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The Reeler Blog

Arnaud Desplechin's Gift that Keeps on Giving

By John Magary

Sometime during the New York Film Festival press screening of Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, I scrawled in my notebook, “WHERE IS AMERICA’S DESPLECHIN?” The Festival left me with the irksome conviction that the French, after eight years of America doing its best to shut them out, still care about us more than we care about us. Meaning, their best filmmakers consider seriously, and with an adult’s attention span, the very things our own narrative filmmakers might, but don’t, at least not very well: public school (The Class), globalization (Summer Hours), family (A Christmas Tale). As much as a certain political party might not like to admit it, French issues are American issues, and vice versa.


Catherine Deneuve in A Christmas Tale, still smoking at IFC Center (Photo: IFC Films)

The scale inversion’s been going on for a while as the big, wide frames of American films get filled with more and more localized and petty inventions, we must look to the little old TV set for... us. So, there’s no here here. More the reason, then, to see, if you haven’t, A Christmas Tale, still humming along after nearly a month at IFC Center. Desplechin breathes jolly, sulphuric air into that old bucking bronco we thought we’d whipped: the dysfunctional family holiday. Tireless, goofy, enraging, laughing in the face of Dull... “How does he make these things?” I wondered.

What follows is a short talk about the processes of M. Desplechin. The setting is mid-autumn, in a capacious room in the Helmsley Park Lane Hotel, the walls splashed with Kubrick’s Imperial Pomegranate Red #46, the carpets smelling of Leona’s recently departed soul. A room fit for A Christmas Tale: matriarchal, relentless, familiar, funny and mean.

THE REELER: Your films feel chaotic, at times, but there’s always a vast and complex structure at work. How do you build a script? Where do you start?

ARNAUD DESPLECHIN: In this particular film -- and this happens with most films -- I worked from bits and pieces of things. For example, different phrases, things that please me. Here, for example, you have the quotations from Ralph Waldo Emerson at the beginning. You have this idea of a son being banished, a banishment, just the way there is in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale -- which in this case is ridiculous... what’s he banished from, he’s banished from crap! [laughs] You have the scene between Mathieu [Amalric] and the mother [played by Catherine Deneuve] -- that’s an idea there. Then this idea that maybe I want to make a film that takes place in a house.

So I have all of these different ideas, and the hope then is to find one film that will bring them all together, to use the film as a way of reflecting all these different things. What came to me with A Christmas Tale was a film almost as an advent calendar, where you open each door, and behind each door is something different. All these bits and pieces fit behind these little doors. This gave the film a narrative structure.

Once the narrative structure is established, it becomes pretty much an endless process. You really have to explore all of the possibilities that exist. For example, this may sound strange, but sometimes I don’t even have an idea of how many characters will be there at the end. And what I do is I put them all on a chart, and I work them back and forth: This person will interact with this one, or this person will interact with this one, and then I think of little scenes. Sometimes what happens is, what I thought was going to be shown in a scene, something else comes forward. The film speaks to me: "This character wants to say this." That’s how the process works, this kind of inventing.

Arnaud Desplechin (Photo: Getty Images)
R: You always co-write?

AD: Yeah, always.

R: How does the collaboration work?

AD: I don’t work alone, because if I were working alone, I would be saying something. As if, you know, I had anything to say. If I had things to say, I would be a writer, or philosopher, or... a scientist, you know? But no: I just have a film to make. What I’m trying to do is discover what the film is saying, not what I’m saying. That’s why I feel comfortable when my co-writer and I are together. I’m with someone, there are the two of us, and we are looking at the movie and asking, “What is this film saying?” So we can set it properly, and what has to be said will be said. But it’s not our will, exactly.

Up to that point, yes, I could say I’m doing the writing, mainly. When my co-writer arrives, let’s say I have 30 pages, 70 pages, it depends. It was funny, on My Sex Life..., when Emmanuel [Bourdieu] arrived, I had too many pages. I was at 200 pages, and I had to work back to... 150 would be enough. So we had to cut, change the material, fix things. I have a big board -- I’m really proud of my board. I built it because of the guy who wrote Batman Returns. Is that the right one?

R: With Danny Devito?

AD: Yeah, this one. I read an interview with this guy, and I copycatted his system, but in an odd, clumsy French way. This board, I’m really proud of it, because it’s huge. Everything is written, planned, etc. So we are doing two things. One thing is to try and provide Talmudic interpretations. “Why would we keep this in?” “Well, it could mean this.” “Oh, the beauty of it’s that...” To infuse each thing with several meanings. “Ah, this reminds me of a small film by William Wyler, where there was this one good scene...” To provide interpretations. Talmudic, yes, but also acting interpretations. “If you perform it like this, it’s funnier than if you perform it like that.” And we interpret those moments when we are stuck.


Jolly or something: Mathieu Almaric and Catherine Deneuve (Photo: IFC Films)

R: This is before you shoot?

AD: A long time before we shoot. And we’ll tape the improvisations. So, Emmanuel is a spectator, making choices: “When you said this line, it was good... when you’re saying that line, it’s still not your scene.” In a way, he’s directing me. The work he’s doing is quite important. It’s huge. You could call him the Secretary, yes, but you could also call him the Director, you know?

R: I read somewhere that you’ve worked parts of, for example, Philip Roth novels into your films--

AD: No -- actually, what I try to do, when I work with actors, I never really rehearse with them, in the traditional way you’d think of rehearsing. Not only am I afraid of being bored, I’m afraid of being boring... because I’ve already done it before. What I try to do when the actors come to me is work with them to get an understanding of who the character is. Because I don’t really know who the character is until I have the opportunity to work with the actor.

But I don’t like to use my own script in these rehearsals, so I bring in other small scenes to work on. These could be from anything, something from Bergman, something from Shakespeare, something from Philip Roth. It could be something I saw on a TV program, a news report. What’s important is to take that bit of something, and work with the style of it, and think about the character, and find the character. This is before getting to set. For example, if the character’s story had been told by, you know, Philip Roth, he would’ve had to say this as a character. But if he were on stage, he would’ve had to say that. If it was in real life, he’d have to perform it like this... like this poor girl I saw in a documentary on TV, or whatever. There are several angles, you know, that we can practice, and then we’re aware of how to play the comedy in the character, the tragedy in the character, different moments for the character.

R: As many have noted, the performances you capture are often surprising. Simple reactions are never taken for granted. Take Emmanuelle Devos, who for me is sort of defined by your work with her. When I think of her, I always think of someone laughing inappropriately.

AD:
Yes. [laughs]

R: Are there times when your actors find it troublesome to confound expectation? Justifying what is, at first glimpse, counter-intuitive or even irrational behavior? Your characters’ reactions are so often unexpected. How do you get a performance like that? Do you ever hear, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly behave like that.”

AD: What you said about inappropriate laughter—that is what the audience sees, but it must be appropriate for the actor to do it. I don’t really write in a literary style, but one thing I’m absolutely against is this idea of “natural,” something that’s “natural.” I don’t think this should be part of it. You have to work with the actors, and the actors have to be able to act something, to say something…I have to give them something that they can act. It has to be actable. They must take something that maybe is unnatural and make it simple, so that when it is acted, it comes across as being natural. I don’t like it when parts are crushed under this idea of naturalness, which is not really natural. You have to really work to arrive at this point, the point where it seems natural, when it’s actually not what we perceive as natural.

That’s the reason the actors are there: to take something that is not actable, and make it actable. This idea of naturalism, and the actors who perform that way, it’s almost become a cliché. I like to think about it as a percentage. For example, you look at TV. You hear them say on a news report, “Seventy percent of people respond to this this way, or forty percent…” I don’t get this: I’m not one of those percentages. If I respond to something, I’m not responding the way seventy or eighty percent of people respond to it. I’m responding to something in my own way, very uniquely. I’m a little micro-percentage. Each response must be singular, unique to a particular event.


Mathieu Amalric, making it "actable" (Photo: IFC Films)

R: Could you talk a bit more about your rehearsal process?

AD: Before shooting, I need to have played each part. That way I know how difficult a thing is. I can ask them, say, on this precise line, “You have to do this.” And if I’ve done it myself, I’ll have an answer for them. I act in front of everyone. Crying, yelling. The actor whose role I’m playing is beside the camera, and can look at the scene. And after that, we change places. If there are four characters, I’m playing four parts. The actors don’t need to mimic me at all, they can do whatever they need. No improvisation, of course, once the camera rolls, but they can find whatever motivation they want inside.

I started to direct this way because I was afraid that they would be ashamed, or shy, in front of the crew, doing silly things -- you feel uncomfortable. But if I do it first, I’m ridiculous, then after that, we’ll have a good laugh, and they are free to do it better than me. That’s it. But I don’t like to rehearse everything before the camera rolls.

R: Blocking and staging is all done on set?

AD: I come on set, say, around 6. The actors come in around 9 [or] 10. During that period, I’m acting -- well, I’m not acting, but inviting gestures and stagings. A certain way of grabbing, a certain way of doing. With an assistant, we act everything out in a very clumsy way. We look silly, we look pitiful. [laughs] But we do it without witnesses. Once the actors arrive, I know that I can propose to them a physical gesture to express a sentiment. Then we’ll need to find how to utilize this gesture, and eventually to invent more -- to add the little touch that only a great actor can add.

John Magary is a New York-based filmmaker. His short film The Second Line is currently making the rounds.

Posted at December 9, 2008 6:03 AM

Comments (1)

Great interview (with Desplechin, somehow, they always are). To your comments above I'd add that, shamefully, the two best American fiction films about race relations in recent years (Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Be Kind Rewind — and yes, I know not everyone agrees, I'm not Armond) were made by...a Frenchman. Jeez, good job Gondry.

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