Fresh on the heels of 2005’s critical hit “Kings And Queen,” Arnaud Desplechin is returning to American screens this fall with his new film, “A Christmas Tale” (Un Conte de Noel). Already a hit on the international festival circuit, “A Christmas Tale” is also Desplechin’s most successful release to date; international box-office receipts for the film have exceeded $4,000,000. indieWIRE caught up with Desplechin after his recent New York Film Festival screenings to discuss the film and his thoughts on the prospects for commercial success in the United States. The film launched its VOD release earlier this week and debuts today in theaters (and a retrospective of Desplechin’s work opened recently in New York City).
indieWIRE: When we last spoke, you said the following about the process of creating your stories:
“Each time I’m starting to work on a film, even if I love to settle the plot in the real world, I start to think about the plot as a fairy tale, or a dream, or a nightmare… As if it was the best way to tell the truth about characters or narration, instead of realism.”
Tell me about the fairy tales and the nightmares that lead you to the conception of “A Christmas Tale?”
Arnaud Desplechin: It’s true. This time, I came to the story through this idea that I was going to be making a Christmas movie. How can you take this family, this material and make it a good film? For me it was important not to be too nice. Who wants to see a family where everyone gets along? It would be boring! At the same time, it cannot be too terrible; if it is too terrible and cruel, it doesn’t make for a good movie. It doesn’t work.
indieWIRE is presenting an exclusive scene from Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale” (via YouTube).
The story took off from there, and yes, there was the influence of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the idea of these characters landing in the middle of this celebration and spending the night, not sure if they are awake or dreaming, falling in love with one another, switching beds, and in the morning, unsure of what happened to them. Was this real, did this really happen?
iW: Do you see a relationship between madness and family?
AD: For me, there is a powerful moment in the film when Paul (Emile Berling) is sitting in a barber’s shop and his reflection stares back at him and gives this frightening grin. I think the young actor did a wonderful job in this moment; he gives it the feeling of horror. I wanted to show that with Paul, he has a conflicted reaction to this moment. He is afraid, but at the same time he feels the thrill of this power; He holds the life of his grandmother in his hands and it is thrilling for him to feel powerful.
As for his relationship to his uncle Henri (Mathieu Amalric), you see that Paul is the one who sets these events into motion; He chooses this Christmas to reunite his three uncles and have the family together. Emotionally, Henri is rough with him, but by the end of the film, you understand that Paul is okay with Henri. Paul wants to know how he will end up; like this uncle? Which path will he follow?
iW: Watching your movies, it seems that one should begin looking at these films like you might look at paintings, with coded signs embedded in them. Can you discuss your use of signs? What would you like the audience to take from these?
AD: I do not want to trick the audience. The idea of these things, these signs, is not meant to be a surprise; yes, it is there, but it is not meant as a trick. What I mean is: for sure, meanings and signs appear on a screen. But it’s not my will. My job, as a director, is just to give to all those strange meanings a nice shape, a nice form and a good pace.
My feeling is that, as soon as reality is screened, it starts to mean. It’s not the director who’s doing that; it’s the cinema itself. A simple corridor transforms itself into a threat, or a refuge, or a path, a birth, a death, an evocation of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” whatever; a white napkin transforms itself into a gloomy sheet (“Shaft Returns”), the bed sheet transforms itself into a cinema screen (“Notting Hill”), and the blanket of “It Happened One Night” becomes a wall between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.
I couldn’t call them “signs”, because, as a spectator, I don’t feel compelled to interpret them or worse, to give the “right interpretation”?! No, it just happens when reality starts to shine, to glow. My job as a director is just to notice these odd rhymes that happen all the time and to use them in the storytelling. Yes, the grave of Joseph that you can see in the graveyard in Roubaix was inspired by Waldo (Emerson)’s grave in Concord. But I hope no one in the audience will notice it. It just helps me to draw a nice mythical grave, to draw a dream that you can inhabit.
The trailer for “A Christmas Tale” (via YouTube).
iW: Let’s talk about the city of Roubaix, the town in which the majority of this film takes place. You have visited this city before in your previous films (“L’Aimee,” “La Vie Des Morts“), how has the city come to be so important in your work?
AD: It’s funny; I showed the film “Esther Kahn” to my cousin and his comment to me after the screening was “You’ve certainly gone a long way out of your way to make a film about Roubaix.” Of course, that’s right. It has that same brick feeling, that same… How can I put this? Roubaix is crappy. It is a pitiful town to look at. But for me, the idea was to take this family, this family that sees itself on this mythical level, and put them in this very humble environment. At the same time, it was a challenge to put this town in the movie and make it seem like the place for this family, so we played around with it.
iW: “A Christmas Tale” is being released by , using their so-called ‘day-and-date’ program that brings the film to cable TV video-on-demand on the same day it is released in a few theaters. I am wondering what your thoughts are on this, and on the fact that, according to numbers recently reported, films on television video-on-demand are outselling the theatrical release at about 2 to 1 in the United States. Does this new strategy excite you as an artist?
AD: I really can’t say. I have no opinion on how the films are released. It would distract me from my work, which is just to give them the best film I’m able to create.
iW: What can we expect next from you? What stories are you working on? The last time we spoke, you mentioned a 1970’s family drama about teenagers–
AD: Yes, that one! It’s not about family, but about the teenagers and drugs and hip-hop. I took the family out of this idea and made “A Christmas Tale,” and this new film is the other part of the same idea. But since it is hip-hop, it is no longer set in the 1970’s. Instead, I moved it to the 1980’s, 1983, and it is really about this time, the drugs and the French hip-hop scene with teenagers.
iW: Arnaud, thank you so much for talking with us.
AD: Thank you… my pleasure.