accomplished work. How did you
initially come to work with them and can you talk a little about your
process for working together? How have you evolved together over time?
AD: On each film, it is more and more scary to propose a role to them. At
the beginning I was calling them, now I feel so embarrassed because we made
all of these films together, I write to them. (Laughs) So, I wrote to them
and said “Ok, Emmanuelle,” (I will sound boring) “I could have something
interesting for you but don’t feel embarrassed at all, just pass it by your
agent.” They were both very busy. She was working on another film at the
time and Matthieu was prepping for a film that didn’t get made. But we are
shier and shier. It’s really bizarre. Not on the set, but when I propose to
But I think with Matthieu, I think it was digging deeper into something that
we started before. But with Emmanuelle, something really strange happened
when we were shooting, but it was something that happened in her career.
Before films like “Read My Lips,” earlier in her career, she was digging for
humble things, things like I feel when I feel pitiful or cheap or abandoned.
But something happened. I could quote Liv Ullmann‘s humanity, as if in her
30’s she said, “Now, I will depict only the nobility of the character. No
more humility.” And I love that. She’s changing all of the movies she’s
acting in because she wants to paint the bright side of the character, even
if the character has to go through dark episodes.
iW: One of the most distinctive features of your style as a filmmaker is
your decision to use multiple takes of a single shot in your films. This
creates an effect of time shifting and changing, of multiple meanings and
possibilities within a single moment.
AD: It started for me with the influence of TV, it gets edited with briefer
and briefer shots and I think it’s good because the audience will understand
what you are doing in a faster and faster way. It was a moral statement
between the actors and me. They know I am asking them to go in very
different directions. They know I will never be mean with them. If there is
one beautiful shot but the acting is slightly better in another take, they
know I will choose the very bit that they gave me. I think it is sort of a
moral duty, because what is it to be a Director? You aren’t acting, you
aren’t doing the lights; you’re the only one who’s not working on the set in
a way. You’re just like a humble spectator. So, when I have all of these
wonderful moments that they give me, if I don’t give them back to you, I’m
not doing my job.
I give the dailies to the editor and say “Give me a best of, show me what
you like and if I disagree with you, we’ll add this and that.” In the scene
where Nora is on the phone, telling her sister about her father’s imminent
death, I did five takes and she chose all five shots. Emmanuelle is giving
us five different portraits of Nora, so it was [Editor Laurence Briaud‘s]
job to condense it, but she said “If I take off one of these five shots, we
will lose one of the facets Emmanuelle is giving us.”
iW: Another distinctive feature in your films is your use of music, both
popular and classical. In “Kings & Queen,” music is not only used as a
device to comment on the action and add meaning, but it figures directly in
the life of Ismaël in particular, ranging from his career as a violist to
his hilariously terrible break-dance to a hip-hop song.
AD: I love some films with very silent characters, people who don’t speak,
but I wouldn’t be able to do that. I love the sound of their voices. I like
to listen to their voices to see if it is funny or if it is sad. I also love
that it is a puzzle with different kinds of music; no noble music, no humble
music, but all the music is equal. Just like in silent movies. I am just
trying to use different types of music. There is rap music in all my films.
When we were setting things, we thought it would be nice to have ‘white’
music for Nora and ‘black’ music for Ismaël. So, you have Paul Weller songs
and Randy Newman songs for Nora, but Ismaël is strictly hip-hop. I love the
fact that we had jazz music, some techno, early hip-hop Marley Marl, Big
Figures, Afrika Bambaataa, to modern hip-hop. So, we had a history of
hip-hop through this guy who is a classical viola player and I thought the
iW: What are you working on now and what we can look forward to in the coming years?
AD: There is one film, a very simple dialogue, a very beautiful story
between a woman and her lover. It’s just a series of dialogues about love.
What it is to have a lover, to hide it, the problem of speaking of your
husband or your wife to your lover, so it’s wonderful to be able to work
around that. I don’t think it would work in French. It would work in English
because of the lines.
I think the first one I will do is about the early 1970’s. I think about
films like “Almost Famous” or “The Ice Storm” which are depicting the
wildness of adolescence and the feeling that you are allowed to be free; a
utopia. When we were kids, we were doing so many amazing things and our
parents just allowed us to do mad things. How did we survive? I still don’t
know. But it could be good for a young audience to have that kind of story
with those kinds of characters.