‘Tis the Season
An Interview with Arnaud Desplechin
By Eric Hynes

Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale opens this Friday in limited release. While Desplechin was in town on the occasion of the film’s U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival, Reverse Shot’s Eric Hynes had a chance to sit down and talk with the filmmaker.

Reverse Shot: The first line of A Christmas Tale is “My son is dead.” Did you always know you were going to start that way, and with that tone?

Arnaud Desplechin: Yes. Actually, that was the beginning of the writing process for this film. Usually what happens when I begin to make a film is I have all these bits of text and dialogue that I’ve been collecting. And I usually try to begin the film with something that I don’t understand. And here I had a lot of bits of text by Ralph Waldo Emerson and many of them came from the diary that he wrote when his own son died and then also something that he wrote 20 years after the death of his son. It had a real poetic power to it. Yet because it was philosophy I didn’t understand it. But I wondered what an actor could make of it. He has this very strange line where he says, “My son detached himself from me the way a leaf detaches itself from a tree,” and I wanted to know the story that would make a father say something like that. What is behind it? And what story can I invent? So when you see the opening scene with the father you’ll want to know what it was that caused him to say this. See, I’m not able to understand it. The only gift that perhaps I could have is to sense that it’s good material for an actor. I’m able to play it—I’m not able to understand it. That’s my way of understanding—to play.

RS: That’s giving so much credit and power to an actor. You can’t make sense of it for yourself but you’re asking, in a way, for an actor to do that. Is that a gift to them or potentially too much for them to handle?

AD: You can’t have the actor fear it. The idea in the end is always to make it as simple as possible. One of the things that I think cinema does that no other art does is that you can really have things that are noble and things that are not noble, and they’re of equal value. And things that are popular versus things that are noble, and there’s no difference. And again, it may be Emerson or Nietzsche who said that the essence of what’s being done is bringing the words back home. So all of the words in the text are out there and the job is to bring them all together and bring them all back home in as simple a way as possible. If not, the world would belong to the rich people, the grown-ups, the bourgeoisie, the well-educated people. No, just take those big words and just put them on the table in a very simple and casual way. And say, “My son has just died, and I don’t feel anything at all.” You just have to be simple and plain and bring them back home.

RS: For Kings and Queen I know you started with the letter that the father wrote to his daughter, trying to figure out how someone could have written it. In a way, both films have to do with approaching death. There’s nothing more universal than death—but though everyone has to deal with it, it’s also inaccessible because the living can’t really make sense of it. Was that your entry point, was that what you really wanted to explore with a passage like this?

AD: In Kings and Queen the letter is something very shocking. It’s almost like a curse, an incestuous curse, and it’s terrible what this letter says. The words from the Emerson text are quite different. There’s a real goodness to them, a sweetness. It’s kind of comic to think of it this way, but for this film, the absolute worst pitch that you can make is, “Well, you know, we have a child who dies, and we have cancer of the blood, and financial ruin, and we have the mother who doesn’t love her children, and all of this sturm und drang.” But to present it with a good group of actors and a kind of energy—this could all be transformed. Instead of being what it sounds like in this horrible pitch, it can be transformed into something very energetic and something very positive.

RS: There are hints of the film falling within certain genres, whether a family drama, a melodrama—it’s a Christmas tale after all—you expect certain things, and you counteract that with a very sort of real, penetrating, philosophical inquiry. And yet those things themselves are communicated in such a human, buoyant way.

AD: I’m delighted that you say that because that’s exactly what I was trying to say. I don’t ever want to suppress that 14-year-old adolescent moviegoer that I was who adored these genre films. So while I want to celebrate the genre, at the same time I want to work against the genre so that perhaps you can get to know the characters more, and see something more in them.

RS: You never get the sense that the characters are limited in any way, by genre or the plot, you get the sense in every scene that the characters can surprise you, become someone else or do something you wouldn’t expect. You’re giving the viewer so much credit to assume that he or she can follow and continue to respond. Is that because you envision viewers who, like yourself, want all these things, or is it that you want to challenge them to go to new places?

AD: I don’t like the idea of challenging the spectator, the viewer. That’s not what I want to do. I’m more interested in taking something and transforming it and making it more appealing for them. I can cite some examples for you, three or four or even a hundred examples where I look at a film and I see something, even small things, things that are a little bizarre, but that make me look differently at the film. I don’t want to make a film that is hard to watch. For example, Howard Hawks’s Only Angles Have Wings. Of course now with time passing it’s become a classic, but if you look at the first ten minutes, the relationships between the people and what’s going on are really very shocking. And yet at the same time you’re drawn in and you like the characters, right from the beginning. The same with a film like John Ford’s The Searchers, or some of the Lubitsch films where he mixes both cruelty and a great deal of complexity. Then you have Bergman where he mixes together a kind of monstrosity and at the same time a great humanity. So the idea is to not make the film a challenge but appealing to the viewer.

RS: Which you do, but it’s a very difficult thing to do. It seems to me that it comes from giving credit to the audience. You get the sense that from scene to scene, moment to moment, their characters aren’t determined, they aren’t fixed, they’re figuring it out as they go. And that extends to the audience. You don’t get the sense that you’re missing a lot or that it’s going too fast for you—from scene to scene we’re all figuring it out and discovering it. Is that your way of approaching filmmaking, that sense of discovery?

AD: I think it’s a hell of a job trying to make sure that the viewers don’t get lost. You really have to reassure them; from scene to scene, you have to kind of say, as the director, “Don’t worry, it’s okay, and if you’re lost now things will come back and you’ll get back in.” And there are a lot of ways of doing it, and it’s through the form, through the names of the characters, and the way the film is edited. That’s what I love so much watching a movie: that sense that I’m being taken care of. I can give you one example. If you look at this film, it’s basically a matriarchy. Originally Abel’s mother ruled over the house, and now you have Junon, Catherine Deneuve’s character, who now rules over the house. We were thinking about what to name the character, and we could have named her Marie-Therese or something like that, but considering the children we had on set I thought, why not give her a name like Junon? It serves two purposes. First off, for the children, it’s very easy for them to remember because it’s a very unusual name. So when you have a scene in which, “Junon is sick,” it’s easier for them to know whom you’re referring to. But at the same time for adults, a name like Junon has this reference to the wife of Jupiter. So neither party gets lost. I remember on the show Inside the Actors Studio Martin Scorsese was asked the ten questions of Proust, and one of the questions always asked is the word you like the least. The word that Scorsese said was, “slow.”

RS: And you don’t like word “slow” either.

AD: [laughs] I don’t like the line, “Marie-Therese is sick. You know Marie-Therese—your grandmother.” If I start with, “Junon is sick,” okay next scene. It’s better.

RS: There are expectations of what a Catherine Deneuve character might be like, and yet her character here is quite different from what you might anticipate. Also Mathieu Amalric—having seen him in some of your other films, you expect to feel a certain warmth toward him. You’re going to be comfortable around him, he’s going to be demonstrative. And yet in some ways he’s the biggest bastard in the whole film.

AD: [laughs] Yes, yes, right. He’s not that nice.

RS: But also Melvil Poupaud: he’s gorgeous, he’s a heartthrob, but here he’s a cuckold. And Chiara Mastroianni, who’s not normally asked to be a sexpot is incredibly sexy in this film. Is that your intent in casting, and do they know what you’re up to?

AD: If they are enjoying the parts—this time I will use the word “challenge”—if they are enjoying the challenge of it then I am sure their performance will be better. It will connect with the audience. But it’s also not just to be tricky; it’s to be respectful of their work. Take Catherine Deneuve for example. As you said it’s not the kind of part that you expect from her. But on the other hand, if you really saw all of the movies she’s done—the Buñuels, the Polanski, not just the conservative kind of parts—I’m being respectful of the artist she is. She often chose odd parts, even when it involved a very disturbing way of being onscreen. She’s always comfortable with the sorts of parts that other actresses would have refused. Since she was eighteen years old she’s accepted parts where people ask, “Excuse me, are you playing the goodie or the baddie?” And she’s like, “I won’t answer.” She just plays the part. So it’s not just me saying, “Oh, you will play the baddie,” it’s me as a cinephile thinking, you are a great actress because you’ve always been provocative. Not in a silly but in a wonderful way.

RS: Were Melvil and Chiara particularly excited about playing characters that seem so different from characters they’ve been asked to play up in the past?

AD: For the actors it’s a challenge sometimes for them to do these different kinds of roles, but for me it’s almost like we create a sort of private, very secret, intimate contract between myself and each of them. With Melvil, it’s been a very long time, more than fifteen years, that I’ve wanted the opportunity to work with him. And the thing I find about him is that he often plays the kind of person who shows that everything is okay, and makes it appear that everything is okay even when nothing is okay. This was the opportunity that we had to work together. With Chiara it was something completely different. I had played with her before—and that word “play,” even in French, it’s a funny way to say it—but here she plays a very vibrant character; she is beginning to know herself and know who she is. And here also perhaps was an actress, knowing that this might be an important part for her and that she was coming to know herself as an actress at the same time as well.

RS: That’s exactly how it seems.

AD: It’s what I saw filming her. Asking her, “Please, realize that.” I mean she already has two kids, but she never experienced her life. I could see Chiara saying, “Okay, this time I will do it. Fully and entirely. Perhaps I didn’t do it before, but this time I will do it.” It was beautiful to see.

RS: And are you basically recruiting actors—along with your crew and the remarkable DP Eric Gautier—to help figure things out as you go?

AD: When I look for actors, I don’t want them because I want them to do a performance. That’s not what I have in my mind. What I’m really interested in doing is trying to work together with them to understand the character, to maybe look for things, little tricks, little hints and ideas—ideas is a very hard word to use—or just a different way of acting and showing who this person is. And that it’s perhaps this process of their discovering these things—to make this person, this character—that is more interesting than the actual end that we arrive at when we’re done. This process of each one of them working is the real performance.