In the time since I last spoke to Arnaud Desplechin — nine months, to be exact — his latest feature, My Golden Days, has gone from a celebrated theatrical release here in the U.S. to, on this very day, a title anyone can access via VOD services and DVD. Just as important, I think is word of his next feature, Les Fantomes d’Ismaël — though American press and Magnolia, its future distributor, use Ismael’s Ghosts in writing, the man himself calls it The Ghosts of Ismaël when speaking in English — a Sabbath’s Theater– and Vertigo-inspired drama concerning “a filmmaker whose life is sent into a tailspin by the return of a former lover just as he is about to embark on the shoot of a new film.” This sounds great on paper; that it’s to star Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Louis Garrel doesn’t make matters much worse.
Only one question in this interview directly concerns My Golden Days, being that we’ve already discussed it rather extensively, and what’s asked firmly takes advantage of our retrospective stance. What follows is, I think, as relaxed as it is focused, offering strange surprises and revelations along the way — including his love for both an acclaimed American rapper and controversial young auteur. (You can make a guess as to the latter if you know what festival he was just intimately involved in.) There’s always more to talk about with a man this experienced, wise, and open to the directions of discourse, and I hope it won’t be our last conversation. For now, this should do.
Where are you with this new film?
Arnaud Desplechin: The new film is called The Ghosts of Ismaël, and the next step, actually… I’m right in the middle of the production. I’ll start shooting it at the end of August; that’s the stage where I am. Shooting in August, September, and November.
Having moved from My Golden Days to that at a fairly efficient clip, I wonder if it could, in any way, play as a reaction — if one grew from the other, I suppose.
I guess I was carried by the fact that My Golden Days is dealing with young people and is about youth. This time, as a reaction to My Golden Days, it’s about middle characters, and I think all the characters that I depicted in Ismaël are dealing with what you call in America “a second chance.” They are not that young; they are in their ‘40s. They are fighting for a new life, to reinvent themselves. It seems to me that, in My Golden Days, they were inventing themselves. But this time, it’s about the second chance — when you have to reinvent yourself. So it’s a different plot. The plot is quite different.
Also, I’m talking about the fact that what was so delightful in My Golden Days is that I was working with inexperienced actors, who are all so wonderful and fresh. This time, I’m working with major French movie stars, and so it’s quite different, to think that I’m dealing with people who are quite experienced. In the previous film, it was with younger guys and girls. It’s a big shift.
What effects could that have on you as a filmmaker?
I guess, in an odd way, I learned a lot from the young guys and girls — precisely because they were inexperienced with stage fright. They taught me a lot. This time, because I’m working with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Cotillard, I’m eager to learn from them. You know, I started not to rehearse, because I don’t do proper rehearsals, but I had to have some readings-through with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and I was so eager to know the way she works with Lars von Trier, which is so different from the way she works with other directors. To learn from that, and to learn from her experience is a real favor for me.
It’s different, also, because Louis Garrel will be in the film, and, with his way of working with his father, he asked me to rehearse a lot. As I told you, I never rehearse on my films. This time, I rehearsed a lot with Louis because he had to catch his character — that’s his way of working — so I guess I’m learning from all these actors who have all different backgrounds, and I’m trying to listen to them and to discuss their performances.
We’ve had more than a year between My Golden Days premiering and now. How, if at all, has it changed for you in this time?
It was a big change. I guess… I was saying that the film I wrote is about people who are trying to reinvent themselves after they’ve had a tough life. They are trying for this last chance. For me, My Golden Days allowed me to reinvent myself as a director, because of the youth of this cast, and the fact that I was working three plots. I had to go faster in my storytelling, so it helped me a lot. After that, we had this award in France, which is called Le César, and we had so many nominations. It was so gratifying for me, and I had the Best Director. I’m so happy to have this from the provisional of France, for this work that I did; it was really moving. I say that because all these actors that I will work with, Charlotte and Marion and Louis, I met them. Even if I knew them — France is not that big a country — I met them through My Golden Days. It opened to me a lot of doors, so it was pretty gratifying.
But I guess I learned a lot from the experience. It’s a little too complicated for words. It’s the fact that I was able to be — I guess; I hope — harsh in my writing. I’m harsh, and sometimes cruel, but everything is enlightened with the youth of the actors in My Golden Days. There’s no bitterness because they are so young and so fresh. I approached it in the same way in my new film: it’s trying to have hard lines and to be brutal with my characters, and the bet is that the actors will transform that dramatic material into something which is alight.
When we spoke last year, you said you expected the main character not to be named Ismaël later on. You said, “I’m calling him Ismaël right now, but I will change it later.”
First: why did you want to change it? Second: why did you keep it?
I wanted to change it because the film is not at all a sequel to Kings & Queen; the film has no relation to Kings & Queen. The name works. This first name works for so many reasons. Melville would be one — a great thing. For a hero, it’s a good name — you can remember that name — and also, perhaps it works because, on Kings & Queen, the main character was an artist, and it was my first attempt to depict an artist as a main character, when usually I prefer to have doctors or something.
This time, you know, it’s a portrait of a director, which can be absolutely insulting for the audience, and which can be funny, too. I thought that this name, Ismaël, gave him something brash and arrogant, and that I liked. I just kept it. I proposed the part to Mathieu, and I asked to him the question, “Do you mind if we still go with this first name, Ismaël?” He said, “No, I’m fine. Let’s go forward with it. This will be a new adventure of Ismaël.” The film is not linked to my previous work.
Mentioning Kings & Queen reminds me of how you use rap music. What’s the thinking behind its presence in your work?
Because, I guess, hip-hop is the music of my generation. I know all the kids are listening to hip-hop music in France now, but I thought of hip hop, and I remember so vividly when we were listening to the first records of hip-hop that the older generation would call it “a fashion.” “In six months, it’ll be gone.” And, actually, we are still listening to hip-hop. There was a big revolution of that. I was in New York and the audience asked me questions about using French songs in my films, and I thought, “I’m not a great fan of the French popular music.”
Actually, we have good hip-hop — music where we are inventing new songs and we have good guys; good DJs. It’s a thing of imagination because it goes against everything — the melody, it broke the concept of the classical songs — and I love that break so much. I guess that the generation before mine had put everything in the concept of melody. It was not melody any longer; it was just notes. And, this time, there were no notes any longer; there was just rhythm and words. I love that. I just love that. It’s so difficult to use it in films, because it can fight against the dialogue, so you have to find the right track. Yeah. But it’s a commitment for me.
Do you have any hip-hop in mind for The Ghosts of Ismaël?
I will have a real hard time not to use any songs of Kendrick Lamar, because he’s a God to me — so I will just try to find something else, because Kendrick Lamar will be too obvious. But I will have a hard time not to use one song of his.
Do you have a favorite Kendrick Lamar song?
Oh, “King Kunta” for sure.
You served on the jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I’d love to know what you took away from being on the other side of that life for a bit.
I had this experience once in my life, and it was with Quentin Tarantino in Venice. I already served on a major jury in Venice, but obviously Cannes is a lot bigger than them. It was really great for me to stop the prep of my film and to see what worldwide cinema is about today, to have a picture of what film is today — all these films that come from many countries — and to see them. The experience of seeing the films and to discuss them… it was fascinating. It was really fascinating.
I learned a lot from George Miller. He’s so great; he’s a master. I was so happy to meet László Nemes at last, when I loved his film so much. If I had to say one thing that I learned from this experience, it would be the fact that the two main prizes we gave in Cannes… one was to a certain form of nakedness, of simplicity, which is the Ken Loach movie. When cinema is not hiding behind anything — a naked art. On the other hand, we gave the second prize to the Xavier Dolan because of his craft, because the film is so well-done, so impressive — the way it’s shot, the way it’s lit, the sets, everything. The art is so brilliant.
So we gave one award to nakedness and the other one to the pure craft and obvious talent of Xavier Dolan. It was wonderful to give these two prizes to two films which are so surprising in two different perspectives within cinema. Ask cinema to be simple or ask it to be complex; if it breaks your heart, it’s good. The film, the English film, was heartbreaking because of its simplicity, and the Xavier Dolan was heartbreaking because of its complexity, and it was great to reward these two films.
You’d told me about wishes to adapt Philip Roth’s Deception. Is that still sitting in your mind?
Mmm. I know that I’m reading this book again and again, and I read it after my trip in New York. Last time I was there, we discussed it, and friends of mine have spoken to me about it again and again, and this book fascinates me because it’s just pure dialogue — the most beautiful dialogue I’ve read between a man and a woman. Now, from the filmmaking perspective, the difficulty is that this film is dealing with the fall of the Wall, of this thing between eastern countries and western countries, and the love story is going through that. You have the character, this writer, meeting his lover in his apartment. You have one chapter with his lover, and the next is about some woman coming from the eastern countries — depicting the oppression in eastern countries and how they are lost after the fall of the Wall. Which means that it would be a period piece.
Which is difficult because the film, it’s about intimacy — so how are you dealing with a worldwide political issue when the film is dealing with intimacy? So today, I guess, my perspective is that it would be a wonderful thing, but I’m not sure the screen would be the perfect tool. I’m always wondering if it would not be a perfect theater play. I did this production for the stage in France last year. I’m wondering if I could transform it into a show, but onstage rather than onscreen. So I’m still dealing with that.
My Golden Days is now on Digital HD and DVD.