I know. I’ve surprised no one. C’est la vie…
Let me start this tale the way I always start this tale, because the formative experience is the one that provides a key to the final meaning:
“Transformation is a powerful thing. The first time I ever saw a film by Arnaud Desplechin was one of the cinematic moments that changed my life. Close your eyes with me. Imagine that feeling of walking into a movie theater unaware and walking out a new person. It’s 1996, I’m 25 years old and living on poverty wages in Washington, D.C. spending my days in an exhausting government job and my nights hopping from one movie theater to the next. My favorite of the bunch, The Biograph, had closed and been replaced by a CVS pharmacy. All that remained, aside from the relatively mainstream fare, was the snobby Kennedy Center and The Key Theater on Wisconsin Avenue, one block north of M Street (it is now a Banana Republic, a fact which makes it hard for me to walk though the doors of that particular chain store.) The theater was well kept, and I slid in, dripping wet from the rain on the streets, grabbed a seat near the back and watched what has become one of the cornerstone films of my life; Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life…or How I Got Into An Argument.
There are moments you never forget at the movies, and I can remember almost every detail of that night; the smell of the space (popcorn and expensive perfume), the shape of the head of the person in front of me, the texture of the floor beneath my feet, the lumpy contours of the cushion in my seat. The epic scope of the film, the honest exploration of real and complicated feelings, those messy interactions of people my own age; it was literally transformative. Mathieu Amalric’s performance as Paul Dedalus, so flawed, selfish, egotistical, manipulative, and so very alive, resonated with me in a powerful way, but so too did Emanuelle Devos as the heartbroken Esther and Jeanne Balibar as the manipulative Valérie. Every character in the film feels like a part of me. The jilted lover, the lothario, the confused student, the rival– all of them share something of me, and the impression they made on me in my mid-20’s was profound. The cast in the film has gone on to become the face of contemporary French cinema, and seeing them perform in other films feels like spending time with old friends whom I miss dearly.”
I wrote those paragraphs in September of 2004 at the Toronto Film Festival after a screening of Desplechin’s Kings and Queen In the five years since, Desplechin has released two more movies that have rocked me to my core; his intensely personal documentary L’Aimee and the brilliant A Christmas Tale. Kings and Queen was preceded in the decade by two more brilliant films, the incredibly misunderstood and under appreciated Esther Kahn and criminally unreleased Léo: Playing In The Company Of Men. Taken as a whole, this body of work will remain for me the seminal work of this decade, the most important, pleasurable, meaningful movies I saw in the past ten years.
Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen
I feel as though I have grown up with Desplechin and I feel such a deep connection between his filmmaking and my own experience of life, of the world and of the movies that I often find it impossible to convey the depth of my appreciation for his work; every film, hell, every frame feels like it was made just for me, a glimpse inside of my own passions and a deeply layered exploration of the ghosts and hidden worlds that exist just beyond my grasp.
Know this: Desplechin’s films are all haunted by the specters of his imagination, but they are also dense, deeply spiritual texts that carry incredible layers of meaning. I was privileged to meet Desplechin a few times this decade, twice for interviews, and I always tried to get him on the record about the way he executes this density; each time, he parried my inquiries. The closest I ever got to getting a confession was this exchange from May, 2005:
BRM: During your recent retrospective at BAM, audiences had a chance to see all of your films together, and for me, it was illuminating because one notices right away that the films begin to almost talk to one another, to rhyme, on many levels. As a another way of talking about Nora and Ismaël’s story in Kings & Queen, I’d like to talk to you about your earlier films, because in many ways Kings & Queen feels like a continuation and culmination of the groundwork established in your other films.
So, in your films, there is a sense of haunting, of spirits, ghosts, and corpses arriving to change the meanings of character’s lives. The examples are numerous: The head, called le fantóme, in La Sentinelle, the return of Esther’s menstrual cycle in My Sex Life…, the dead monkey that helps free Paul in the same film, the dead in Léo, and of course Nora’s ‘ghosts’ in Kings & Queen. Can you discuss the role that these ghosts play for you? How do you wish them to be understood?
AD: 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. When I wrote my first movie, La Vie des Morts, I thought, here you have this girl, coming back to her parent’s house, because her cousin just committed suicide. The cousin is between life and death, a bullet in his head, and all they have to do is wait. Then, this girl, Pascale, (like a holy lamb) notices she starts to be strangely nauseous; her womb starts to ache, her period is delayed. She can’t understand what’s happening; she has no reason to be pregnant. So, what’s happening? At the end of the movie, she wakes up; during the night she had a weird miscarriage. And her father is telling to Pascale his cousin died at the very same moment. So, during the movie, she was pregnant with the death of her cousin. And she’s the one in the family who will have to free her cousin from death agony, through this black magic delivery. It seemed to me that such a plot, being pregnant with someone’s death, would express in an obscure and obvious way what mourning is about. Then, perhaps, all theses ghosts are spoors, cinematic appearances of the past in the middle of the present.
That, for me, is the true greatness of Desplechin’s work, that he has found a way, film by film, to create a layering of time (“the past in the middle of the present”) through not only the experiences of his characters, or in the thematic “rhyming” across his films, but in his audiences as well. Sitting through one of his movies, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the familiarity of it all, a sense that, while it is all so surprising and new, it feels intensely logical and connected to everything you love about the movies. When we spoke in late 2008 about his latest film A Christmas Tale, I went back to him about how this process might work:
BRM: Let’s talk about the use of signs in your films. 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 happened 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.
BRM: You are putting so much into each frame, we’ve only just discussed one minute of the movie…
AD: But this is not all meant to be for the audience to be aware of! This is just my job of being a good pupil and making sure it is there.
BRM: How should the audience see these things? Is this why audiences come away from your films feeling their depth but, as is often the case, being unable to articulate why the film they experienced feels so rich?
AD: My goal is not to have the audience search for all of this. I want them to be entertained, to be dazzled. This is what I mean by being a good pupil. These images, these sounds; they come out of the screen in waves. Each level of the image, all of the (images) in (a single shot), the sound; they come out off the screen on many different levels and directly to the audience. I want them to come away from it like the movie has dazzled them.
Well, consider me dazzled, then.
Arnaud Desplechin’s Esther Kahn
Desplechin’s attraction to mythological symbols and classical narratives, the way he weaves serious themes into hilarious situations and vice-versa, and the way he integrates his actors’ performances into his films, be it through editing or the work he gives them to do in the story itself; every element of the filmmaking process is under his spell. But Desplechin is right; more important than the way in which these films utilize an arsenal of ideas and techniques is their effect on the hearts of the audience. And while I am constantly tempted to tear the films apart in order to see how they work, I also find myself constantly getting lost in their beauty and efficiency as movies, as entertainments.
Of the five films he made in the 2000’s, I consider three of them (Esther Kahn, Kings And Queen and A Christmas Tale) to be among the finest films of all time. And while so many people have been deprived of the opportunity to see Léo: Playing In The Company Of Men (no English language DVD is available), I consider that film to be a sort of Rosetta Stone of Desplechin’s work in the decade; orphans, symbolic patricide, suicide, the sins of the parent being visited upon the child, the classical structure of a great tragedy, the mythological texture of the film– so many of his thematic concerns are rooted in the film. And yet, it remains woefully undistributed in the USA (despite a Region 2 French language DVD being available).
Arnaud Desplechin’s Léo: Playing In The Company Of Men
While movies come and movies go and we track their relative success in terms of the numbers of tickets they sell (always enamored with business, this country of ours), we often tend to look past the true value of art; the impact it has on helping its audience re-imagine the form, to re-examine how we see the world through the lens of a creative re-ordering of things. And while Desplechin’s films fly relatively under the public radar in this country, it seems to me that his cinema is the best expression of our time, looking forward and back, material, sensual and intellectual, encompassing a unique space between myth and reality that feels both heightened and completely tangible. I can think of no movies I would rather watch, again and again; they constantly find new ways to surprise and move me.
Anyone who has read this blog over the years knows of my love for Desplechin’s work, and while I have loved so many films over the course of the past ten years, no work has meant more to me than his. This process, this ordering of films, has never been about list making or rules or following a format, but has always been a way for me to organize my passion for movies into its own story, a way of remembering a fixed period of time spent watching the work of artists that I love. I have no greater affection in the world of cinema than I do for the films of Arnaud Desplechin; they are my comfort, my hope, my secret, a series of stories that speak to me, to my generation, to my time being alive. These films are my cinema and as such, I consider them the most important movies of the decade.
Previously on Desplechin…
Kings and Queen Review (2004)
Kings and Queen Interview (2005): Abridged
Kings and Queen Interview (2005): Complete
Tracking A Christmas Tale (2007)
L’Aimee Review (2007)
Filmmakers On Cinema: Arnaud Desplechin (2008)
A Christmas Tale Interview (2008): Abridged
A Christmas Tale Interview (2008): Complete
A Christmas Tale Review (2008)
Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale
My unconscionable exclusions of films and filmmakers that I love who ended up outside of the list but who have burrowed deep into my heart:
Hou Hsiao Hsien , Terrence Malick, Tsai Ming-Liang (especially The Wayward Cloud * swoon *), Wes Anderson, Matthew Barney, Lucrecia Martel, Kelly Reichardt, Martin Scorsese, Jacques Rivette, Oliver Assayas, Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Agnés Varda, Edward Yang and Philippe Garrel, almost all of whom were excluded because honestly, my favorite films of theirs were not made in this decade. Does that mean that their films of the “aughts” were not among the top films of the decade? No. This list is subjective, topical, a list of people and experiences, not a qualitative be-all and end-all. No list can encapsulate the cinematic joys I have experienced these past ten years… Take it for what it is, a priority ordering of pleasures…
Actors of the Decade: Mathieu Amalric and Lee Kang-sheng
Actresses of The Decade: Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Devos
Cinematographer of the Decade: Agnes Godard
Composer of The Decade: Johnny Greenwood
Editor of the Decade: Dana Bunescu
Unconscionably Unreleased Film Of The Decade: Secret Sunshine by Lee Chang-dong
23. Quiet City by Aaron Katz
22. Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski
21. Frownland by Ronald Bronstein
20. Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola
19. Up The Yangtze by Yung Chang
18. Platform by Jia Zhang-Ke
17. Tarnation by Jonathan Caouette
16. Lilya 4-Ever by Lukas Moodysson
15. Far From Heaven/ I’m Not There by Todd Haynes
14. Sideways by Alexander Payne
13. Into Great Silence by Philip Gröning
12. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner by Zacharias Kunuk
11. There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson
10. Zodiac by David Fincher
9. Beau Travail/ 35 Shots Of Rum by Claire Denis
8. The Diving Bell And The Butterfly by Julian Schnabel
7. Time Out by Laurent Cantet
6. Mulholland Dr. by David Lynch
5. Climates by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
4. The Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke
3. The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu by Cristi Puiu/ 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days by Cristian Mungiu
2. PIxar: The Incredibles/ Ratatouille/ WALL*E/ Up