When it was announced Arnaud Desplechin’s next feature Spectateurs! (titled the less-appealing Filmlovers! in English) would be a) a docu-fiction hybrid; b) about cinema and, in particular moviegoing; c) a continuation of the Paul Dédalus saga that’s starred Mathieu Amalric as the director’s analogue-of-sorts in 1996’s My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument and 2015’s My Golden Days, there was room for curiosity and confusion alike. Desplechin’s track record would, I think, sustain the former well enough, while that noted combination engendered the latter in spades.

Seeing Spectateurs! certainly answered questions as to how Desplechin would put these components in concert––it’s my favorite film of his in years, said as a great fan of the later, increasingly hard-to-find output. But the why of it only grew more mysterious: it’s about Paul Dédalus but is as much Desplechin playing him as Amalric, who provides voiceover (in English) and only appears onscreen in the final minutes; it starts as something like an Intro to Cinema Studies history lesson before becoming (to its great benefit) an odd combination of film theory and personal appreciation; characters who’ve just appeared play like protagonists of an unseen film into which we’ve suddenly been dropped; on and on.

It was of course a great pleasure to speak with Desplechin in advance of Spectateurs! premiering at Cannes this week, even as it led me to ask some questions of a more general, what-was-your-idea bent than I’m typically predisposed toward. The good news is that he couldn’t give a dull answer if he tried. I hope this serves as both introduction to those who haven’t seen it (that’s essentially everybody) and skeleton key for those lucky few who have.

The Film Stage: You spend enough hours with a director’s work, and sometimes you’re lucky enough to speak with them on multiple occasions––in your case I can say both—and you sort of have an idea of what to expect. But do you know the expression “pardon my French”? I say it because––pardon my French––this is such a weird fucking movie that left me a little dizzy. It announced itself as strange inside of the first minute when you have Mathieu Amalric as… a version of Paul Dédalus giving voiceover in English, which I couldn’t have anticipated. And I was wondering if maybe that is a place we could start: what was the thinking there?

Arnaud Desplechin: Actually, it’s a thing which came later in the process––because in the French version I’m doing the voiceover, just like in My Sex Life where I was doing the voiceover. I realized that because we started the process of editing the clips before the shooting to see what it would give, and so we started to use my voice and I realized that you would have used a lot of narration in the film. And I thought it would be a little bit impolite to be in French for the worldwide spectators. And I saw a film about John Zorn and Barbara Hannigan where Mathieu was doing the voiceover. And his English was so good, and he could give the emotion even if he was speaking a foreign language––which I’m not able to do––and so I proposed to Mathieu, “I would love you to be the narrator. Plus we are visiting the Paul Dédalus character again, through different possibilities of Paul Dédalus: being a child, being a kid, being an adolescent, a mature man. You will appear at the end of the film. So it would make sense.”

Because actually, in the cameo that Mathieu offered me at the end of the movie, it’s just a smile––a smile in the café, looking at Salif Cissé, and that’s it. It would make sense if just this apparition of Mathieu was the voiceover of the whole film, and his performance as a narrator was so good––so good––that I was just glad to mix it. It’s the same game between Mathieu and I: I don’t know who is imitating who. I think that would be a good definition of friendship. Am I imitating Mathieu? Or is Mathieu…? We are so old now that we don’t know any longer and we don’t care who is imitating who. I am imitative of Mathieu or he is imitative of me––we don’t know anymore.

That gets at what I think is the central question of this film: authorship and ownership of the Paul Dédalus character. I see it in English; it’s Mathieu reading it. But if I saw the film in French, with you speaking it and relaying this character’s experiences, it maybe creates this question of who’s actually “playing him” at that point. How much is that to be considered, and how much am I just projecting some external interest?

It was easy because when I was doing the French version of it, I was just Mathieu. It was that simple for me. I know him by heart. We did so much together, so it was easy, and so perhaps it is a non-answer to your question: who is Paul Dédalus? Paul Dédalus is anyone. I create other characters––plus I create other characters with Mathieu, like Ismaël Vuillard in Kings and Queen. Ismaël Vuillard is quite specific; it’s not anyone at all. It’s a character, very specific, who is vulgar, brutal; Paul Dédalus is neutral. That’s why anyone can be Paul Dédalus. Paul Dédalus is someone who loves to admire––that’s his definition. He loves to admire his friends, to admire the situation he’s in, so it was my admiration for Mathieu, Mathieu’s admiration for me, my admiration for the other actors playing the part of Paul Dédalus, and Paul Dédalus in my own films. It was that chain, that link between the different elements.

And Amalric is credited as “the cineaste” in the end credits.

Yeah, yeah.

Maybe it’s an obvious comparison, but it’s like your Nathan Zuckerman: he first appears in My Life as a Man with this very specific biography, then is someone else in the Zuckerman Bound quartet, etc. Given that you’ve twice returned to him, do you see this character as a palate-cleanser, a recalibration?

I can react to what you’re saying about Zuckerman. Because when we started, Mathieu and I, we did My Sex Life, and after that we did Kings and Queen, and people were mentioning Jean-Pierre Léaud and François Truffaut. And I didn’t like this comparison at all. Because there was… I love Jean-Pierre Léaud and I love François Truffaut. But there was a different arc to our relationship. I remember for the first time, before My Sex Life, Mathieu didn’t want to be an actor; he wanted to be a filmmaker. So I told him… I remember that so vividly. When he said yes he said, “Okay, I’ll do it. I’m not an actor. I know you’ll be so disappointed, but I’ll try. Let me take care of that.”

And I offered him a gift. I told him, “To be safe, you have to start to write your next film.” And it was Mange ta soup. I offered him all the tapes of Ingmar Bergman, a whole pack of it, and said, “Work. For your safety. Because if you’re just an actor it will kill you.” There has always been a relationship between Mathieu and I: me loving him as an actor and respecting him as a film director. So our dialogue is based on an equality and not a hierarchy. But, you know, Zuckerman is the perfect example. I love the dialogue––it’s in The Facts––the letter that Zuckerman is writing Philip Roth to pay him reproach about writing his own book. Which means that the character became as important as the writer himself. It’s quite important for me, this book.

I suppose Spectateurs! is your Facts.

Yeah! [Laughs] Could be.

This film is constantly bumping against a metatextual, autobiographical realm. Maybe this tension is best exemplified by the section on Misty Upham, who starred in Jimmy P.––a film you never mention. I’m curious about creating this documentary framework without getting into your own films, even while eulogizing someone you worked with. How conscious was the choice not to talk about Jimmy P. in that way?

I didn’t want to mention my own films, but I knew that I wanted to have a chapter about the fact that the films––and it’s the deepest belief I have––have been invented for the deserted people. To me, for me, the political consciousness that I could have started with the Native American fate that I saw in the westerns. Seeing them not represented, or represented as the baddies. Etc. I was so careful about that. I was reading books about the tragedy of the Native Americans. And when I met Misty––it was in Los Angeles––I told her that I noticed the fact that when she was wearing the glasses she was suddenly weak, and when she was blind she was so powerful. And she hugged me and she said, “Arnaud, you’re the first one who noticed my performance.” So it was an absolute friendship of people who are making films––making films with their hands.

She was supposed to be in Django, in a section that Tarantino wrote about Natives, and Django, being too long… you know Tarantino loved Frozen River? He wanted Misty in the film. There is something tragic in the fact that a broken youth, a broken childhood, can give such a wonderful result on the screen. Alas, films can’t fix lives. But through the destiny of Misty and thinking about the wonderful performance of Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon, I can say that they progress––that cinema can help a progress in art. You can see Lily Gladstone arriving to the Oscar ceremony. You can see that there is a tribute which is paid to that community. It couldn’t happen to me with the workers in Italian cinema; the political consciousness arrived to me through the tragedy of the Native American in the Western.

That segment exemplifies what’s so powerful about Spectateurs!––it’s never predictable in its focuses. You might not anticipate a lecture on Notting Hill, either, but of course there’s that iconic video of you in the Criterion office talking about the sheet as a screen. Which leads me to wonder how many of these monologues were written for this feature and how many were kind of sitting around.

Almost everything came from old meditations I could have about the film. When Charles Gillibert came to me, he proposed me to do a documentary about theaters based on the writing of Stanley Cavell. I said, “I’m not able to do a documentary piece––I wouldn’t know how to do it––but perhaps I can do an essay with these fiction scenes?” And after that I wrote it in such an emergency. Because when Misty passed, I wrote lines about her, so I used those lines. When I spoke on the grave of Claude Lanzmann, I had to pay a tribute to his work, I used it––it transforms and it changes. So we have this word––perhaps Claudia could help me––in French for music, which is “tombeau.” It’s a grave, but it’s a beautiful piece of music for people who have passed. We call that a “tombeau.”

[The interpreter notes it’s equal to “tomb” in English]

I could say the film was a collection of all these meditations that I had over 20 years. Mainly that’s what I did. So I picked, from my computer, all these meditations I had. I collect them, I transform them, I edit them––because the film is not chronological––and that’s it.

So the film springs from, maybe, a slightly less-organic place than your other films. Is there a certain psychological construct to making a film on commission from someone else’s idea? Is there an extra push needed to “make it your own”?

No. Because it happened like a flaw. Really like a flaw. Charles proposed me that on a Friday. I said, “I can’t do a commentary.” And on Saturday and Sunday I plugged in all these bits and pieces––rags and bones, as you say in English––which were in my computer. And I said, “Yeah! I will have the first time that I presented a film! And I will have the first time that I presented at a cine-club! And I will have a scene about Misty! A scene about Claude Lanzmann!” I sent that to him. We met on a Monday and he said, “Now the film is yours.” Now it was done. [Laughs] And after that we had to work a lot to make it work, for sure. But it’s a thing that I realized writing the film a bit. Making it… not that much. And editing it. Which is: when I was finishing writing the film, Godard chose to die. I was a Godardian type when I was very young, because of my father, and after that I had sort of a revelation: I converted for Truffaut, which I didn’t like when I was a kid. So I had the conviction of the converted, which means that I’m a fanatic about Truffaut.

But I realized, when Godard passed, the absolute importance that he had in my life. And in our lives. And what he does represent for cinema. I think we still didn’t finish to think what Godard changed because he changed everything. Everything. I realized how many quotes I do have about Godard in the film. I’m thinking about one quote, which is the last one: the film is finishing with “Ruby’s Arms” by Tom Waits, which is the score of First Name: Carmen. I realized there is the poem by Baudelaire, “Le Voyage,” which is in JLG/JLG. You have the scene with the philosopher, which can make you think about Vivre Sa Vie. Etc, etc. And I realized how deep––without knowing it––the influence of Godard was on me, like the influence of Godard is on anyone making films. Because he changed everything.

I called this a sweeter Histoire(s) du cinéma.

Yeah. Sure, sure, sure.

The choice in clips is not so obvious. That one bit from The Age of Innocence is the first thing I recognized and it was kind of a “game on” moment for Spectateurs! as this peculiar object.

It’s strange. It was… I had a hard time doing it. About the Scorsese clip: I knew that the first clip… recognizable clip, not Alice Guy-Blaché’s movie, which is what you see first. But after Alice Guy-Blaché, the first film in color, the first film with dialogues in it is The Age of Innocence because, to me––as everyone on Earth––Scorsese being God, I had to start with him as a tribute. It was a personal choice as a way to thank him for all his work. But the rest of it, when I’m looking at the film, I realized that I have three Chinese films and have just one Japanese film. When actually my own cinephila is going much more Japanese or Chinese, and I realized it was not my favorite ones. You have some films that I am not a great fan of and you have films that I absolutely worship.

It was difficult because it’s not a film about filmmakers; it’s a film about spectators. It’s a film about this humble crowd, and I still belong to this crowd. Even if I’m making films for my living, I’m still a spectator. We are these humble spectators––all the guys and girls you can see in the white space speaking about their common experience. So it was something quite Cavellian, in a way: not to speak about the author stuff. You’re American so you’re always linked to the author theory; I’m French so I’m linked to the politique des auteurs, which is different from the author theory. And it’s still my politics. But this film was beside the political aspect of art, fighting for directors. The film was not fighting for directors. And I was thinking, “How come there is no clip of this film that I love? And this film that I love?” So it was not about my personal choices. It was much more… organic than that. It has to be spectacular.

I’d like to know about your philosophy of filming the screen. There’s a scene where a young Paul goes to see Cries and Whispers and you do something I’ve never quite seen before: at first it looks like a clip that was simply cut into the film, but then the camera pulls back, bending the image of the theater screen, and travels to Paul in his seat. Which is such a beautiful evocation of the spectator-film relationship. Then, in that little bit about The Deer Hunter, it’s from the perspective of an audience member. We also see from the projection booth during the cine-club showing Daisies.

I was dreaming to do that scene so many years. Each time I’m going into a theater, I’m dreaming. And I’m going in often [Laughs] to a movie theater. I was dreaming to do that shot that I did of Cries and Whispers: to start on the shot and to change the perspective of it, and then to see Milo Machado-Graner, and to turn and approach him and to see the film back––to see what’s happening in this magical Plato’s cave. To show it physically. So I loved to do that.

I’m thinking about The Fabelmans, and The Fabelmans––which I love––I have only one regret: I’m not sure that they used the proper prints, but I think they added the image digitally, from the screen, to make it more brilliant. Because it’s a bit great when you’re screening it for real, so I knew I would film the screen for real: prints, or DCPs when we didn’t have the print. But it was the real image which was created. Even if I worship Spielberg and The Fabelmans, I have to say that I would have preferred to have the real prints when the child is going to see the film with the train.

Obviously I spent the film wondering about Paul Dédalus; Amalric is talking about, in first-person, visiting the woman in the Shoah segment, but then we cut to the conversation and it’s clearly you.

It’s me. Yeah.

And this is your first collaboration with DP Noé Bach. What brought you to him?

I wanted to make that film, which is a different experience from the young generation… you know, I’m from the generation where it was difficult to find the films. We didn’t have the tapes; we didn’t have the DVDs. It was a different world of looking at films, so I wanted to have a young DP. Looking at the films shot by young, French DPs, usually they were very well-framed and they didn’t care that much about the light. I saw a film that I loved, Anaïs in Love, and that was him. It was well-framed and lit in a perfect way, so I loved the mixture––to take care of both aspects of the image––so I wanted to do the film with him. He did a thing which [Laughs] was funny. He was taking some silver, a powder of silver, and he was blowing the silver on the bottom of the lenses to have that kind of image. I ask him, “You’re young. I’m old. If you do the film I want you to make it spectacular.” He said, “Okay, that’s a deal. I’ll try.” I think he achieved it. So it was good for me to work with a guy who was not from my generation, who had a different perspective.

On the documentary scenes: it was a different format, too. It was not Scope. It was a different format because I thought it would have been obscene to use the scope on the documentary scenes. He had not that much experience in documentary. I had neither. I knew, for the deepest reason, that I had to be onscreen. Because each time I’m making a film, I’m always thinking about a spectator who would be 11 or 12, who could see the film by chance on TV; his parents are looking at it. He’s so bored that he’s looking at a French film or whatever. So I’m thinking: when I was 12, I was not listening to what the adults are saying onscreen. When you see the young guy going to see Cries and Whispers, is he really listening to the monologue? I’m not that sure. He’s looking at the faces, the expressions, the drama. I thought the scene about Shoshana Felman––I had to be in it because the bottom line of the scene is gratitude. Do you understand what the philosopher is saying or not? It’s not important. What is important is to see that dedication from a reader to a writer saying, “Okay, a book helped me to recover after Shoah.” So I needed to be onscreen to make it simple and understandable.

After that very long scene about Lanzmann, which is so deep and serious and tragic, I needed to have a laugh; that’s why I wrote that chapter “The American Friend.” I thought it would be fun for the audience to have a scene by Central Park and to have a discussion between two old fellows discussing the past. I thought, “Let’s have a laugh.” Do you listen to what Kent Jones is saying or not? Do you agree with what he’s saying or not? I’m not a great fan of The Wild Buch; he is. He’s American; I’m French. I have a different perspective on the film. But you can feel the friendship between the two men. For that, I had to be onscreen.

You’re calling me from the apartment we see in the last shot.


How was it working in your own home? A director might spend time on a set or location to get to know it; you know that place better than anywhere else. 

I love the fact that I’m disappearing from the screen and reappearing at the end of it. I have in front of me the two windows giving on the Parisian landscape, and I thought it was just like a screen, and so this tracking-back gave me the feeling of being in a theater and looking at the screen represented by these two windows. After that, what I’m doing for my living is a low-budget movie; it was in my apartment so it was less-expensive. It was that simple. And in a way, I don’t have to think about when I’m appearing in the film. Really, I don’t like that. It’s physical stuff. I knew when I was 10 that I would like to be on the other side of the camera. That kind of thing is sorted-out at the age of 10; at the age of 10 I knew I would never be an actor.

But at this point I have to be honest with the audience, and so to conclude the film––because I appeared in two previous scenes with Shoshanna and with Kent––I had to say, “Okay, this is what I had to say. It’s not great things. It’s not great mysteries. I’m not a film critic. I’m not Cavell. I knew Cavell. I knew Lanzmann. That’s my humble tribute.” So, in a way, I had to appear in the last scene.

This film’s playing in Cannes’ Séances Spéciales section. Are there different feelings evoked by playing in each of the sections––Competition, Fortnight, Un Certain Regard?

I was really glad. I could have asked Venice, and I think the film is so French that the perfect place was Cannes for sure. After that, the film not being fully a fiction but being much more an essay, I thought that the Séances Spéciales was perfect. A perfect place to exhibit such a film. Because it’s not a fiction piece; it’s an essay. I knew that I didn’t want to be in Classics because I don’t like the theater for Classics; the theater is weird. When Thierry [Frémaux] proposed me to be in Séances Spéciales, I was so happy. It was an achievement.

Has ensconcing yourself in film history and theory to make Spectateurs! informed your next film much?

Sure. I used a lot of improv with the scene with the young girl and the philosopher; it was improv because we didn’t know what the philosopher would answer. So I was writing the lines on a small piece of paper, giving them to the actor, and saying, “Okay, if she’s saying that, you should ask her that.” With the young Milo Machado-Graner, we used a lot of improv. The kids couldn’t learn the lines, so I used improv. I’m sure I will use that on my next film––not to respect the dialogue and make the sudden shift to improv. To make the very elaborate writing that I can have for the dialogues, and to shift from that elaborate writing to a vivid way of saying it, of providing the lines.

May I ask you a question?


What is the painting you have on your wall? The jazz man.

It’s by Romare Bearden.

Oh, yeah. I think I saw something of him in the museum in San Francisco. Just curious.

It’s for a jazz festival from 1997, and I’ve searched for this specific painting but can’t find it. Even if you just search him with “jazz,” you’ll only find paintings that look like it. It’s an exclusive, odd object.

It’s a perfect one.

Filmlovers! premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival

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