King's Gambit

No more drama: Arnaud Desplechin's light tragicomedy

Arnaud Desplechin's Kings and Queen is a thrilling, exhausting tragicomedy that crams almost every known emotion into its two-and-a-half-hour running time. In an interview with the Voice, Desplechin discussed the film's grand allusions, the lie of realism, the value of density, and his profound love of actors and acting.

Nora is a tragic heroine, but there's also something airy and luminous about her. What kind of direction did you give Emmanuelle Devos? I told her I was inspired by Hitchcock's Ingrid Bergman movies. I started with this idea of a woman who has been through such pain and made this choice to be light, like a feather, smiling, gentle—no more fights, no more drama. Only people who haven't been through misery and suffering can think there is great moral value in being harsh. When you have been through what Nora has, you know the value of being light. I didn't know how Emannuelle would do this, but when we started shooting, I was amazed—I knew it could be glamorous but I didn't think it could be that glamorous!

Was Mathieu Amalric's character, Ismaël, easier to write? Very much. He's mean, rude, misogynistic, greedy, self-conscious, but he's so lovely. I adore him—he has faults I dream of having. It was more complicated to construct a portrait of Nora. When I needed relief, I would work on Ismaël—with him, it was not a portrait, but picaresque adventures where anything can happen.

"Actors taught me everything I know."
photo: Robin Holland
"Actors taught me everything I know."

Your previous film, Playing "In the Company of Men", which I know you were writing at the same time as Kings and Queen, also deals with adoption. It takes me such a long time to write, so I've always had this idea: If I'm working on one topic, why not write two scripts? La Sentinelle is a spy film about the fact that we are living because people have died before us, and when I writing, I thought it would be nice to use the same theme in an opposite way—and that became La Vie des Morts. In My Sex Life, Paul Dedalus [the protagonist] is a skeptic—he's not sure he's alive—and the film is a comedy. When I showed a rough draft to a friend, she said, but what does Esther [Paul's girlfriend] think? I said don't worry, the next film will show the female point of view on the same question—and that was Esther Kahn. Playing "In the Company of Men" and Kings and Queen are both stories of adoption, but Kings and Queen also goes with My Sex Life because of Emannuelle and Mathieu [who played Paul and Esther]. I think I've made too many films now to have any more clever ideas about how they are connected.

Critics often call you movies "novelistic" or "theatrical." Do you think those are accurate—or adequate—descriptions? It's funny, I read an interview with M. Night Shyamalan where he said that with his films he was trying to make novels. And actually, you think about it, Unbreakable is sort of a novel, The Village is sort of a novel. But I think of my job as the opposite—use any form, any tool to build a film. If there's something I like in a novel, just steal it. Something from a play, from a stupid TV show, from classical music or pop music, take it—take all these elements and make a pure film. In Kings and Queen, people are always quoting poems, obscure ones, French ones, American ones. And the point is, why not? Why not use Emily Dickinson? Why not use Apolinaire? As for theater, people forget, almost all of Ernst Lubitsch's films were adaptations of stage plays—and To Be or Not to Be is about the theater. When you look at John Ford, the influence of O'Neill is so obvious. And one third of Hitchock's films are based on plays. In America at least, there is no difference between theater and film, just East and West coast: You had these wonderful writers on the East coast doing experimental stuff on stage and these studios would say let's make a film with that. It's an American tradition, and the cinema that has influenced me the most is American.

Even contemporary American movies? I saw two American films last year that were absolutely new to me: Mystic River for its classicism and Kill Bill for its inventiveness. It's amazing that the American commercial system allows such a weird object like Kill Bill to exist.

Do you consider yourself an actors' director? Actors have taught me everything I know. I don't think about my job as "directing"—I try to work like an actor. In French, interpréter means to play a part and also to translate something, and my job is to translate what is written into images. There's this myth about directors—they storyboard their shots, they are great thinkers. But that's easy. To act is much more difficult—when an actor arrives on set he must be absolutely prepared and he must also be ready to accept the unexpected; he must have this mad hope that something magical will happen. That's my job too.

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