Sunday, February 19, 2012

Arnaud Desplechin

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2008)

My instinct tells me not even to try writing about the director Arnaud Desplechin. The likelihood of my saying anything insightful, or even adequate, seems too remote, and that of embarrassing myself is palpable. But I swear to you, I could not do anything better with this space than to urge you to seek out Desplechin’s films: most immediately, his new work A Christmas Story.

More and more, he strikes me as the best modern embodiment of the classic “art house” figure. There was a time when cultural credibility demanded some exposure to Bergman or Fellini, or at least Woody Allen; but times have coarsened enough that Desplechin’s best chance for popularity may lie in being perceived as simpler than he is. His films certainly offer some easy pleasures, and they do, in case you’re worried, tell good stories. But measured against prevailing conventions, they’re also rather odd. That oddity could be shoved to one side, as people did with all the talky symbolic stuff they didn’t get in Bergman. But this would be overlooking one of the most thrilling ongoing investigations in cinema.

Into An Argument

Desplechin is sometimes compared to Allen or to Eric Rohmer – his films generally focus on youngish intellectuals in contemporary settings. But the comparison doesn’t take you very far. Allen and Rohmer, in their different ways, belong to a cinema of order; they invite being labeled as “literary” (which, at least in Rohmer’s case, understates his painstaking attention to composition and the arrangement of the frame). Desplechin’s work is discursive, often seeming almost free-associative. Writing about his film How I Got Into An Argument, an article on Senses Of Cinema evokes how the narrative’s present tense “dissolves … into a perplexing mix of past, present, future, imperfect, conditional and subjunctive; musical commentary and leitmotifs which move from diegetic pop, hip hop and jazz, to Baroque playfulness …visualizations of dreams, desires and idealized pasts; episodes over-determined with mysterious symbolic significance, in particular the incident with the monkey trapped behind an office radiator; flashbacks of uncertain status, mysterious dialogues and expressionistically-lit set-pieces; and staged interventions… given as a direct address to camera.”

It’s all true, but could be misread to indicate some flamboyant Fellini-like sprawl. In fact the film (subtitled …My Sex Life) often has an edge-of-melancholy quality. It’s been said that Fellini doodles in chaos; Desplechin never seems to be merely doodling, and never ends up at chaos. That monkey incident must sound wacky, but is actually a distinctly sombre passage, shot through with uneasy subtext; there’s comedy to it, but of a squirmy, get-me-out-of-here kind. And as for the reference to the significance being “over-determined”– true, but that film is over a decade old. I’m not sure Desplechin would offer such an easy device now. The film’s joyous, almost otherworldly contemplation of the nude female body also seems now like something left behind in the director’s evolution.

Esther Kahn

Some brief biographical colour: Arnaud Desplechin was born in 1960 and made his first film in 1991. He’s directed eight times in all. I’ve seen half of those films (the others don’t seem to be readily available), although three of them only once – they’re all high on my list to see again. Esther Kahn, his only English language film, must be one of the strangest ever made about acting. The milieu is turn-of-the-century London Yiddish theatre; Esther is an uncomfortable, not very articulate young woman, and while her rise to prominence suggests some on-stage charisma and alchemy, we barely see glimpses of what that might be. There’s a kinship to John Cassavetes’ Opening Night in the climactic portrayal of an actress traveling through personal hell (chewing on broken glass pre-performance) to unlock a new relationship with her art, although Summer Phoenix’s surpassingly odd performance couldn’t be much further removed from Gena Rowlands’ expert theatricality. The film is stark, almost like video, and has a rather sickly pallor; it feels as if Desplechin’s empathy for his highly idiosyncratic protagonist could only be expressed by forcing himself and his work into studied, expressive strangeness. Few people liked the movie, but it’s one of the most disciplined and audacious of recent years.

The sprawling family drama Kings and Queen is possibly Desplechin’s greatest film to date – it’s not only the title that evokes the term “magisterial.” In an interview on the DVD, he surprisingly cites NYPD Blue as a model for how even briefly-observed characters can establish themselves, and indeed his film suggests the capacity to spill over indefinitely into sequels and parallels and alternate possibilities. Yet it has (again, in Desplechin’s own words) a concluding sense of lightness, as if an impossibly complex and fraught building site suddenly silenced, and revealed at its heart the sanctuary you’ve always dreamed of. The film foregrounds Desplechin’s interest in mental illness – he’s far too subtle to postulate simply that the doctors and the patients might as well change places, and yet the extreme diversity of his narrative and approach to it might be dedicated to exposing our impoverished prevailing views of rational engagement (with life, with art, with each other, with cinema).

A Christmas Story

Those three films are all available on DVD. The fourth, A Christmas Story, was my favourite from those I saw at this year’s festival, and is now in theatres; it’s perhaps only the scheme’s inherently greater familiarity – the near-archetypal messed-up family, home for the holidays and hating it – that renders it slightly less dazzling than Kings and Queen. The volume of doublings and contrasts and echoes and conflicts is again beyond processing; as if from the butterfly effect made flesh, you feel how a loss in one generation continues to screw up the family structure for decades to come. The theatre is a theme here again: a key character is a playwright, another an impresario, but more broadly (and again I’m surprised how Cassavetes keeps coming into my mind as I write this article) in the sense of spiraling self-invention. Which may or may not be linked to any capacity for real self-evaluation.

Desplechin’s repeated use of a few favoured actors helps to see that he’s a miniaturist at heart, but then that’s the eternal wonder of great cinema, that people interacting in a room might generate greater seismic damage than a city-engulfing earthquake. I mentioned his films’ stylistic variety, but he’s not strenuously experimental in the sense that you start noticing endlessly long takes or weird angles. To me it simply feels as if he’s absorbed the tools of cinema better than any of his peers. And also for a better purpose. Only a true and eloquent optimist could explore human behaviour so expansively; only a great director could so convince us that there’s still something urgent and personal to be optimistic about.

(February 2012 postscript - two of Desplechin's earlier films are available online at

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