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Arnaud Desplechin

Director and co-screenwriter of A Christmas Tale

Nov 01, 2008 Arnaud Desplechin Bookmark and Share

French director Arnaud Desplechin, whose first film was titled La Vie des morts (Life of the Dead), acknowledges that there appears to be a preoccupation with death in his work. After a 2008 AFI Film Festival Screening of his latest effort, A Christmas Tale, Desplechin revealed to the audience that he was born on Halloween, granting that there might be some intrinsic connection between his birthday and the concern with mortality in his films. But even though A Christmas Tale begins with a funeral and is set in motion when Junon (Catherine Deneuve), the matriarch of the Vuillard family, is diagnosed with cancer, the film is a stylistically exuberant, at times poetic, celebration of life and art.

Mathieu Amalric, currently appearing in multiplexes as a villain in Quantum of Solace, adds a comically tragic element as Henri, Junon and Abel’s (Jean-Paul Roussillon) alcoholic black sheep son, who is banished from the family by his sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny). Chiara Mastroianni (daughter of Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni) plays Sylvia, the wife of Junon and Abel’s other son Ivan (Melvil Poupaud). The Vuillard children return to their parents’ home in Roubaix (Desplechin’s hometown) for the days leading up to Christmas, and, just as in other reunion films such as The Big Chill, spats ensue, long-held secrets are exposed and bed-hopping occurs in the middle of the night. The themes are familiar, but Desplechin persistently infuses the film with visual dynamism, utilizing a wide assortment of cinematic devices: direct address, narration, shadow puppetry, titles, still frames, dissolves, irises, extreme close-up and split screen. A train ride pulsates with New Wave vivacity, a heart-shaped pendant twirling in Elizabeth’s hand suddenly glides across the foreground of the cityscape, and director of photography Eric Gautier captures some luminous holiday images.

Under the Radar met with Arnaud Desplechin in Hollywood on the day after the AFI screening of A Christmas Tale, his sixth feature. Desplechin speaks softly in a thick accent, but he’s jovial, delighting in his own sound effect while demonstrating a technique inspired by Scorsese. He sometimes breaks up his sentences by asking, “You see what I mean?” And near the end of the interview, he reveals that the posters for Terrence Malick’s The New World, which appear briefly in A Christmas Tale, were more than just a nod to the American director.

Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos have appeared in other films you’ve directed. Catherine Deneuve was in your last film. Was this screenplay written with any of these actors in mind?

No. It was written like myth. It was just characters. Junon, Abel, they’re big names. You don’t know if they are gods or mythological figures. As soon as you mention this actor, it changes everything, the meaning of the part. I love the casting process. It’s adding something wonderful. So, if I were writing for an actor, I would deprive myself of this moment, the casting, which is so fascinating.

Chiara Mastroianni appears in the film with her mother, although she does not play her daughter.

It’s funny, because I didn’t allow myself to call her [Mastroianni]. When I was writing, Pascal the producer was saying, “C’mon guy, you’re writing for Catherine Deneuve.” All during the writing he was harassing me, “You want me to go get Catherine Deneuve?” “Not at all, I’m just writing Junon. I don’t know who will play the part. We’ll see. Perhaps she’s not available; perhaps she won’t like the part. So who knows? There’s lots of actresses.” We waited to have two other actresses, who would’ve been interesting, less interesting, but different and interesting. And after that, I did call Catherine. And I thought that Sylvia would be a nice part for Chiara, but I thought it was stupid because there is this mean line where Junon is saying bad things about her daughter-in-law: “She’s lazy. She’s quite a bore with all those kids.” So, I didn’t dare to call her. For two weeks I didn’t call Chiara because I hired her mother. And after that I thought, “It’s so mean. She’s not responsible. [laughs] It’s not morale, because if I like her, I like her.” So I called her and said, “Sorry, I didn’t call you for two weeks. But I didn’t dare because your mother should play in the movie. So would you consider the possibility?” It worked, which is lovely.

Did you say last night that the actors were not aware of certain parts of the script?

No, they all had the scripts. But I don’t know anything about staged theatre, so I’m not able to say to all the actors, “OK, let’s get together in the room and let’s rehearse.” I don’t have that kind of experience. So, what I’m doing is, I’m working with each actor, because it’s a kosher thing. To give the material before, perhaps on the set everything will be boring. It won’t work. If it worked during the rehearsal, and if it doesn’t work on the set, it will be a nightmare. So what I’m doing is, I’m writing other material for the rehearsals, using bits and pieces. There are great lines of Bergman, about a character that is experiencing almost the same thing, so I am changing those lines, and I’m writing specific scenes for the rehearsals. And this is exposing the motivations of each character, of what he will have to go through. Plus, there are always discussions of, “Why are you playing this part? What can you add that any other actor in the world can’t add?” It’s a sort of secret between each one of them and me. So, with this actor I will work around the theme of fear. With this one I will work around the theme of finding the right pace, like in a comedy of the ’30s. So, each one of them knows something about the movie that the other ones ignore.

The film employs recurring irises and dissolves. At what stage in the production do you decide to use them?

Not in the writing, for the same reasons as the actors. When I’m writing, I don’t want to know what I’m writing. I just want to have good lines, surprising gestures, surprising situations and material. And I don’t know what it means. After that, during the preps, on the set, I’m trying to understand what I could do—change the color of the walls—to see what the scene means. I’m acting the scene with the technical crew. I’m trying to see how it would work if I watch it. In that process, I start to take notes and to do some drawings. On the set I have all these notebooks and photos and drawings, and that way, looking at the actors, I can go from this idea or that idea. May I take a very practical example?

Of course!

I have two scenes in the hospital. So if it’s twice, the same way of shooting, it will be boring. It will be sterile. So, I have one scene, Catherine Deneuve is in the hospital, and the doctor is saying terrifying things, and she’s saying, “I don’t understand why my kids wouldn’t give me love,” which is an odd line. It’s in the beginning of the movie. And at the end of the movie, the son [Henri] is going to the hospital to do the test, to know if he’s in good health. And here, in the same hospital, he’s learning bad news too: he has dirty spots on his lungs, a deep alcoholic problem. So, twice in the movie I will have a patient and a doctor, and the patient will learn bad news and will behave in a brash way. So, how can I do it two different ways? I’m boring, sorry, but I love that. It’s my job, I just love that. So, the first one, I was thinking about The Wrong Man, Hitchcock, when the lady suddenly goes mad. She’ going to the lawyer’s place. It’s such a wonderful scene. The lawyer is speaking, speaking, and the lady’s listening, and she’s becoming mad, because the news is terrible. So I used the same way of shooting the space, with wide shots going to close-ups, with a point of view like this [Desplechin points skyward]. It was the same way. On the other one, I knew that Mathieu would be really rude with the doctor, so I saw the set, and there were two small rooms, and I thought that a split screen would be funny, because then you can see the two [images of] loneliness. You can see the guy learning the news, and the girl discovering the bad news. So, it gives a nice space, a nice beat, because it’s not the same twice. This is done partly during the preps and partly on the set. The iris, I’m doing it during the takes. I just put it on the camera, I’m looking at the actors, directing the camera, and I’m playing with it, just concentrating the performance.

The scene I was going to mention is when Henri and Faunia are looking at the family pictures, and there are dissolves overlapping with zooms and still shots.

Yeah, three times. It’s nice. I stole it from Scorsese, The Age of Innocence.

I wanted to ask about the music. There is a lot of music in the film, with very different moods, sometimes scene to scene. How difficult was it for you to find the music that was right for each mood and scene?

I can’t say difficult, because it helps the way I do the scene. I’m not editing the scene and afterward trying to see what music I can add. I try to edit the scene. If I don’t understand the scene, then I’m not able to edit it. I feel miserable, and then I bring some cds to the editor, and we start to work again on it. Then we can concentrate the scene around this new score, just as a new idea or new perception of the scene. The opening, I shot it in an odd way, because I had the long tracking on Deneuve. The story’s simple; it’s an older woman but still gorgeous, and she’s fixing the tea and she wants everything to be neat in her home, and she’s moving in a nice, gentle way, and the house is large and comfortable, and suddenly she falls down because she has cancer. And so I did this very close shot on the gesture of the face. Then I was listening to wonderful ra¯gas at home, so I brought some Indian music. I realized, actually this is what the film is about. It’s just a remake of The River by Jean Renoir. It’s the same face as The River. You see the mourning, the loss, the family, the house. And I thought it was just gentle and nice to depict this cheap cd as India. It was nice for the character. It was close to what Junon is feeling, the fact that she wants everything to be neat, but the disease is there. So, suddenly the scene found its meaning because we edited it around this ra¯ga that I was adding.

During the train sequence with Sylvia and Ivan, the Ellington track is broken apart by other scenes with quite different styles and moods. Were those sequences written to play off each other, or do you get that in the editing?

The editing. But I’m using tunes I know by heart. This one I know by heart, it’s an obscure thing by Ellington, “Ad Lib on Nippon,” a cd of Ellington that I really love, with a lot of breaks. It’s very long, like 12 minutes, and I thought it would be perfect to be broken.

What about the Celtic music when Henri falls flat on his face in the street, and when Claude beats up Henri? Is it the same music?

Yeah, we did it twice; it’s the same tune. It’s an old classical Irish song. It’s an old classical march. We don’t have that many marches in Irish popular music because they didn’t have an army. They were oppressed by the English, so we don’t have a lot of marches. But I had a march, so I thought, because it’s the same word in French—marcher means to walk. So, he’s walking, but it’s a stupid fight. He’s angry against all humanity thinking, “I’m going to victory” and he’s falling down. And I thought a march would be perfect. [laughs] He’s just mumbling odd things, like a character that’s a warrior but in a completely absurd war, who collapses, crumbles. [laughs]

The character Henri, for someone who is despised by his sister and disliked by his mother [Desplechin laughs], I feel that he still carries himself rather well. He has his lapses; he’s rude, he drinks too much, but there still seems to be a joy of life.


And I was curious if you were concerned about making him either too unlikable or too sympathetic?

Oh yeah, and Mathieu was a great help for that. We did this film just before, Kings and Queen [2004], where his character was so charming. The both of us, we thought that the good thing was to draw through that character someone dark, really darker, but that we would love him, that we would forgive him of everything. But it would be definitely darker than what he did on the previous one.

When Abel reads the Nietzsche quote, you cut to a series of locations. What were you looking for in these locations?

The new world. It’s a silly idea. Yes, they are staying in a cheap city [Roubaix]; yes, you could say that the landscape looks like suburban desert. But what they are trying to build would be a new world. In the lines that open the movie, when Abel is mourning his son, he says, “We need to build a new life, a new world.” But the film is happening in France, which is an old country, and this city, which is old and dusty. So there was a paradox between these brash lines—“We have to discover ourselves”—and the landscape, which is desolate. But still we are to dream that it would be possible if we fight again and again, that one day we would build something which would be a new world. And in a way, the landscape, with the snow, something perhaps is new. It’s this absurd dream of building a new world.


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