King's Gambit

No more drama: Arnaud Desplechin's light tragicomedy

There are a few scenes in Kings and Queen I wanted you to talk about. First of all, the flashback to Nora's argument with her ex-husband, which at times abandons realism and appears to take place on a black-box stage. That was the scene the actors and I were most terrified to shoot. The scene where the ghost [of Nora's ex-husband] appears, on the first take, I broke down and cried …it's too moving. I lived that; I don't remember when but I lived that. And so we were quite afraid about this other scene, the argument that these characters were going to have. To comfort the actors and me, I thought we would shoot the scene twice, two different ways. First we used a black stage with only the main elements of the drama: door, window, bed, desk, gun. Like in a lab, as if the actors and I were doing a scientific experiment: Maybe we won't use what we shoot, but we'll try to understand what happened between these two characters and we'll play the scene in different ways. Three days later, we shot the same scene in a real apartment. What you see in the film is a mixture of the two—sometimes I used a shot from the first shoot, a reverse from the other. It's funny, we used mainly what we shot in the studio. It was truer in the studio. In the smaller room it was realistic, so it was banal and trivial—no grandeur. Perhaps because I'm 15 years old in my head, or because I'm French and I've seen so many realistic movies, I've always thought that realism is just a style, just like cubism. I don't think there is any more reality in realist paintings than cubist paintings. Realism is to lie to the audience, to hide from them.

What about the interviews with Nora that bookend the film? They're reminiscent of Woody Allen. Yes, you see it in Husbands and Wives and in Deconstructing Harry, and also in Annie Hall. I realized only years after seeing Annie Hall that he stole it from Bergman—from Passion and Scenes From a Marriage. But what I love in Woody Allen is that the characters are lying to the interviewer—or to themselves.

The most shocking scene is when we find out the contents of a letter left to Nora by her dead father (played by Maurice Garrel). It's like a slap from beyond the grave—and yet you've called it a love letter. It's a declaration of hate and a brutal expression of love. Emannuelle said something amazing the first time I showed her the script. She said that without this scene, without the expression of that forbidden love and forbidden hate between father and daughter, her character wouldn't be mythic—this would be a realistic movie. I think it's a logical scene—it may be shocking, but it's not surprising. There are all these weird things happening to her throughout the movie—it's a dark fairytale, a nightmare. Only when she burns the paper at the end does she awake. We shot that scene in this amazing, empty museum in Grenoble, in the huge main room. You only see the wall, but I did not want a small set—the father is like King Lear, and you need greatness: Garrel needed to feel like a king—like a dying king.

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

The density of your films is often what makes them exciting. When you're writing, is there a sense that you're trying to cram in as much as possible? It's a lot of work to have density—to fill the screen with details and small stuff, trying to imagine for each character a past and a future. I think it has to do with a hunger and it goes back to my first film [La Vie des Morts]. I was scared to death that I would never make another one, and I wanted so much to work with actors, so even though it was very low-budget and we only had five days, I wrote more characters than I could really put in: 25 actors in this one-hour film. I was hungry—I just wanted a lot of them, quantity not quality, different actors, different ages.

As you've noted, Kings and Queen is packed with allusions to other movies, literature, Greek mythology—were you concerned about it getting too referential? My co-writer Roger Bohbot and I disagreed about this. He would ask, why are we putting something in that no one will notice. And I said, precisely, that's the point. The grown-ups may not notice, but the kids will get it. When you are looking at a film, you are surrounded by signs, and when you are a kid, you are surrounded by meaning. This film was deeply influenced by Hitchcock, but maybe I should say it's my way of looking at Hitchcock movies when I was 12 and watching them on TV. I didn't get it, but I understood everything. When I look at them again now I start to ask questions.

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