King of Kings
An Interview with Arnaud Desplechin
by Jeff Reichert

A few hours after completing the interview that you’re about to read, Arnaud Desplechin ran into a fellow Reverse Shot editor at the opening night party for a retrospective of his films at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMCinematék. (Forgive the Page Six-ism—this is going somewhere.) When introduced, Desplechin immediately began to apologize for the “horrible” interview that he’d given me, vowing that we’d be talking about it forever. I couldn’t disagree more with the former sentiment and fervently hope that the latter comes to pass—that this interview will serve in some small way to aid in discussion of a small but astounding body of work that’s been only rendered more crucial by the addition of his newest, Kings and Queen, one of the most exhilarating works to hit theaters thus far this year. That a director of his stature would be so quick to apologize for an interview given to a two-bit rag like Reverse Shot speaks volumes about the character I glimpsed that day over a suspect phone connection. By turns humble, generous, and gracious Desplechin revealed himself to be a filmmaker as sure of his reasons for making films as he is probing and questioning about the way he goes about doing so, an appropriate combination given the free play, anything-goes aesthetics that dominate his work.

Rigorous only in that it seems fully intent on pursuing every last narrative strand to conclusion, Kings and Queen literally, as its creator intended, “fills the screen.” It’s commonplace for critics to decry the unwillingness of audiences to see a film more than once, and asking for repeat viewings of a two-and-a-half-hour monster like Kings and Queen may seem ludicrous, but in this case it’s not only necessary, but even, dare I say—pleasurable. Desplechin’s latest is the kind of movie that a hardened cinephile like myself fancies a “gateway film”—the kind of intellectually satisfying yet simultaneously accessible work that could convince all my less movie-obsessed friends of how fun parking oneself in front of screen for a lengthy period can be. (Sátántangó didn’t work in this regard.) Even with a major plot thread involving death that climaxes in a staggering, emotionally devastating “love letter” from parent to child, I’m still tempted to label Kings and Queen “breezy” and very often “fun.” After seeing the film and speaking with its maker I’m convinced there may not be another major director working today more convinced of the myriad entertainment possibilities of art and the intrinsic artistry of entertainment.

RS: Kings and Queen begins with a quotation—I’m not sure if it’s direct or paraphrased—that sounds drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or some other text on Greek mythology. Why did you choose to open the film this way?

Arnaud Desplechin: I wanted to start like an ETA Hoffman or Nathaniel Hawthorne fairy tale. We have a woman who enters a shop and buys an odd piece of art. She doesn’t know why she’s buying it—it’s an image of Leda being raped by the swan, so it is shocking, yet beautiful at the same time. It’s near her father’s birthday, so she thinks that it might be perfect for that. But I felt this sequence would be unfair for those audience members who have never heard Leda’s story before, so I thought it would be better, and more polite to just say at the opening, “Leda was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, etc.” That way everyone starts off with the same knowledge. I could compare this with M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, where in the opening credits he’s going through and explaining his comic books—that these are comic books sold in the U.S. and that they contain hidden meanings. Beginning a film like this ensures that everyone in the audience is equal. It was for very practical and trivial reasons, I’m sorry.

RS: Well, that actually strikes me as a rather generous move on your part. Kings and Queen is rich with allusions to poets and philosophers, yet you always seem very conscious of making sure that the audience is aware of what you’re referencing. I could contrast that approach with someone like Godard who often barrages you with information and provides little or no clues as to where all of this stuff is coming from.

Desplechin: This is something that is quite important to me. There are many levels of meaning in all my movies, but I don’t think that there is a level that is nobler or wiser than another. To think this way would be stupid. I believe that all the spectators are equal, so if one wants to look at film as pure entertainment and chooses to merely enjoy the nice lighting—it’s perfect for that. But if others want to dig, they can go deeper. But they won’t be more right. They’ll just be deeper. It’s like listening to a popular song where I can recognize that there’s an allusion to some obscure American poet, but I can also just enjoy the melody and share it with my girlfriend, and that’s enough. I think that’s what I love about popular arts—they belong to everyone. There’s not a proper way to understand them. Yes, if I’m looking at Snow White I can think “there’s something in this that reminds me of the Garden of Eden,” or I can think of it as a movie, one made by Walt Disney Films and just enjoy the plot. I’m attracted to the idea that all these meanings are sparkling on the screen and the audience is free to choose the ones they prefer, the ones they have use for in their own life, the ones they love.

RS: How do you find people respond to Kings and Queen? Like your other films, it’s so huge, so sprawling. After seeing it for the first time, the range of reactions of people I spoke with ranged from exhilarated to emotionally drained.

Desplechin: It’s really funny, because there are so many plots, stories, and characters that in each country the audiences react very differently. It’s really lovely. In France, where the country is slightly more misogynistic, people were shocked that the character of Nora was so strong—too strong for some of them. Many left wondering “Is she a monster or is she a saint?” When we showed the film in London, the English audiences were so fascinated by this woman because their literature is different; they just loved her. In Portugal people just appreciated the two stories and were shocked by nothing. In Switzerland people were shocked by almost all of it. I’m quite curious to show it here [in the U.S.]. Right now, as we speak, I’m wondering if the West Coast will react differently than the East Coast has reacted. This is a film that definitely belongs to the audience.

RS: The narrative of Kings and Queen is separated into three sections—“Nora,” “Cruel Releases” and the “Epilogue”—which divide their time fairly equally between Nora and Ismaël. How did you hit upon this structure?

Desplechin: As with so many things about cinema it was done for practical, silly reasons. Because the film was two hours and 30 minutes, and though the plot is not overly complicated, there are two plots, and I thought it would be unfair if the audience was left alone in the middle of that length. I imagined the experience of a teenager going to see it. He or she deserves to know where they are in the film. Creating the chapters was another way to make the audience members equal. A film is a show. Even if it’s a show about a sad thing, or complicated matters, it’s always entertainment. It’s always for an audience, and you need to take care of that audience and respect them. Because it is for them you’re making the movie.

RS: After I first saw Kings and Queen, I felt that it was rather kind to Mathieu Amalric’s Ismaël, at the expense of some cruelty to Emmanuelle Devos’s Nora. After watching it again last night, I wasn’t so sure of my initial assessment. Can you say, or do you even want to say where you stand in relation to these characters?

Desplechin: My biggest worry when we were writing and shooting Kings and Queen lay in balancing a melodrama where we would have to deal with terrible things and terrible fighting and tears with the pure comic slapstick in such a way that the laughs would not annoy the tears. I really wanted the two characters to be equal. However, it’s always easier to see a comedy than a melodrama. But I think it’s lovely to cry and empathize with a strong female character. Many times when people first see the movie, they prefer the comedy because it’s sort of a release—a joyful release. And then the second time, the character of Nora starts to really appear. She’s so odd, and the performance that Emmanuelle gave is so precise, clever, human, and mysterious that you don’t even realize it until the second time through. I love this indecision between the two heroes, and I tried to treat them with respect within both of their genres. But there are so many stories, which is what we tried to do—fill the film with small stories, fables, and so on

RS: What’s always fascinated me about your films are the multiple registers they’re operating in, especially when you completely confound expectations. Like the odd moment where Nora greets her son at the day camp, and it feels like the reunion of two lovers. Or, take the strange, unexpected comedy in the hold-up sequence towards the end. Are these effects that you’re consciously calculating and calibrating, or do you look back at your films after they’re finished and realize how they’ve played out?

Desplechin: It’s absolutely deliberate. I love mixtures. I love to jump from one genre to another, and to try to look at a situation with a different point of view. When shooting a scene, if it’s written that the characters are crying, when we start to shoot, I’ll tell the actors “Don’t you think the scene might be better if you laugh?” So we just try. And if works, it works. If it’s better, it’s fine. Regarding the scene between Nora and her son…it’s just a feeling that exists there. I don’t like the idea that a woman stops being a woman as soon as she has a child. I’m not sure that in novels or films that a “mother” even exists. I’m not sure that I like this word because it can be a little bit despising. I love that Nora’s a little shy in front of her son, and that she respects him as a human being, there is nothing as noble and as beautiful as the way Nora is respecting Elias, speaking to him as if to a young man. Shy instead of being too overwhelming. It’s moving that she’s even shyer than he is.

RS: When you’re creating these mixtures, how do you work with the actors? Are you constantly shooting a scene multiple times in multiple ways and then splicing your favorite pieces together in the editing room?

Desplechin: I actually don’t know. I hope that I’m able to work in a different way with each one of them. They’re probably more equipped to describe the way I work with them than I am. I’m really just trying to be part of them. I’ve learned a few technical things along the way, such as if there’s an embarrassing part, like Ismaël’s break-dancing, I will do it first in front of all the crew, so that I will be ridiculous, and he will feel less ashamed. But I really like to play all the parts. At certain points Emmanuelle really needed to have the film taken apart so that she could understand a scene better. So I would act it out and she would choose the pieces of my performance that most interested her. Emmanuelle said the most beautiful thing: that when they’re acting for me, I’m not asking for any result beyond sincerity—inventing bits of moments, bits of truth, bits of emotions. But they also know that I will ask them to go further and deeper in their performances. My actors trust that I will choose only the best of their work so they feel comfortable in taking some risks. They can be more daring. I suppose my only rule then is not to ask the actors for results, but just to ask them to play. To feel free.

RS: The way you’re editing seems to play a huge role in this. In your films there seems to be less of a concern with continuity than with spontaneity—lines of dialogue will be repeated, cut off early, characters will shift in the frame from shot to shot. It almost operates like jazz, where you have some sort of general blueprint (the script) that allows a basis for improvisation.

Desplechin: I absolutely agree that my editing has a lot in common with jazz. But I think this reference point influences the actors as well. In the same way that a jazz musician will always begin with a basic part, and then after learning that will try to find a cleverer way to expose and discover new motifs, I’m asking my actors to invent new feelings and new ways of saying the lines. I ask them to be as clever as jazz players. After that, I have to edit. I’ve started to think that being a film director is very simple—all I have to do is shoot the actors properly, and give the audiences the best of what the actors gave me. I’m one of you—part of the audience. It’s easy because I work with such a great editor in Laurence Briaud. She’s a very elegant woman, and she always finds a way to do these bizarre jump cuts that work in creating this sort of free, jazz space. In the end, I’m trying to provide all the facets of character. Who cares if the method of shooting is too soft as long as I’m successful in providing all sides of a human being?

RS: I could ask pretty much the same question about your use of music—at times it works as direct punctuation, other times as ironic counterpoint, at others it just seems to exist in the scene. Is there a method to juggling all of these different qualities and tones?

Desplechin: Sometimes when I’m watching my movies I stop listening to characters’ words. But I never stop listening to the sound of their voices. So I love when the music is enhancing the mood of it. Then I like to listen as a child would to their parents—not always absorbing every word the grownups say, just hearing the quality of their voices. And music helps me do that. I only use the kind of music that I respect and that I know by heart. And I try to find links—like those between the jazz you’re talking about and hip-hop music, which has its roots in jazz. I’m trying to be both insolent and relevant at the same time. I don’t know exactly, but I hope I have some insolence, and I do certainly hope that I have some relevance at the same time.

RS: Your films are always infused with the sense of unreal possibility even amidst ostensibly realist narratives—those instances where you’re not quite sure if what we’re watching is really happening. You see this in the sequence where the doctors at the hospital agree to take Ismaël to his analyst after he writes her name on a piece of paper, or when Nora discovers the burn from her father’s writing on her stomach, or in say Esther Kahn, where you can’t help but wonder if the narrative itself has some sort of implausibility built into its foundations. How do you balance this material with the demands of this idea of “reality”?

Desplechin: I’m French—you can hear that because of my accent—and I’m used to thinking of this idea of “reality” as just a great tool in moviemaking. I love to shoot on location, to do research and create dialogues with real doctors, or violin players and so on. I love to use natural light. Reality is a tool that belongs only to cinema. It doesn’t belong to theater or literature—it belongs to the popular arts. But at the same time, I believe my role is to create fairy tales. When I began to think of Nora’s journey and the adventures of Ismaël, I thought about two fairy tales. One Shakespearean and one based on something like the short stories of Hawthorne. They’re two fairy tales firmly grounded in reality. And that’s why I like to go see movies—to see fairy tales that could have happened in the real world.

RS: You’ve said a great deal in our conversation about rendering your films accessible to audiences, but one could argue, though, especially in the U.S., that a film like Kings and Queen would be considered prohibitively long. Do you see yourself as a filmmaker that could pare down to a 90-minute film dealing with fewer characters or even in a specific genre, or is that something you’re not interested in?

Desplechin: I think the length is something that really belongs to the plots. I loved Mystic River, which is a plot that only has three characters but is still quite complicated, and so it ends up rather long. And the plot of Million Dollar Baby is quite simple, so it works at a shorter length. The film right before Kings and Queen, Playing “In the Company of Men” is a film just like a stone you’d throw against the wall—straight. That’s why it’s only one hour and fifty minutes. I thought that in a strange way, on Kings, the storytelling was moving even faster. Because you have all this melodrama, the history of this woman Nora, and it’s told all in one-hour and seven minutes. Then you have all the ridiculous comical adventures of Ismaël, and they are also told in one hour and seven minutes. And then you have 12-minutes that are just a gift to a kid. So, I started to think, “My storytelling is better because I’m telling my stories more briefly.” But I want to fill the screen, so I loved the idea of pushing these two films together with one goal, to help the young character in the film.

RS: Do you know what your next film is going to be?

Desplechin: I’ve been really impressed by American films about the seventies—two which I really love: Almost Famous and The Ice Storm. Both have really romantic characters and a sense of freedom. You even have this TV show about the seventies, which is really quite funny. And I think that, at the moment, we don’t have French films that are able to handle that kind of character or that kind of period. So I’d like to make a film set in a small town with a young character, very romantic, very brash, set in this time period.