Q&A: ARNAUD DESPLECHIN, director of
A Christmas Tale and Kings and Queen
An online exclusive interview
Director Arnaud Desplechin
Friday, July 17, 2009
By Eric Hynes
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The creator of 21st century classics Kings and Queen and A Christmas Tale, Arnaud Desplechin is a voracious cinephile. Yet unlike many, Desplechin has a generous spirit. He sees greatness in what others scorn (“Pretty Woman is a masterpiece,” he insists) and salvages working parts from a flawed whole (he’s fascinated by aspects of Notting Hill). While he seems to revel in his unconventional advocacy, his enthusiasm is genuine. His taste, much like his films, is wide open and unpredictable, thrilling in contradictions. Lest one think he’s a pushover, there are films he just can’t abide. “Slumdog Millionaire to me is an absolute disgrace,” he recently told an audience at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), sounding freshly affronted four months after the film’s Oscars sweep.
Asked by the BAMcinematek to take part in their 10th anniversary (they’d mounted a Desplechin retro in 2005), the 48-year-old Frenchman declined to screen his own films and instead hosted a unique double bill: hero Francois Truffaut’s underrated Mississippi Mermaid preceded by Wes Anderson’s seemingly overplayed The Royal Tenenbaums. In rambling, ingratiating, brilliant presentations, he called Truffaut’s film, “an apology of sadness,” and “a perfect love story,” and compared his own densely packed films to Anderson’s: “The films are like a rollercoaster ride. I like that. The need to fulfill the time, add a plot, a character, a scene, adding, adding, and betting that you can deal with it.”
Stateside without a new film to plug, Arnaud Desplechin sat down with STOP SMILING to effuse about the films and filmmakers in his life.
Stop Smiling: There are aspects of your own sensibility reflected in the films you chose to screen, and in the greater work of both directors, Truffaut and Anderson. What are you drawn to in Anderson’s films?
Arnaud Desplechin: I’m proud to say that I’ve been inspired by the films of Wes Anderson. Which is lovely because he’s younger than I am. It’s nice to be inspired by a newcomer. I think it’s important to realize that he has a very singular voice. From his first movie, Bottle Rocket, it was already there, and he’s developed since then. Everyone is always pessimistic about cinema, and always thinks that the good old times are long past. No, here we are, and we should admit that we’re experiencing a fascinating moment in cinema. The past was great, and the present is great too. Appreciate how young this man is, how talented he is, the art that he’s making.
SS: As well known as he is, his films are somewhat underappreciated, even The Royal Tenenbaums.
AD: Strangely the film is suffering from its success. It’s a victim of the fact that it’s so funny. But it’s also deadly serious. Is it contradictory? Not at all. You don’t have to punish the director because he’s telling his stories in such funny ways. It’s absolutely full of despair and is serious, and people don’t know what to do with such objects. He’s trying to invent his own voice while playing within the rules of the industry. He’s staying in Paris, working on his next film [an animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox], and sometimes we see each other. What a strange character.
SS: He wears suits that are a little small, right?
AD: Yeah, and his shoes. I mean, if I were his mother, I would yell at him. [Laughs] He has awful shoes, but part of that is a matter of taste. Which belongs to his films. They are films of exile. Which is so American, the fact that he enjoys and experiences this idea of exile, like a lot of American artists and writers of the 20th century. It’s in the opening of The Darjeeling Limited — the Hotel Chevalier short — the guy in the hotel room is in exile.
SS: Was The Royal Tenenbaums on your mind while making your last film, A Christmas Tale? They’re both sprawling family dramas, both comedic and melodramatic.
AD: When I was working on A Christmas Tale I saw these two films: Ingmar Bergman’s last film, Saraband, and The Royal Tenenbaums, and thought that these two films had a lot in common. I didn’t like the idea that one — the Anderson — would be funny, and the other — the Bergman — would be gloomy. The Bergman is a pretty violent film, but the main character is comical from time to time. He's scary, but funny too. And The Royal Tenenbaums is hilarious but it’s full of melancholy. In both films the parents divorced years ago and now see each other again. In both you have incest, you have the idea of a house being a castle. And I thought: come on, just considering the plot they’re the same film. I didn’t like the idea of learning just from Bergman and not from Wes Anderson. Looking at each film, reflected by the other, I thought it worked. Jumping from one supposedly serious film to a supposed comedy.
SS: You’ve talked before about your interest in the pace of storytelling and in what the audience can grasp, and both of the films you’re presenting — Tenenbaums and Mississippi Mermaid — are challenging in that way. They’re very quick, and operate on an almost subconscious level.
AD: The plot can be revealed in a prop, so that if you blink you can miss it. You can miss the fact that the Ben Stiller character is a widower. You’re on the edge. Then Royal Tenenbaum is a monster but he’s also, you know, nice. [Laughs] That’s what I love. And I don’t think Bergman would be able to do the same. The bad films are the ones where he’s fascinated by the fact that the character can be evil or bad. No: it’s just part of life. All of these characters can be [bad or good]. With Anderson, he’s not rejecting the cruelty and he’s not fascinated by it either. Shit happens. It’s lovely. Really he tried and in my opinion achieved something in the cinema that Salinger achieved with the novel. Yet it’s a very humble thing, simple even.
SS: Do you feel an extra affinity with Anderson because he’s also a lover of Truffaut?
AD: Mississippi Mermaid has a nice dialogue with The Royal Tenenbaums. Looking at their films, I can see so clearly that Wes Anderson at the age of 15 was saying, “Louis Malle is great,” and Truffaut is saying at 16, “Nicholas Ray is great." It’s nice, this appetite for foreign countries. It has to do with adolescence. Mississippi Mermaid is also an underrated film. It’s always interesting to show a film that’s underrated, watching people realize that it’s beautiful.
SS: You selected two films for this program, and for a cinema in Belgium you’ve prepared a series of double bills. Why two instead of, say, a top 10?
AD: The 10 best, or my 10 favorite? Come on, it’s impossible. It’s pointless. Even the best by genre: My favorite five westerns? Five musicals? Then vampire movies — I love vampire movies. There’d be like seven kinds of films. So I like to couple films together — double features. Pairing The Awful Truth with Husbands and Wives. Seeing Woody Allen’s film again, it’s unbelievable. Pairing Unbreakable — nice to show a good Shyamalan movie — with Million Dollar Baby. Each is about a gift that is a punishment.