Arnaud Desplechin’s films are as unstable as they are overstuffed. The 44-year-old French director, who receives his first full U.S. retro at BAM this week, makes bipolar emotional epics that swing freely between unreconciled opposites. Brutal and tender, academic and pop, contrived and realistic, cerebral and visceral, his double-jointed narratives stretch to contain the extremes of human sentiment. Obsessed with death, Desplechin’s movies are also violently alive. Their sheer scale and density can be overwhelming, often testing the limits of what we’ve come to expect from contemporary cinema—hence the tendency on the part of critics to label his movies “novelistic” or “theatrical.”
Desplechin’s first film, the 54-minute La Vie des Morts (1991), encapsulates a good number of his themes and methods. This fleeting ensemble piece deposits the viewer in the midst of a chaotic premature wake, as an extended intergenerational clan gathers in the aftermath of a young man’s suicide attempt—it plays like a terse, acrid riposte to The Big Chill. BAM pairs this seldom screened featurette with Desplechin’s full-length debut, La Sentinelle (1992), which even more pointedly concerns the life of the dead, suturing post-graduate metaphysical malaise to post-Cold War political guilt and trauma. The sprawling My Sex Life . . . or How I Got Into an Argument (1996) remains his best-known film, presumably because of its family resemblance to the yappingly neurotic bed-swapping round-robins so beloved of French cinema—except Desplechin’s somewhat subversive variation, with exemplary performances by Emmanuelle Devos and the great Mathieu Amalric, is naturally longer, crazier, funnier, and more purposefully grueling than most.
The London-set Esther Kahn (2000), Desplechin’s only period and only English-language film, is perhaps his best—and certainly his most misunderstood—work to date. Based on an obscure 19th-century short story, inspired by Truffaut’s The Wild Child, and advancing a similar hypothesis on stage acting and self-actualization as John Cassavetes’s Opening Night, this bruising hybrid of nature documentary and philosophy thesis casts an awkward East End girl in the role of Nietzschean superwoman. Summer Phoenix plays the titular aspiring actress as a divining rod attached to a battering ram, and Desplechin brilliantly uses her full-body existential quest to illuminate the contradictions of performing—onstage and in life. A companion piece to Esther Kahn, Playing “In the Company of Men” (2003)—never released stateside—is an exciting, rough-and-tumble adaptation of an Edward Bond play about boardroom arms dealing (no relation to Neil LaBute), liberally wallpapered with Paul Weller songs. Desplechin breaks the frame, darts in and out of rehearsals, chases down stray details, and even interpolates a bit of Hamlet—the tricky deconstructions have the perverse effect of sharpening the drama’s racial and oedipal tensions.
A highlight of the 2004 NYFF, Desplechin’s latest is the towering tragicomedy Kings and Queen. Reteaming Amalric and Devos (both ridiculously good), it’s his most expansive and magnanimous movie yet—the art house equivalent of a blockbuster thrill ride, hurtling through almost every known emotion in its two-and-a-half-hour running time. (It opens May 13; the director will be present for a Q&A at BAM’s April 15 screening.)