That each Arnaud Desplechin film has a way of responding to the one before it (and the one before that, and the one before that, and…) might account for the doubling- and tripling-back nature of my third conversation with the writer-director, who was in town this past October for a New York Film Festival screening of Ismael’s Ghosts, one of his knottiest works: a love story, a tragedy, a comedy, an overcooked movie-within-a-movie about espionage, Mathieu Amalric doing his bug-eyed thing that nobody does better. But Desplechin first told me about the film in 2015, describing it then as, essentially, a cross between Vertigo and the later novels of Philip Roth — both of whom come up herein — so where else would my mind travel but to where we’ve been? The length and direction of what follows should be evidence enough, or so I hope, of why I keep coming back.
A special thanks to Lilia Pino-Blouin, who provided on-site clarifications in Desplechin’s native French.
The Film Stage: When we last spoke, you said that to make a film about a director has a way of being “absolutely insulting” for an audience.
Arnaud Desplechin: Yeah. [Laughs]
Why is that?
I don’t know if it’s for the audience, but I know that all the producers are terrified each time that you’re starting and saying, “Actually, my character is a director.” And you can see all the producers in the world saying, “Oh, no, please don’t do that; it’s too risky.” Because it’s a privilege, too, as an artist, and, as a member of the audience, I don’t like people who have privilege. You know why? It would be cleverer than me, it would be a lot to think that I’m not allowed to, because I’m not an artist — so there is a sort of competition between the audience and the character.
And the solution I found is a joke that’s slightly funnier in French than it is in English, but it works in English: Mathieu is not a director; he’s a filmmaker. He’s just making films. That’s what he’s doing. The God that’s Henri Bloom — Bloom is the director. Mathieu is quite humble with his work. So the fact that the character was humble with what he was doing was what I’d like to show about the fact that Mathieu is a director, like you could be a doctor or teacher or whatever. He’s just doing it with all his heart, and you can see it when he’s mad in the attic: he takes his job very seriously. It’s a job; he’s a filmmaker. He’s not a great director. The great director is his father-in-law that he worships so much and who’s he’s paying the confidence in Tel Aviv.
Are you familiar with the work of Hong Sang-soo?
I thought of that: the characters in his movies are directors, but nothing about it is too specific to that profession.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is a thing that I like in Hong Sang-soo’s movies: the fact that you can be a director doesn’t make you special at all. You’re just a common guy whose work is to work in the movie business. Why not? It’s not a stupid business. You can work in another business — in food or whatever. His business is films. I like the Hong Sang-soo movies, as you mention.
I’m interested in you as a screenwriter, and how you create both characters and their scenarios. You’re also technically writing as another person when we see this film-within-the-film. What is it like to sculpt as another creative mind, to inhabit another headspace?
Sorry, but I will answer with two ways — one that I will try to make brief. One way is that I knew, sending the script to Mathieu, the character is called Ismaël Vuillard, like in Kings & Queen. We both know, Mathieu and I, that Ismaël Vuillard is doing everything that never Mathieu would allow ourselves to do, that the guy is wild. Ismaël Vuillard is wild. Everything he’s doing is with all his heart, but in a very extreme way, and I guess it’s funny for the two of us because we are not that wild. We’d love to be that wild, but we don’t dare to be as outrageous as Ismaël Vuillard could be. So it’s a pleasure to allow yourself to misbehave as our character was misbehaving in the movie.
Another thing I could pay you is: I was struck by this line of Louis Garrel when we were in Cannes. We had a question — not that question, less a creative question which was more vague during the press conference. We’ve known each other a while, but it was the first time we were working together, Louis Garrel and I — and he was saying, “The films of Arnaud Desplechin are so autobiographical because each character is autobiographical. Ivan, the little character, the lady in the room, Ismaël, each one of the girls is a self-portrait.” So I can’t say that because my character is a director it’s a self-portrait, because obviously the character… I was saying that Ismaël is outrageous, and I love the fact that Sylvia, Charlotte Gainsbourg, is restrained, and allows herself to be a part of life and slightly restrained.
I guess, in life, sometimes I’m as wild as Ismaël, and, sometimes, I’m restrained as Sylvia. But I’m trying, even in my world of directing the actors… the fact that I love to play the parts for the actor, which is something that is forbidden in cinema school. All the books about acting, they say, “Never play the parts in front of the actors.” Actually, it’s the first thing I do on the set. I say, “Okay, give me the part, and I will show you what we can do with that.” And I’m not asking them to compete with anything that I offer them; but I love to offer them several propositions, and that way they can pick the proposition which interested them. So I like this idea of Louis Garrel, that the characters are a self-portrait but implicated in so many figures.
You told me this presented an interesting challenge, because your habit of not rehearsing ran counter to Louis Garrel, who is used to doing so with his father. Are there clear ways that rehearsals affected this film, and how you worked?
Not that much. Not that much. I know that, for Louis, it was very important because of the way he has been raised, the way he practices his work, so we did it — and I hope that, perhaps, I had changed him. Because I still think that to rehearse on films is a waste of time. I did one theater play in France, La Comédie-Française, which is the national theater. I did try and had such a wonderful pleasure to rehearse with the actors I work with; it was great. Everything is about rehearsal. But the magic of cinema is that you will catch moments, and you will propose these moments to the audience. These moments, they just appear once while you are shooting. It’s just magic. It happens because it’s an accident — because it’s bizarre, because it’s strange, because it’s whatever it is.
So the fact of not rehearsing doesn’t mean that we don’t work. We work before, around the character — mainly during the costume sessions, when you try to find your appearance of the guy. In this case, I’m trying to nourish the characters. We had a flat reading with Charlotte Gainsbourg, because she was scared to death of the lines, so she asked me for a flat. We call it “flat reading” in French, which means just to read the lines. But she was nervous because of my way of writing, and she said, “When I’m working with Lars von Trier, we can improvise anything. Am I allowed to improvise?” “You’re welcome. Whatever you want. We’ll see.” I propose to her: “Do you want to have Mathieu and you? You have a simple reading, just to see if there are some lines that I can embellish, that I can improve, or are you fine with it? I like that you will change because of your own idiosyncrasies.” So we had a flat reading, but never to act too much — because you have to save this energy when the camera will be here and catch the performance you have to deliver.
I think the magic of cinema, which is so different from theater, is the meeting of the actor and the character — and it happens [snaps finger] you know, in a glimpse, in a spark. And the camera is catching it. So I still stick to my method. If I’m making a new film with Louis Garrel, I will propose to do it with him without rehearsal. [Smiles]
There’s a pretty graphic gore effect here.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. [Laughs]
I can’t think of any films where you have something quite like that.
I made one film for French TV that I really loved because I had scenes in a submarine, and, at one point, one of the main characters was poking another character, a sailor, in the eye with a knife. Wow, it was vivid! It was gore! And I loved to do that. It’s the kind of film that I love to see, and I’m not used to doing. It was fun to have that. There was also a sort of small rhyme that I liked. I will sound obscure, but Ismaël doesn’t have a cell phone. Later in the film, when Bloom is trying to reach him, he’s calling Sylvia’s phone; and, later in the film, when you see Louis Garrel, he’s saying, “My brother still hates the phones, because he’s so sensible, he can’t have a cell phone like everyone.” In the story that he’s inventing, the cell phone is a sort of devilish object which can kill you! And I like the fact that the guy in real life has a cell phone and, in fiction, the cell phone can kill. I thought it made sense.
At Cannes, you said that you like an espionage story. I wonder if this gave some incentive to go fully into that — if you could see yourself branching out and “simply” making something along the lines of Ismaël’s movie.
No, I wouldn’t. I’m sure that I wouldn’t, because the project was born on that. I had bits and pieces on this character, Ivan. I had this scene that I wanted to film: I like this idea of a character who is like in, what’s the name of, I forgot the name of the short story be Melville. Bartleby?
Bartleby, the Scrivener.
Yeah. A guy starting his life so late — he’s not that young — who has no will, looks empty or whatever. Is he stupid or absolutely clever? Is he a spy or naive? You just can’t say. Until the end, you can’t say. When the other guy is grabbing Jacques Nolot and saying, “Are you guilty? Are you a spy?” “I don’t know who I am.” So to depict such a character, which is childish and adult at the same time, I think was interesting for me. But as soon as I wrote these scenes, I knew that I would tell the story of his brother telling the story, that it would be bits and pieces — that I didn’t want to have one novel, but just bits and pieces of this novel.
As a spy movie, I would be bored. If it’s bits and pieces, I would be fine with that, but one fiction about just that, I don’t think I would be the proper director. As a spectator, I love that. I love that. As a reader, I love that. Ismael’s Ghosts is a tribute to… what’s the name of this writer? The Ghost of… you know this famous American writer who wrote about the CIA, which is called Harlot’s Ghost. It’s an epic about the story of the CIA. I love every book about the CIA. I love John le Carré. It’s a Norman Mailer book which is not that well-known, and which is wonderful. So there was sort of a gesture to this book throughout the title of the film, knowing that the title of the film would be close to Norman Mailer’s book.
Speaking of: I love the way the title comes across the screen at the beginning. It’s so overwhelming. How did you arrive at that decision?
On the editing table. So many things I invented on the editing table. Today, the habit is not have to an opening title any longer; you just plunge into the movie. But I thought, on the editing table, because the shot is tracking — which is so parallel to the actor — it reminded me of the films of a director who I worship, Wes Anderson. You have this tracking, which is like that, so I was thinking of the opening credits of, I don’t remember which movie, the wise guys with the title running through the streets like that. It’s in CinemaScope, so it was nice. There was also a storytelling reason, which is that what you are looking at is not the film — it’s the film in the film.
So it was helpful for me, for the audience — you — to have this title, to say, “Hey, it’s not the film. It’s the a film, but it’s a film in a film.” So to have the title upon these images, permit me to suggest to the audience that the following scenes will be different from this opening scene, which is more of a comedy. So you have this tribute to Wes Anderson, but as soon as the camera is moving like that, when you see the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it’s a Desplechin movie, because Wes Anderson would never turn the camera like that. He would go on with the tracking, parallel to his characters.
At the press screening, many of us were laughing during those scenes — but I think laughing with it, because so much, from the marching to the editing, is ridiculous. But it’s not a spoof in the register of Airplane! I wonder about finding the tempo of that — how much it’s in writing, directing, and editing.
I think, if I remember correctly, we already discussed that once, but it’s exactly what you say: the thing that is funny and awfully difficult is that the three arts are absolutely different — the art of writing for cinema, the art of filming a story on the set, and the art of editing. So you have to have enough energy inside of you to tell the story three times, in three different ways. When I’m writing, I’m trying to have good punchlines — ambitious enough and funny enough and tragic enough. To have these kinds of lines is a trial. On the set, we have to kind of reinvent everything — we have to find another way to make them alive — and, after that, on the editing table, I have to cut, and I suppress a lot of material to reach the very heart of the scene as fast as I can.
This mixture of the different tones, also, to find the right balance between tragic scenes — which is Charlotte Gainsbourg being pregnant — and you have to find the right balance and to say, “Okay, when am I allowed to jump? Will they follow me?” On this film, it was quite challenging because of the journey I was asking the audience to take was really bold. So you have to be very careful about the jump between one tone and the other tone. How can I say that? It’s strange. When I’m making a film, I think I want the audience to be a little bit lost, but, at every second, I want them to feel that I am holding by the hand and saying, “Don’t worry. You’re not that lost. I know where I’m going.” So it’s two movements at the same time: the pleasure to be lost and the pleasure to have the storyteller grab you by the hand and say, “You’re not lost. You’ll find your way out of this maze.”
I know you like the Truffaut quote about directing against writing and editing against directing. This, to me, feels like the movie of yours that most fully embodies that. You also once told me that, when you started writing this film, you thought about the part of Sabbath’s Theater where Mickey’s wife disappears and he can’t find her. I had that on my mind throughout. Do you come away thinking about conscious influences differently?
I can’t say that it changed my experience, because I jumped from this myth, which is so wonderful in Sabbath’s Theater, about the wife who disappears so young, the guy who can’t recover, and is a widower. Sabbath used to be a widower, and, in a way, it was comfortable. Then arrives Charlotte Gainsbourg, so he’s a widower no longer. During 20 years, he was a widower; it was a part he was used to acting, so he has to move from one part to a second part. So this theme was coming, surely, from Sabbath’s Theater, but there is another book of Philip Roth: American Pastoral, when you have the daughter of Levov, Merry. This girl was missing, and we discover that she was still alive — that she disappeared on the other side of the world, or whatever. So this other book nourished me, too.
I can say that, on the set, during preps and on set, each time I would take another reference, I was using this myth of Vertigo, which is nourishing the movie. Each time I was too close to the comedies or spy stories of Hitchcock, I was thinking, “No, no, no — it’s a remake of a Bergman movie, of Persona.” So when I wanted to escape from Hitchcock, I was jumping into the arms of Bergman; and when I wanted to escape the arms of Bergman, I was jumping into the arms of Hitchcock. So it’s a game of references and inferences, to jump into some other arms, to escape the influence of the previous one. So I escaped from Sabbath’s Theater by jumping into the arms of American Pastoral.
If one film is usually a response to the last — My Golden Days is about youth; this is about people seeking a second chance — do you know what runs counter to Ismael’s Ghosts?
Oh, yes. Also, My Golden Days was about absolute newcomers who’d never appeared onscreen; this time, it was with big French movie stars. So it was lovely, but it was not the same world of directing at all when you are working with Cotillard and when you are working with Lou Roy-Lecollinet, because they don’t have the same experience in life. So it was great. Actually, the same business, the same art, but it’s not the same. It’s nice, because the jump is big. On this one, I was so happy to arrive for the New York Film Festival. Before my trip yesterday, I wanted to finish a first draft of something, and I know it’s a tribute to a film which is very, very important for me, which is The Wrong Man.
Would I be able to make a film… I could say that Ismael’s Ghosts is a tribute to imagination, a tribute to fiction. Ismael’s Ghosts is a stream of fictions, each fiction intricate with the other one. What if… and sometimes I’ve heard people say I was doing a cinema that was quite novelistic. I thought, “What if I get rid of all the fiction and I will just say the facts? Just the facts.” So I found this story that I started to work on, which is very dry and austere while Ismael’s Ghosts is so generous. Would I be able to make a film as restrained as The Wrong Man is? If you compare The Wrong Man with other works of Hitchcock, and so I think of films like Pickpocket, that kind of film where you just see the facts. After this tribute to imagination, to make a film just about imagination — to stick to reality. So I think it’s my next jump.
I’ve never seen The Wrong Man.
Never saw The Wrong Man? [Exhales] Hitchcock is a Catholic director. Deeply Catholic; English-Catholic. This idea of original sin is strong underneath all his work — even The Birds. That was the theory of the New Wave, of Truffaut and Chabrol, etc. On this film, it’s like a manifesto. Yes, I’m a Catholic: that’s my strength, that’s my weakness, that’s who I am.
It’s a self-portrait, and the performance of Fonda is one of the best… I can’t say “one of the best from him,” he’s such a great actor, but the performance is really devastating. Devastating. It’s so close to this story of this little-boy Hitchcock going into jail, how he starts in the Hitch book, but it happens to a grown-up guy. It’s a wonderful film.
If you don’t mind me asking: are you Catholic?
I’m deeply Catholic.
You’re deeply Catholic.
Oh, yes. I am.
Have you considered yourself a “Catholic filmmaker”?
I’m not sure. It’s strange: when I say I am Catholic, I don’t know what I’m saying, Catholicism being so complicated. When I was 11, I started to think, “It’s so absurd. This religion is so absurd. I want to convert to be a Protestant; it makes more sense. I can’t buy this story of the Virgin Mary; it’s absurd.” So I started going to the temple instead of going to the church, and my parents were quite upset about that. Later in my life, I read some books about the Talmud which influenced me a lot. All the philosophers I’m thinking about — mainly Emmanuel Levinas, who was a French, well-known philosopher. He was actually from Switzerland, but writing in French. He wrote all these things about the Jewish culture and the Jewish religion, too, which influenced me a lot.
After a while, when I started being 20-25, I was reading Joyce and stuff like that — French writers — and thought, “Yeah, the sense that life can be magic, that magical things can happen, it’s a beautiful part of my inheritance, and I have to embrace it instead of refusing it.” So I guess I was raised as a Catholic boy — so I guess I’m not a good Catholic. I don’t have the faith; I have no faith. Sorry about that. So I’m not a good Catholic, but I’m definitely a Catholic.
While I still have time, maybe I could ask about —
[Desplechin begins vaping]
What flavor vape do you use?
Sorry. It’s gross to do that.
No, it’s fine!
Just tobacco. Tobacco and chocolate.
Did you give up smoking cigarettes?
I would like to reach five a day. That’s my maximum. But I have a hard time, because it depends, at the moment, on my work. Some of my gestures are so linked to tobacco. Hopefully, I can write without cigarettes. E-cigarettes are enough, but it’s still difficult for me, and I have to learn how to daydream without cigarettes; that’s difficult. I can read with cigarettes, I can work alone with cigarettes, but when I’m sharing with my co-writers, I deprive myself. When I’m daydreaming after my work session in the morning. It’s difficult, but sometimes I succeed. In six months, I will be at five cigarettes a day, not more. Five? Four. Three.
Were you writing the new film with this?
Yeah. Because it’s a thing which is… we are not from the same generation. It’s difficult because you are American, I am French — it’s not the same culture. But there is another thing: you are young and I’m old, and I think that, at a certain point, it’s self-indulgent to smoke that much. I thought, at my age, it would be more elegant if I would be able to reduce the mode of cigarettes. I smoke widely, and I don’t regret it. I smoked widely when I was in my 30s and 40s, and I thought, “Okay, now it would be more reasonable to be more elegant.” I’m able to restrain myself. So I want to achieve that, but I will have a hard time.
I know that Louis Garrel is big on it.
Yeah, yeah. He’s always doing that. I stole that from him, because he’s doing that all the time, and Philippe Garrel told me to quit; he’s told me that many times. So I’m following him. I always listen to Philippe Garrel, always.
Have you seen his new movie?
Is it good?
Yeah. It’s good. Did you see it?
No. I missed it while it was at the festival.
I’m quite proud. He said it publicly, so I’m allowed to say it: he paid a tribute to me. He said, “Actually, I did this film because of one note of Arnaud.” He said that in public. Because he’s God for me, it was so important that he said that. How come? It’s because when I saw his previous movie — which I loved — I said to Louis to transmit to his father the fact that it was not serious, because it was a love story, and it was a sex affair between the guy who’s having an affair with his mistress, because he loves to get laid with her in the afternoon; after that, he’s back with his wife. And you have no nudity in the film.
Very often, Philippe Garrel is saying, “I’m not a cinematographer; I’m a painter.” I thought, “Yeah, but if you are a painter, you have to face the question of nudity.” He sought that out in the new film. He found a way of being so discerned and so cautious and so beautiful, and to see the body of this woman — but in a very subtle way. “How would I be able, as a painter, ask a woman to be naked in front of me, and how I could paint her not in an obscene way, but in a delicate way?” So, yeah, I loved his film.
Do you shoot with multiple cameras?
The performances have such a powerful relationship with the visual scheme, how you cut on lines and return to an actor’s face as their character is reacting to what’s been said. What do you do to maintain the rhythm and consistency of a performance?
Usually, in the morning, I try not to pertain the performance; that’s the trick. What I mean is: in the morning, I’m so nervous before the arrival of the technicians and the actors. I’m very early on the set — 5:30 on the set — and I’m working alone. I’m acting the scene again and again and again, and I want to impress them — I want to impress the technicians; I want to impress the actors — so I have the idea, the concept, of a one-er. Clever, well-done. After that, in the morning, we are shooting that one-er. I’m trying to reach not the perfect performance, but to see, “What if we are playing the scene with a smile? A cry? As a whisper? As yelling?” We try different options like that. As we finish my morning, I think, “Yeah.”
But, at this point, I was on Charlotte and I couldn’t see what Mathieu was giving. I was looking at the two of them, so I’m filming what I’m calling “specials.” And I have a “special” which is a little moment that Mathieu gave me that I didn’t film. I’m hiding these small, bizarre shots which are played not in the same range as the rest of the performance, and the thing I’m trying to assemble on the editing table are different facets about the same lines. Not to have one proper way of playing the scene, but to show that the art of the actors is so huge that they can play all the facets of the actors; not one way of acting, but several facets of them. That’s why I don’t care that much about continuity of acting.
It just feels very real.
Because in real life, that’s what’s happened. In real life, you’re full of anger — and during the same time you’re full of anger, there is another feeling, which is, “I’m a little bit ridiculous now.” You feel ridiculous at the same time. “I’m slightly laughable.” Which doesn’t mean that you are not full of anger! But at the same time you have a set conscience of yourself that you are slightly ridiculous. You know? So you have two ways of acting the same scene.
At a certain moment of this anger, which is in you, you start to love it, because the situation is absurd. So to try to catch all these dimensions of one scene, to me, is richer than to say, “Okay, no — full of anger, which means that you have to be full of anger.” No. In the anger, you have also the laughable aspect, the absurd aspect; you have the feelings, the memory of the fact that you love the people that, today, you hate. You have all these feelings which are mixed, and that’s what I’m trying to catch from one take to another take.
Ismael’s Ghosts enters a limited release on Friday, March 23.