It's the "feel-strange" family movie of the season!

Director Arnaud Desplechin talks about Hitchcock, Bergman, "Knocked Up," the "Scranton" of France and the superstar French cast he assembled in "A Christmas Tale."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published November 14, 2008 11:29AM (EST)

Jean-Claude Lother/Why Not Productions

Listen to the interview with Arnaud Desplechin

Arnaud Desplechin was late for our interview. It was a couple of days before Halloween, and he got back to his hotel on Central Park South sweaty and out of breath, and disgusted with the holiday-themed selection at FAO Schwarz. "I was hoping to buy some really kitschy Halloween stuff, you know," he said. Instead, he was told by a snooty Schwarz employee to go to Toys "R" Us or Target. "He looked like he was going to puke on me," said Desplechin. "So I bought something there instead, something stupid and pretentious, which the kid is not even going to like."

Looking back on this episode, I can't believe that I missed the opportunity to take Desplechin, director of the international critics' fave-rave "Kings and Queen" and the new dysfunctional-family holiday saga "A Christmas Tale," to the enormous and chaotic Toys "R" Us store in Times Square. We could have bought plastic skeletons and strings of light-up pumpkins for his 2-year-old son -- France being sadly devoid of such Halloween delights. (I don't know what Desplechin actually bought his son at Schwarz, but we could definitely have outdone it, whatever it was.) I could have conducted our interview on the in-store Ferris wheel, or next to the roaring mechanical dinosaur.

But I was too timid or unimaginative for that, and so there I sat with the man who is very likely the greatest living European filmmaker and had a perfectly ordinary hotel-room interview, albeit one with a spectacular view of midtown Manhattan. Desplechin, who himself turned 48 on Halloween Day, has come of age in the wrong time and place -- downsized Europe, and an atomized and fragmented film economy -- to be famous the way that Bergman and Fellini were, but his talent as a dramatic and cinematic visionary is clearly at that level.

In the United States, Desplechin's audience has so far been limited to a tiny coterie of big-city art-film devotees and Francophiles. His early films, like "La Sentinelle," the English-language "Esther Kahn" and "My Sex Life (or How I Got Into an Argument)," came and went almost unnoticed. "Kings and Queen," a gorgeous and harrowing drama that blended elements of Hitchcock femme-fatale drama, romantic comedy and Bergmanesque meditation on family and mortality, got a bunch of critics (yours truly included) more het up than any other movie made so far this decade -- and grossed barely $350,000 in American theaters. Desplechin plays the role in 21st century film that the Mekons played on the '80s and '90s indie-rock scene: beloved by insiders and resolutely ignored by the public.

Circumstances may be more propitious for "A Christmas Tale," given its seasonally appropriate subject matter and a recent parade of successful French imports, from "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" to "La Vie en Rose," "Lady Chatterley," "Tell No One" and "A Girl Cut in Two." Furthermore, Desplechin's amazing cast should attract some viewers; if you've seen any French movie in the last 20 years you know these actors. Catherine Deneuve plays the youthful matriarch of the Vuillard clan in the nowheresville city of Roubaix (it's in northern France, not far from Lille), whose cancer diagnosis brings the warring clan together for Christmas. Mathieu Amalric (of "Diving Bell" fame) is her estranged and embittered son, who may also be her only compatible bone-marrow donor, while Anne Consigny is the fragile eldest daughter, who for reasons not entirely clear has banished Amalric's character from the family.

Also along for the ride are the marvelous comic actor Jean-Paul Roussillon as Deneuve's husband and the family's would-be peacemaker, sex symbol Melvil Poupaud as the feckless younger son, and Chiara Mastroianni (Deneuve's real-life daughter), Desplechin regular Emmanuelle Devos, Hippolyte Girardot and Laurent Capelluto, all in important supporting roles. If he'd somehow wedged Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil and Audrey Tautou in there, the entire French film industry outside this movie would have been shut down. Of course, it's one thing to have a wonderful cast, but what you do with them is quite another story. Stephanie Zacharek is reviewing "A Christmas Tale" for Salon today; I already had my say after seeing its Cannes premiere.

I'll leave it at this: After seeing "A Christmas Tale" a second time, I'm more convinced than ever that it's a masterpiece, a great work of cinematic, intellectual and emotional synthesis. It's a spinier, less forgiving and less immediately lovable film than "Kings and Queen," but despite all the pain, violence and insanity of the Vuillard family, this is a Christmas movie in the end. No other living filmmaker can do what Desplechin does, which is to put Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander," Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters" and Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," along with Emerson and Nietzsche, house music and avant-garde jazz and a host of other eclectic influences and ingredients, into something that is distinctly his own creation.

Arnaud, when people think of a Christmas film, they may expect a family film, and that's what you've got here. It's a very familiar genre, but not necessarily the heartwarming home-for-the-holidays drama we're used to.

Oh, I think that they have very burning kind of feelings in this family! But it is not a conventional Christmas movie. It is just full of conflicts, and I hope full of good laughs, plus good anxieties and fears, you know? Yes, it is an unconventional Christmas film.

I think that we can agree that anxiety and fear are part of anybody's Christmas with their family. 

Yes. It is really like -- sometimes like a dream, sometimes like a nightmare. It's just in between. I can't say that we are trying to be provocative, because that is not the point. There is more entertainment, I think, if things are more complex or more brutal. Or more shocking. In a way, it's sweeter. I can't say that this is a feel-good movie. It is a feel-strange movie, which in a way is more thrilling.

When you say that the film is sometimes like a dream and sometimes like a nightmare, I think that could be applied to all your films. Sometimes they take place very much in the everyday world of families and relationships. And at other times they are more dreamlike, even surrealistic or supernatural. Is it important for you to combine realistic and less-realistic modes in that way?

Oh yeah, oh yeah, but on so many levels. I would be afraid to be boring if I kept talking to you about that. But yeah, I love the fact that when I'm working with the camera, I'm working in the common, everyday world. It is not big things, not big ideas out of books. In that way, I think cinema is committed to reality. It is just reality. We just take pictures. Moving pictures of people, real people on location, and that's it. But my goal would be to construct something which is a fantasy, which is a dream, with this tool that is a camera with some film in it. A few lights and here we go -- we try to create dream worlds.

In this film you have this amazing collection of actors. Anyone who loves French film will see so many familiar faces, from Catherine Deneuve, the leading lady of French cinema for 40 years now, but also others people may know, like Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos and Chiara Mastroianni. What comes first, the casting or the film?

Definitely the film, because if I was writing for actors I would stop to ask myself the wrong questions: "Is it possible to play that? No, it is not possible, so let's, how can you say it, lower the part, lower the writing. Let's make it easier." When I'm writing, I can't think about the idea of "How can we perform that?" I really don't have a clue about that. This is what I have to find out. After that, I can go to these actors to ask them: "Would you be OK to try to find with me a way to act these weird lines or weird situations?" That's where the thrill is. So that is why I am always writing with the imagination, and after that with the actors.

There's this sense that you almost have a company of actors that you draw upon in film after film. I don't know if you agree with this, but some people have compared you to Bergman for that reason, the sense that if people stay with your movies across a lifetime they will see the same actors over and over again playing very different roles. It is such a heavy comparison, but is that viable to you?

I would take that comparison as a compliment, but on a very simple level. People say that Bergman was always working with the same actors, but actually he worked with all the Swedish actors. Sweden is a small country, but he was curious about every actor there. Just two days ago we were doing a conference with [film programmer and critic] Kent Jones, and this girl, something like 25 years old, told me, "You know, I played with Bergman." I said to her, "You worked with Bergman? Come on, you are too young." Not at all. She was 18 and had done a thing on stage with him before his death. He was a man who was curious about all the actors that he met, and I could compare myself just on this point, which is that France is not that large of a country, just like Sweden.

France is a lot bigger than Sweden.

Slightly. It is not as large as America plus England. You have such an amount of amazing actors. You know, I know all my actors, but I don't know them as a company. I know each one of them for very peculiar reasons, very specific reasons. I have a very intimate link with each one of them.

So are we going to see more actors and different actors in future films?

Oh yeah, I hope so. Instead of using the word "troupe," the word I would like to use is maybe "gang." I hope it is the kind of thing where, you know, people really want to be part of the gang. I have this idea that my gang will grow and grow, until one day it will get so big that I'll use all the French actors.

You'll have to make a lot of films! Or films with very large casts.

If I am making a film, perhaps, about a famous war in France, or about the French Revolution, that way I'd have something like 50 parts. So that would be great! It would be a nice opportunity for me to meet 50 actors.

Right, maybe you can make a film about Napoleon.

Yes, something serious.

It's funny that you use that word, because this film actually is a comedy on some levels, very funny at times. But it's also very painful. It's set in this very small city in the north of France, where you grew up, right?

Yes, a small city called Roubaix. That is where I was born. The city is a joke, actually. My translator told me that you have jokes about Scranton. I think Roubaix is like Scranton.

Right. But in between the jokes we've got the grandmother played by Catherine Deneuve, who is ill and possibly dying, and a brother and sister who seem to hate each other and have not spoken in years. Is that also important to you, to combine laughter and tears?

Well, yes. But I could say that on the ethical level I feel that tears are as interesting as laughter. What I mean is that it would be quite a conservative idea to say that laughter is not interesting, is not deep -- that only tears would be deep. I've met a lot of tears which have no depth, you see what I mean? It is nice when the story has some depth, and after that, do I use laughter or tears? Both are great. What would be a life just laughing? It would be boring.

When I'm writing a scene I have to use stupid director's notes, so I write something like "She says, sobbing." Yes, because that is what I imagine. But then, when I am on the set, perhaps it is better to imagine another thing: Perhaps she is laughing, or perhaps she is just bored. Anything that would make the plot better and the scene more interesting. But I try never to have any clear distinction between laughter or tears. All these things are ambiguous. The idea is to try to have a better show.

One thing you're known for is those moments when other genres of film or pop culture break in, for a few seconds at a time. Mathieu Amalric did that amazing break-dance routine in "Kings and Queen." In this film, we see Melvil Poupaud as a club DJ, mixing house-music records. And then we get a hilarious tour of the nightlife of Roubaix, out of an American film noir from the '50s. It is as if you're celebrating the heritage of film, all kinds of film, every time you make one.

I really like to mix all the genres of films, because I am a film buff. It is a homage, but I also hope it is pleasure too, that it is fun, and also that it's a great tool. You can say things faster. At one point in the story, one girl is trying to reach the man that perhaps she's in love with, and the guy is lost in the city. How can you tell that? Yes, I could do a scene of two and a half or three minutes, and she would be hanging around in the car or driving through the country, and it would be gloomy. The point is just to say, OK, she is perhaps in love with this boy, let's put her straight in the very cafe while the guy is there. So I start to use elements from American movies, from gangster movies, and you know, in 10 seconds she can find the man. It's lovely, because you are just trying to stick to the feeling that the characters are improvising.

That sequence in this film is one of the places where I feel like you must have been, or must still be, a big fan of American films. Your films seem very French to me, very European, but with, like, these little American eruptions. 

To me, it's funny. Because when I show my films here, people say to me, "They are French films," but I never experience the fact that I am French. To me it is quite abstract. But I have to admit that, in a way, I am French. My way of being French is to be in love with American cinema, in a very specific way. Do you see what I mean? French people can be funny about this: We can talk endlessly about Hitchcock, saying that his American films are definitely better than his English films. We love the American crime films, the gangster films. We can discuss all of them deadly seriously, and being deadly serious about American cinema is very French. And in this way, I’m French.

That is very French. Along with loving Jerry Lewis and Jim Jarmusch, I guess. I've never had someone define it that well before. You mention Hitchcock, and when I first saw "Kings and Queen," I thought it was a collision between Bergman and Hitchcock.

I don't believe you. If one day, if one day … I won't believe you, because then I would be too proud and it would be bad for my work. But if one day I could achieve that, perhaps in 10 years, who knows?

You've already made a film in English, "Esther Kahn" [in 2000]. Do you have any interest in working outside France, or working in English again?

I could do it, yes, but only if it is in the plot. Only if I don't have any other way to do it. "Esther Kahn" was an adaptation of an English short story, a very London kind of short story, and really the plot wouldn't have worked in France. If I have something very specific that I can bring to it, it could be nice. If not, I think that you have all the directors you need here.

What American films have you particularly liked in the last year or so?

Oh, there are so many of them. The James Gray film ["We Own the Night"] is fascinating. You can't say that "There Will Be Blood" is a bad film. I really love Wes Anderson, really, really love him. So-called silly comedy, which is not at all silly comedy. I thought "Knocked Up" was really interesting. "Juno" is sweet and, in my mind, less interesting than "Knocked Up." Plus a few more that I can't remember now. Really, it was a good year.

What about French movies? Do you see younger directors emerging in France now who you think are interesting?

You know, being French, I can't say. It's too hard to see. It seems to me that in each country, even America or Canada or England, we are always afraid, always thinking that our own cinema is not that good, that we could do better, that years before it was so brilliant and these days we are lacking. And then here I am in New York and I can see that there are five French films playing [in the New York Film Festival], and the audience is responding to them, and that all five of them are so different from each other. So I think it is really healthy.

I have to focus on my work, you know. I can't see where all the interesting tracks are. We have this documentary about the Islamic issue ["It's Hard Being Loved by Jerks"], plus Laurent Cantet's film, "The Class," which won this wonderful award in Cannes, plus several others, several different propositions of cinema. So actually, yes -- I have to be really happy right now with the situation in my country.

 "A Christmas Tale" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, and opens Nov. 21 in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Washington; Nov. 28 in Sacramento, Calif.; Dec. 5 in Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston and Indianapolis; Dec. 12 in Kansas City; and Dec. 19 in Monterey, Calif., Nashville, Tenn., Palm Beach, Fla., and Palm Springs, Calif., with more cities to follow. It will also be available on demand via IFC In Theaters on many cable TV systems.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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