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Arnaud Desplechin on Melding Frederick Wiseman and Sidney Lumet with ‘Oh Mercy!’

Written by Andrew Ward on October 16, 2019 

Photo by Lindsay Seide

Outside his native France, Arnaud Desplechin’s latest film, Roubaix: A Light (or Oh Mercy!), has mostly been received with raised eyebrows. After employing espionage subplots in his prior two films (Ismael’s Ghosts from 2018 and My Golden Days from 2015), his latest fully embraces the crime procedural, which, at first glance, looks to be about as close to his body of work as a David Fincher film is to, well, a Desplechin. But for fans of his highly idiosyncratic filmmaking, Oh Mercy! is a fascinating entry into Desplechin’s oeuvre for precisely all of the reasons it deviates from the characteristics we’ve come to associate with him. One of the hallmarks of Desplechin’s filmmaking (and there are many) is the relentless energy, and with Oh Mercy!, nearing the age of 60, Desplechin shows no signs of slowing down, transforming as a filmmaker once again, this time appearing under the guise of a whole new genre, cast through the lens of a French-Algerian cop (played by Roschdy Zem) who is in many ways the polar opposite of the characters Mathieu Amalric has made so synonymous with Desplechin’s name. 

Taken moment-by-moment, the degree of success the film achieves is maybe somewhat uneven. But as is the case with the rest of his films, considered in the context of the whole of his oeuvre, the film’s richness grows immensely. Following its North American debut at the 57th New York Film Festival, I sat down with Desplechin for an in-depth discussion on a wide array of topics. For a director as erudite as Desplechin when speaking on his own work, it admittedly helps to have seen the film first before delving into the discussion that follows. Despite a lackluster reception, we are keeping our fingers crossed that Oh Mercy! finds a North American distributor for an eventual release sometime within the upcoming calendar year. 

The Film Stage: I’d like to pick up where my colleague Nick Newman left off when he last interviewed you and ask a very material question: are you still vaping? If so, how did that affect the writing process for Oh Mercy

Arnaud Desplechin: You know, I’m a chainsmoker. I was born a chainsmoker. My grandmother was a chainsmoker. But lucky me I don’t need the cigarettes to write. You know I can vape during the writing itself, but that’s enough. After that, later in the day–because usually I’m writing in the morning–I write and it’s two or three in the afternoon and it gets harder not to smoke a cigarette. You know? But it helps me a lot to get used to stopping. Plus during shooting, you are not allowed to smoke, which I think is great, not to smoke on set, because it is rude to the nonsmokers and etc. The vape is a great help for me. I have a goal. I didn’t reach that goal but I have a goal. I want the DP I’m working with, Irina [Lubtchansky], and I to smoke one cigarette a day. That’s my goal. 

You know I could even say I was not vaping [during the development process] because when I’m reading I’m not vaping at all–I’m not smoking and I’m not vaping. When I’m reading I’m just reading. I know that at the beginning of this film I didn’t want to go into Roubaix to make an inquiry, a sort of documentary about the real characters even if everything is based on real events so I sent a friend who did the research for me in Roubaix and he sent me material over the internet. You know for my job it was just to read Crime and Punishment in the two French translations, to compare the two translations, and to spend hours with Dostoyevsky and that was enough. It was without vaping and without cigarettes. 

You’re left with very different impressions of the film between the French title and the English title. The French title (Roubaix: a Light) almost sounds like it could be the title of a very Catholic Christmas movie. And in the film’s beginning, the crime is the only light that lights up this otherwise gloomy, spiritually ill French town. The English title (Oh Mercy!) feels equally Christian from a thematic perspective, but more like a desperate plea coming from the town. And it’s interesting how you have the two overlaid on top of each right at the beginning of the film. Can you explain what the thought process was with these diverging titles? 

I will start with the details, being that the fact is that no one knows where Roubaix is in America and England, or in China, you know? So it would be stupid to stick with the original title. Plus I thought that some friend of mine who happens to be American was making jokes about the title when it was translated as Roubaix: a Light. He said, “You know you sound so ridiculous with such a title?” So I knew I had to change the title to an international title. And I remember during the shooting I was trying to find something around pity, but pity is too Christian, as your comment suggested. And I remember this album of Bob Dylan’s, Oh Mercy. You’re putting Oh Mercy! as a Christian title, but to me it could be a Muslim title because you have two titles: the French one and the international; one. And the French one, Roubaix: A Light, could be Daoud: A Light [Daoud, the film’s protagonist, played by Roschdy Zem]. Daoud is the light in a very dark city, you know? And if you translate it into Oh Mercy! it would give the merciful Daoud, which would sound very Muslim. You know, instead of the word compassion, the fact that the guy would be merciful–merciful would be enough. It would be too much to have compassion, it’s too Christian for my tastes. But to me to be merciful would be enough. And I love the fact that almost it sounds like a gospel, Daoud’s gospel. 

In the film, Roschdy Zem’s character says, “You got it wrong. You had to pay. I also think that life should be enchanted. Like your childhood. But it’s not.” The anchoring conflict for him is the sense of guilt from not belonging, despite the fact that he’s the captain of the police squad and seemingly the “big man in town.” Did writing the character of Daoud as coming from an immigrant family allow you to perceive your city in a whole new way?

When he’s speaking with Claude [Lea Seydoux] and telling her that actually nothing is for free and you always have to pay… one could say, when he was twelve or fourteen, for sure Daoud was in love with girls like Claude, you know, and he had been rejected. So there is a sense of revenge, to hurt the one who neglected you. So now he’s the king and now she is trapped because she is in jail. On the other hand, I think it’s a self-portrait because I can image Daoud when he was seventeen years old and he was good at school, when the rest of his family was not good at school, and he thought, “Life will be free; I will have everything in the world.” And now he’s getting older and he has no family any longer. He’s staying in this city and he doesn’t know why he’s staying there and he realizes that he has to pay. So it’s less cruel than you imagine. Because speaking to Claude he is making his own self-portrait. “I was like you, I thought that life was for free and I realized at a certain moment of my life that I had to pay, and I will pay the price”–that sort of thing.

But to comment on your lines, I could say that this film was the first time I was able to pay a tribute to a community I don’t belong to. It took me twenty years to do that. The city where I grew up was not North African, it was purely Algerian. You have no Morrocan guys, no Tunisian… it was really, deeply Algerian. And to pay a tribute to this community without learning from it, an opportunity that I love, it took me a while to really do it. You know, this sense of exile… You have these shots when he’s looking at Bou-Saada, the small town where all of the immigration is coming from, which is like a very stern mystery. You know, what is he dreaming about looking at this landscape, with the streets and the mountains and the desert and all of that? We don’t know. Does he want to go back? No, he doesn’t want to go back. He’s protecting his childhood. 

Daoud is kind of an interesting inverse on Paul Dedalus’s character in My Golden Days. Where Dedalus’s subjectivity is dispersed across this beguiling global network through his profession, Daoud never leaves his hometown, but the existential question of his identity weighs no less heavily upon him. Of course Amalric has long been seen as your Rothian doppleganger, so how much of yourself were you able to use when writing the character, and how much of him arose from working out the genre elements of your story? 

When I was writing and doing the casting process for the film, I couldn’t identify myself too much with Daoud because Daoud is too much a superhero for me. I’m just looking at him and admiring him, but I know I’m just a human being, so I’m not Daoud because Daoud is more. He’s an angel, you know? I could say he reminds me of Bruno Ganz’s character in Wings of Desire–this mind reader. You remember that scene in the Wim Wenders movie where Bruno Ganz is on the top of the building and can read into the thoughts of all the citizens of Berlin? That’s Daoud. And I thought, come on, I am not an angel, I’m just a human being, so I can’t be Daoud. 

I was really impressed by Roschdy Zem who is quite special–not shy but powerful and strong. So I thought, “Okay, I will identify myself with a much more modest character. I will identify myself with Louis who is the narrator of the movie. I’m Louis. I don’t identify with Daoud. I’m as clumsy and as stupid as Louis.” That’s what I thought when I was making the movie. And the funny thing is that usually I’m acting in front of the actors and in all of the books written about acting they say that the director should never act in front of the actors. As soon as I’m on the set, I’m acting. And I thought after the film, I acted in front of all of them. I’ve been Marie, I’ve been Claude, I’ve been Louis. And I thought, in front of Roschdy Zem, I didn’t dare. So I didn’t do that. And then we arrived at our first interview in Cannes and this journalist loved Roschdy’s performance and asked him, “How did you build the character?” And his answer was, “Easy. Arnaud was just playing the part in front of me.” And I said, “Did I dare?! Are you sure? I was so impressed by you that I restrained myself. I didn’t dare to act in front of you.” And he said, “Oh yes you did.” So I guess I gave everything that I could give to help him. Not to say you have to do this or you have to do that. But to say let’s play together and you make you market: you take this, you reject that–I’m overacting everything–and you choose whatever interests you for your own performance. So I guess I’m less shy than what I thought with Roschdy. 

Well, it’s a fantastic performance he gives, so you must be a good actor. 

Yeah, he’s a wonderful actor. 

The idea of “getting it wrong” crops up in the film in other ways. Whether or not you are wrong seems to be left entirely up to chance to a certain degree, as the ending of the film suggests with the horse race. We don’t find out if Daoud gambles on the wrong horse. In Oh Mercy!, is Roubaix simply a city that is lacking in luck, and needs mercy to make up for that lack? 

I could answer in two ways. One would be very brief. There is the young lieutenant [Louis, Antoine Reinartz’s character] who is scared, depressed, who is coming from Grenoble, a quiet city in the country, a beautiful city where the landscapes are wonderful, surrounded by mountains, in stark contrast to Roubaix. And at the end of the movie he is asking Daoud how does he deal with such misery? How does he deal with poverty? And then Daoud is smiling and he says, “But it’s nothing. Poverty is nothing. Misery is nothing. Because sometimes it just glows.” So there is this idea that you don’t beat it, that if you look at it correctly, sometimes, anytime, a human being appears, it glows. There is mystery inside each one of us, a sparkle inside each of us–a little light, which is a miracle because we are all unique. In a way, they can’t reduce us to statistics. I think that the character of Louis is wrong when he’s doing all of these statistics in the voice-over at the beginning, when he’s saying Roubaix is that presentation of poverty, that representation of statistical facts, and so forth. We are not statistical presentations, we are just human beings. Sure, there is truth to sociology and figures, etcetera. But we are more than that.

And now, coming to the last scene with the horse. I guess my idea… I’m not rejecting your interpretation. I’m telling you my interpretation. It’s not better than yours. It’s looking at something which is a horse–which is wild, which is pure energy, which is beautiful, which is caring. You see Daoud when he’s on the horse and he’s like a kid. He’s terrified of the horse because he’s not clever like the horse. He looks stupid. You know, but he’s looking at the race and you can see the pure energy of this wonderful animal jumping from the starting block–and it freezes. Because you can’t tame that. And tomorrow there will be another rape, there will be another dysfunction–there will be another attack, a robbery, a murder, etcetera. And you won’t be able to tame it. And the beauty of it is that you can’t tame life. Life is bigger than us. So just to admire the pure energy of an animal will do the job. It will do the job to pay respect to that pure energy. Not to stay in melancholic observation of the world, but to praise it, this image of life. I guess that’s what I was aiming for. 

Something that really stuck with me are the neighbors the police interview around the crime scene. The way you shoot them standing in the doorway, looking as though they have just woken from a drug-induced sleep, is really unnerving. By hanging at a distance from them we get closer to the texture of the city than if you were to really delve into their lives. Can you talk a bit about going back to your hometown to shoot a film that is so reliant upon the perspective of the town police and how that changed your approach to building character? 

I think it belongs to the TV, the smaller subplots. There is a divorce, there is a kid, there is a thing, there is a that, there is the private life of the cops, or the victims, or the suspects, etcetera, etcetera. I wanted to make something dryer or more abstract than that and just stick on human faces. Who cares about going inside of the house or whatever? It’s just cops knocking on some doors opened by women. And sometimes they enter. You know when they go to Farid’s mother’s house you can see this wall that is painted as they do in the north of France, which is strange because it is beautiful but it is so cheap at the same time. So it’s a strange thing. What I can say is that I was speaking about paying tribute to the Algerian community. But you know it’s my hometown. I grew up there until I was seventeen then I skipped town for Paris. And on my first feature I went back. And my parents are still alive and are still living there. And I could say that I never lived in my hometown. You know from the age of ten to the age of seventeen years old I was just a cinephile, which means I was locked into my room. I was watching films on TV. Sometimes I was going to see films in Lille, which is the big city just over the way. And part of that time I was reading books and listening to records. And that was it! Music and books and looking at films and sometimes going to the cinema, and that was it. That was my life. So I can’t say that I experienced the city where I grew up.

I realized it’s such a shame, at the age of forty, that I was not able to say a word in Arabic and I was born in this city. And I said I didn’t live my own life. I didn’t experience my city. You know, and so on this film it was a great opportunity to plunge into Roubaix at last. And also, because I was working with all of these natives of Roubaix, you know, all of the cops are played by cops of Roubaix, except the four main actors that you see. The bad guys that you see that they interrogate they are just nice guys from Roubaix and they are not actors at all. All of the extras are just people of Roubaix. So suddenly I was just depicting characters who didn’t have a protected life as I used to have as a cinephile, but who were experiencing a much tougher life than I experienced. And to look at them and to spend some moments with them–I’m thinking of the uncle of the runaway girl you see in the film–it was wonderful, it was so exciting. He couldn’t speak French. So he told me, give me the lines. And so I gave him the lines and he folded the sheet of paper and put it in his pocket. He said, “I’ll read them later.” I knew that he couldn’t read them. I’m sure that he would have his son read them for him later.

I remember the baker, the African guy from Senegal, and he was telling me stories about his life from Senegal which were so beautiful. He was a shepherd. And he couldn’t act! He couldn’t act. So on the set he was so nervous. But he was a beautiful human being. I went to him on set and said, “You told me a story about your life. Please don’t say my lines. Who cares about my lines? Just tell me a story about your life. Are you scared of white people?” And he says, “Scared, in Roubaix? Come on, with what I knew in Senegal I was not scared.” And I told him, “Just tell your life to the young cop.” And suddenly he started saying, “J’étais berger!” I was a shepherd. So I met all of these people, and I met my city at the age of 57 when I didn’t know the city before. It was a great experience to plunge. I was protected before and not to be protected was great. 

So in Roubaix, A Christmas Tale, and La Vie des Morts part of the reason you set those films in Roubaix, despite the fact that according to your biographical details you are a local, was to come to know the city? 

Yeah. Those films were fables. They were enchanted worlds. They were utopias. They were full of imagination–I hope so! They were funny. They were just tales. But this time what I wanted to embrace was not tales, it was reality. Even if the film sounds like at the end of it I can reject what I am and it is a philosophical film, everything is real. So it was so different, this great shift in my world of making films, and this shift was an absolute delight. 

In preparing it, did you feel like you had to kind of take on the perspective of a policeman-like character to kind of go around the city and meet all of the characters and build a mental picture in your mind? 

Oh yeah, sure. I had to spend the time. I had to meet people. Plus to live with them. It was really good because I had the best advisor I could imagine. Each time we were playing a scene we had two cops behind the camera and if they didn’t like the scene the cops would say, “We can’t do that actually. The regular way of doing it is so forth…” And they were correcting the script. It was wonderful! Because they were perfect advisers. They were really in the scene. They were saying, “That’s not what we really do. We do it another way.” So they were correcting me and improvising lines. 

I’d like to return to an idea you had brought up when speaking about making Ismael’s Ghosts, this idea of the pleasure of being lost in the narrative and, as an audience member, giving into this feeling and allowing the director to guide you through it. It’s an interesting thought when applied to Roubaix, a crime procedural that to a certain extent relies upon a coherently explained narrative in order to operate. About half of the film is composed of misdirection in relationship to the crime that emerges as the film’s central concern, playing with this idea of “getting it wrong.” Were you thinking about the different ways you would approach the genre through the direction, or did that come out of the specifics of the story that you based the film on? 

I think it was coming just before I knew what I would write. I had this wish after building a film like Ismael’s Ghosts, which was a maze. I wanted to do a film that was absolutely straight–to make a film against the previous one, as Truffaut used to say. So I was trying to have something really plain. And I was thinking, what would I give? Would I be able to have a plain character for the storytelling. 

I knew also that I wanted to embrace the mainstream genre which in France is the social movie, the realistic drama, which is the mainstream drama now in France. In the 50s in America it was the Western. Today in 2019 in France we are doing social movies. Nothing noble about that! How could I embrace that genre, I thought. I like this idea of a woman’s journey crossing an institution. It might seem obscure, but think about a Fred Wiseman movie. It’s just people crossing an institution. And I thought there are two institutions that would interest me. One would be the social services–the welfare, like in a Fred Wiseman movie. The other one would be a precinct. Which means the two places in society where society doesn’t work. You have all the misery arriving in the precinct. The institution is fine for the bourgeoisie. When you go in the high school it’s lovely or when you go in the museum it’s fine.  When you go in the precinct it means that you are in deep shit, so it won’t work.

And I thought to make a film in a certain social service can be considered a bit austere, and paying a tribute to Sidney Lumet, I thought that filming in a precinct would be more interesting and more cinematic. So I said okay, let’s go in that direction. And that’s how come to tell the story in the beginning the first half of the movie is a portrait of the city with all of these little stories. But I hope that the spectators are not lost. And then the film shifts to focus on the two female characters and the camera goes back and forth between them, becoming a microscope. Just a face, a woman’s face, becomes infinite. Because we can see in the visage that it is infinite. So focusing on these women the film becomes even larger than where it started.  

That’s interesting because I feel like the “why” of the crime is something you’re not much interested in–it’s hardly interrogated. The question naturally arises, but we never get anything more than a superficial explanation. Is the banality of the crime and the difficulties of sensationalizing it something that attracted you to it? It takes a long time to get to the “truth” of what happened, and there is no Scooby Doo or Law and Order sort of reveal to make it anything more than a desperate crime in a desperate city. 

I rejected that totally. You know, two things. One, very brief. Roschdy Zem is a cop, he’s not a judge. So yeah, the judge’s will ask why did you do that–because you are drunk, because you are poor, because you are pissed at society… that’s a judge’s question. Roschdy doesn’t want to be a judge, he just wants to be a cop. A cop is enough. And the cop is taking care of how. Not why, but how. And now, one year and a half ago a very dear friend of mine died. It was Claude Lanzmann. And I learned from looking at the films of Claude Lanzmann, in all of them, but in Shoah it is maybe the center of this masterpiece, which is what Claude was saying, and that’s that when you are dealing with something that is beyond humanity the first question that you have to ask is how?. If you start with the big questions, like why?, you are lost. You are creating something religious or absurd or philosophical and you will be lost. You won’t discover anything.

But if, just like the historian Raul Hilberg, who wrote The Destruction of the European Jews, just asks the question how did they do that? You know, this is cinema. If you ask why? it is philosophy, not cinema. Just ask how and focus on that. So for me it was a moral statement to say for this question, how did you do that? How long did it take to kill? Okay, you were with your knees on her face–how long? And, you know, just asking this question will be enough to take these two women and bring them back to humanity. And if you ask them why they won’t be able to answer and you will look at them as monsters, when actually even if what they did was monstrous they are still human beings. So the goal of Daoud is to take these two women and bring them back to humanity. 

It’s like what Nietzsche says about the first stage of nihilism. You ask the question “why?” and that yields no answers, so it makes sense what you’re saying, that you can’t begin there. 

Yeah, exactly. 

Photo by Lindsay Seide

One of the greatest pleasures of engaging with your work is the hypertexuality of it. It feels like everything is connected in some way that’s always just out of reach, and the only way to get to the bottom of it is to travel further down the rabbit hole into the worlds of your films. You have described your work in the context of a corpus, and each new film seems to build upon that idea. But with Roubaix you’ve turned to a genre film relatively late in your career. It makes me think of Roth doing a historical fiction novel, The Plot Against America, in the mid-2000s. Of course the analogy is only halfway appropriate, because the factual details you grapple with in Roubaix are not of world-historical importance, as they are in Roth’s novel. But still, you are taking on a genre that is not standard fare in relation to your body of work, and returning to your hometown to reconceive of it as an outsider. What drew you to the crime procedural as a genre at this stage in your career? 

I didn’t realize the fact that I would stick that much with the cops and the procedure of the cops and that the film would be so technically accurate. I knew, as I told you, that at the beginning of the project I wanted to make a film that throws my imagination out of the door–to say “Okay, get out of here,” and make a film without any imagination. I can see all of my colleagues in France and in Europe making social movies. 

I worship the Dardennes brothers’ movies. And during the whole shooting I was so angry at myself and yelling in the car back from the shooting with the first AD and the DP, saying, “What we are doing is not at all what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do was just a Dardennes brothers movie, period.” And the AD said, “Yes, but you are not the Dardennes. First, you are alone. There is not two of you. Plus, you are not Belgian. Plus you are just not the Dardennes! So what you are doing is just Desplechin, and that’s it.” And I was, “Yeah, but what I wanted to do was a Dardennes movie! And I can smell that it is not a Dardennes movie, so tomorrow we have to do more Dardennes than that. We have to Dardennes-ize my film.” 

After that, you know, let’s see a brief scene. A very simple scene. It’s very early in the morning in winter and Marie is in the car, going to the police precinct to be interrogated and for the moment we don’t know if she’s guilty or innocent. And she’s like a child looking at the city lights. She’s half asleep, half awake. She’s surrounded by cops and we are rolling through the streets of Roubaix. And I thought, if I am in a real car I know the image. You don’t have the room to fit the camera. So it won’t work. So I said, “No, no you use a green screen just like the Hitchcock movie and I will shoot a plate of the street. I will shoot the car as well. I would like a long tracking shot landing in a close up of Marie. And I will add some rain, and I will film the dome that I will take from another place, just like in the Hitchcock movie.” And I think in this shot you have everything about the soul and the state of Marie, which reminds me of a shot I love from The 400 Blows where Jean-Pierre Léaud is captured by the police in the police car and he’s driven to the institution and he’s looking at the lights and you don’t know if he’s crying or if he’s astonished by the beauty of the city at night. He’s between tears and astonishment–between two states. And I thought, it’s perfect. It’s a perfect depiction of what’s happening in this fragile woman. And it doesn’t look like a Dardennes movie… [Laughs] And I have to apologize because that’s what I wanted to do, but I did it with my tools, which are different from the tools of the Dardennes. I can’t change who I am. 

Any particular film of the Dardennes that you were holding up in your mind while making Oh Mercy!

L’enfant (The Child), it is a great film. I love it. I love The Kid With the Bike–a great film. But L’enfant is my favorite. La Promesse is great. Rosetta is astonishing. But their entire body of work interests me for sure. 

Are there any plans to ever publish some of your screenplays in English? I’ve long been hoping to read them, and I lack the necessary command of the French language. 

I’ve been so lucky that almost all of my scripts have been published in France, but they have never been translated. Looking at the state of the edition in America or in England and looking at the number of translations you have… You know I’m a lucky guy because I’m French and we translate a lot. You don’t translate that much. [Laughs] So you know my life is a great life because I can read so many American novels, so many American essays, so many English novels or essays, or stuff coming from Eastern countries, etcetera, because we are the country that has more translations than anywhere in the world. 

Do you read Roth in French or English?

English Roth. He’s God. But there is a beautiful edition of Kings and Queen and I would love to see that in English. There are two films that I would really love to see translated, because after the years I realized in so many art schools, actors, young actors, love to do scenes from My Sex Life… or Kings and Queen. So it was useful for the young students to have the lines published. It’s strange because My Sex Life… is such an old film, but each year I have young actors sending me tapes of them playing the scenes because it’s just material. It doesn’t mean that it’s good. Do I have pride about acting? Sure I have pride about it. My pride is not that big, you know? I’m just happy to produce some material that is useful to actors. So to see young girls and guys embracing that material and creating their own way of interpreting the lines, that’s the more beautiful gift I have given. 

I certainly hope your scripts will appear in English sometime soon.

But please, I want to tell you one last thing. Because I was speaking about the translations… A Christmas Tale will be adapted on stage by a young director, a young woman who is terribly brilliant who did a Chekhov three years ago. And she will adapt A Christmas Tale on stage. And I’m alive! I’m not dead. Can you believe that? It’s not a tribute, you know, I’m sure she will do her own thing. But I’m sure she will do her own thing to create her own piece of art, and you know to pay a tribute to what I wrote for films. I’m a happy man. I’m a really happy man. 

Oh Mercy! screened at the 57th New York Film Festival and is seeking U.S. distribution.

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