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.
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.
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.
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.