The past week has been a constant stream of images, ideas and conversations; Before everything blurs together in my head, I wanted to take a moment to try and get things down so that I can address the events and ideas each in their own turn.
Early Wednesday evening, I stopped by NYU’s La Maison Française to take in a moderated conversation between my favorite filmmaker, Arnaud Desplechin, and Cahiers du Cinema editor-in-chief Jean-Michel Frodon about issues surrounding “globalization in cinema and its effects on ‘French’ film”. The conversation, attended by about 50 or so (filling the small, charming room at La Maison) was engaging and primarily focused on Frodon’s hypothesis that Hollywood as an industry was the primary force behind a certain set of standards and practices (editing, acting, narrative structure, heroic characters toward which audiences aspire, etc.) that have become a hegemonic global idea of cinema. And while Frodon rejected the moderator’s ideas of French film clichés (smoky, talky and sexy) as being only signifiers that allow audiences to not ask anything more meaningful of French cinema, Desplechin took a different route, describing his own individual cinephilia (and love of an Emmersonian ‘low-culture’ in Hollywood films) as being a key to his own ideas about and love of films.
I asked both men if the international cinephile community might not offer a path of resistance against the dominance of the Hollywood movie, if we as individuals in local communities all over the world might not be able to bridge the divides through our own (hyper)links, but Frodon (whose own magazine recently launched an electronic edition in English, to which I have now dutifully subscribed) thought the idea was both hopeful and dangerous, providing cinematic pleasures, but existing in a bubble that may cut us off from real world concerns and the suffering of others. I countered that, instead, cinematic humanism may instead be a doorway into real-world empathy, a way to connect with one’s feelings about the world around us, but while Desplechin agreed, Frodon didn’t seem too interested in the idea. Cést la vie. The discussion carried on, touching on Desplechin’s influences (a great anecdote about how his leftist mother allowed him to take in the Disney’s The Jungle Book despite her cries of racism and his own desire for political solidarity with his mom) and the decline in African cinema production, and after greeting some friends, we all slipped away into the cool air (finally!) of an autumn night.
The next day, a group us headed to the DGA Theater in Manhattan for a cocktail reception and the North American premiere of Desplechin’s moving new documentary L’Aimee. The room was full of familiar faces, everyone finishing their wine and slipping into the plush DGA screening room in time to hear Frodon introduce the film. Once the curtains parted and the film began, I felt as though I fallen down the rabbit hole, transported to the first time I saw La Vie Des Morts and to the familial concerns at the heart of all of Desplechin’s films. L’Aimee is basically the story of a woman, Thérèse (Desplechin’s paternal grandmother) and her ghost-like relationship with her son Robert Desplechin, Arnaud’s father. The father and son sit and discuss the story of Thérèse (who died when Robert was only two years old), the two men having come together to pack up Robert’s family home as he prepares to move out. Images are shown; Old photographs, stained and worn, browned letters and documents, and most engagingly, a painted portrait of Thérèse that hangs in Robert’s bedroom. The film, which is gorgeously shot in 35mm by Caroline Champetier, takes time to explore the slowly-emptying spaces of Robert’s home against the lively backdrop of a visit by Arnaud and the family of his brother, the actor Fabrice Desplechin, and as such, is a very simple, poetic story that ruminates on life and loss, that which is no longer physically present but which we long to know and remember anyway.
The Memory: A Painting of Thérèse from Arnaud Desplechin’s L’Aimee
It also, as Desplechin discussed in the clumsily-moderated post-screening Q&A, has much to do with Desplechin’s cinema. Thematically, the Director discussed the film’s relationship to Vertigo, and how a man might be helpless to save the life of a woman he loves, be it Scotty in Vertigo or Desplechin’s own father and the mother he barely knew. There are other references as well, including the painting of Thérèse in the father’s room (which haunts him and inspires the creation of his mother in his own mind), a slow sequence where two cars follow one another through the streets of Croix, and of course, the relationship between Robert and Thérèse, that between a living man and his own ideal of a dead woman. I couldn’t help but be surprised by some of the biographical details of Robert’s life that have become powerful themes in the films of Desplechin fils; Having lost his mother at an early age, Robert’s step-mother officially adopted him when he was 50 years old. This revelation, which comes late in the film, is important not only as a key to many of the stories and themes in Desplechin’s films (the adoption of an adult in Kings And Queen, the death of a parent in the same film, the adopted son/adoptive father relationship in Léo, etc) but also seems to settle the controversy about the issue raised by Marianne Denicourt, who famously sued Desplechin for “distorting her life” in his films. If the details of Robert’s experience seem to have been the creative impetus for so many of Desplechin’s own ideas, the house in Roubaix, which takes on a life of its own in L’Aimee, seems to harken back directly to La Vie Des Morts, Desplechin’s first film. The shots of the house’s interior seem directly tied to that film, the tall stairwell, the bedrooms and windows, and while I have not seen Un Conte de Noël yet, the description of the film seems to spring directly from some of the stories and ideas on display in L’Aimee as well, especially the idea of replacing a dead relation with another person and the location of the family gathering at a home in Roubaix; It all weaves together to form an overwhelming sense of autobiography and coming to terms with one’s family and experience. I asked Desplechin about this in the post-film Q&A and he frankly acknowledged as much, adding the caveat that while we the audience can observe these things, they are too close to him and he “can’t see it anymore.”
I know my writing on Desplechin’s films borders on the obsessive, but the more I see and the more I get to know his films, the more interwoven they become, with a thematic and aesthetic consistency that I just can’t find in most contemporary filmmakers. Desplechin’s films are mobius-like boxes within boxes; You open one film up and uncover something that exists in each, which only leads to more to uncover and more to see. As such, every time I see a new work by him, it makes me want to run back and watch them all, to unlock what is hidden so subtly in each film, to revel in those relationships between characters and stories, artist and art, all of which end up residing in my own mind, my own experience of them. While L’Aimee will be classified by some as a documentary, it is truly an exploration of a fractured story, of a memory and how it survives among the living, but most of all, it is a love story between a son and lost mother. As such, it finds a home comfortably within Desplechin’s body of work, opening as many doors as it closes, echoing Robert’s experience and his son’s cinematic concerns at the same time. A little marvel, I think.
I was able to make a VERY lo-fi recording of most of the Q&A, which I have embedded below. I apologize for the audio and video quality, but I just grabbed this on my point and shoot on the spur of the moment.