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Soul Searching, or Searching for a Soul
French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin first came into the public eye in 1996, when his second film "My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument," a soap operatic look at navel-gazing, twenty-something Paris intellectuals, premiered at the New York Film Festival. While fans raved about Desplechin's poetic portrait of urban angst, others considered the intelligent and moving opus pretentious and self-indulgent at 178 minutes.
Desplechin's first film, "La Sentinelle," was released in the U.S. after "My Sex Life" had introduced audiences to the new talent. The enigmatic tale about a cute, socially awkward forensic pathologist who finds a preserved human head in his suitcase won over even those critics who had most vocally criticized his earlier work.
"Usually in France we prefer to say bad things about the Nouvelle Vague, but I'm always impressed with its freedom."
Now the ever-ambitious auteur has made a third movie, this one a period piece about a young actress in 19th century London -- and it's in English. Based on the story by Arthur Symons and starring Summer Phoenix as a beautiful thespian in search of a soul, "Esther Kahn" is sure to have audiences as baffled as they were with Desplechin's earlier works. Andrea Meyer talked to the writer/director about insolent filmmaking, becoming human, and the French New Wave. Empire Pictures will release "Esther Kahn" this Friday.
indieWIRE: When "My Sex Life" came out, people called you a French Woody Allen or an Eric Rohmer for your generation. How do you feel about those comparisons?
Arnaud Desplechin: I can't deny the fact that I've seen a few of those movies, but I guess that Woody Allen saw a few of Bergman's movies, too. These films are part of my culture. It's hard work to find your own voice and not to copycat anything. I'm a great fan of Woody Allen's movies. Strangely, when we were working on the film, I was looking at a lot of Milos Forman movies, because I love the way he was able to catch the sensuality of each event, to catch a smell, the taste of something, all the details. I was quite fascinated by that. I wanted to tell the story of people of today but to try to catch the sensuality of each moment as if it was a period movie, to be very precise about the sets, the costumes, and the props. I was trying to do something elegiac.
iW: Even though you share certain characteristics with other filmmakers, it's hard to fit you neatly into any category. You've done an intellectual romantic comedy, a metaphysical spy film, and a period piece. Do you think there's a common thread?
Desplechin: I'm not all that able to say what these films have in common, except that I do really, truly, sincerely care about my characters. I'm learning from them. That's what I tried to do on each film I've made: learn from my characters.
iW: "Esther Kahn" is a difficult film. How do you describe it to people?
Desplechin: Symons calls his stories "spiritual adventures," and I think it's a spiritual adventure that asks questions. Do we have a soul? And if we don't have a soul, what is it that we have inside of us? It can sound abstract, but when I see "Raging Bull," I see a guy dealing with the issue of having a soul or not having a soul. Or if I see "Taxi Driver," I can see that it's just an extremely reactionary cab driver dealing with great metaphysical questions that he's not able to put that in words. That's why he's using a gun and "Raging Bull" is using his fists. And Esther is using the stage. What I love in the Symons book is that this girl is so tough. I thought it was great to give a female character the dignity that we usually give just to male characters.
iW: You don't think female characters in most movies have dignity?
Desplechin: No, I don't think so. Perhaps in "Georgia," the Ulu Grosbard film. What's so beautiful about these girls is the fact that they're fighting with words in the same way that Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull" was fighting with his fists. I love and respect Esther's strength. She's like a diamond. A diamond is quite precious, it's quite tiny, and it's quite tough.
iW: Why did you decide to make a film in English?
Desplechin: Because Symons is an English writer. When Eric Rohmer was filming "The Marquise d'O," it was based on a novel by Heinrich Von Kleis, so he went to Germany to film. He made a German movie. And I thought in that story of Symons, there was something so Londoner. I would not say British, I would say Londoner. And I thought if I translated the film from English to French, I would not be respecting the text. I love the text and the way he was writing and I wanted to use the voiceover, so I couldn't translate it. To me, it would be a betrayal of Symons' style.
iW: Why did you choose to make a period piece? Was it again just being true to the story?
Desplechin: I think it was because of the plot. If I wanted to keep the plot, Esther has to go on the stage. I wouldn't be able to understand a character who chooses theater against cinema. If the film was happening now, the girl would be in the suburbs and looking at TV novellas, and that would be it. The theater is for well-educated people, and what I love is that Esther is not well-educated and she doesn't want to be. That's why I chose to respect the very moment when Symons chose to write the story, which was one year before the very birth of cinema. The first representation of "Hedda Gabler" in London was in 1895. During the shooting, I was thinking, today we are shooting the first performance of "Hedda Gabler," but keep in mind that in Paris, on the very same day, was the first screening of the first Louis Lumière movies.
iW: Acting is a great metaphor for Esther's journey in the film. As an actress, she gets to become somebody else, but the movie is about her becoming herself.
"We love to think that we are human. But I think that we become human."
Desplechin: We love to think that we are human. But I think that we become human. And because Esther is so crude, she can admit that she has to become a human being, that she has to become someone. In real life, I would hide it, but she's confessing it. She says, "I look at you and you are pretending that you are happy or sad and you just look like puppets. I'm a puppet, too, and I would like to just exist. What do I do to exist?" She's just a wild monkey, but by the end of the film, I think she's a girl. I don't know what kind of girl, but I think she becomes a girl.
iW: All of your films share a certain lack of resolution. Is that something you consciously try to attain?
Desplechin: I write the whole script, but during the film I usually try to invent a new ending. When I start shooting, I'm very sure I know the end, but strangely the [actual] ending appears during the conversation with actors. The end of the Symons' story took place on stage. She did the play and it was a relief. But I had some scenes that I worked on with Summer, and I asked her, "What do you think of not ending on stage but with life, with the new fight, with the fact that you're always fighting?" I preferred that last scene where she's yelling at her lover. Whether they stay together or not, I preferred that because that's pure life. She's alive, which means yelling. The film ends on conflict, which is more vivid to me. It's great because she's alive and she'll go on and on and on and on.
iW: Is there another New Wave going on in the French cinema?
Desplechin: I wouldn't say a New Wave. I think you could say there is a new wave in China and a birth of a new wave in Japan, which means they are really close together and doing the same kind of films. But what is great is all these little waves in France, with a lot of different films. You can't have a global picture of it because they're all very different. But I love American films and the films of the Nouvelle Vague. I know there are very few of us in France to be still involved and still amazed by the great shock which has been the Nouvelle Vague. Usually in France we prefer to say bad things about the Nouvelle Vague, but I'm always impressed with its freedom and the fact of not making a film to give your opinion but just as a piece of art, which to me means the Nouvelle Vague.
iW: Who are the other filmmakers who believe in those principles?
Desplechin: Did you see the last Rohmer movie, "L'Anglaise et le Duc" [The Lady and the Duke]? I think it's amazing to know that a guy who's 80 years old is doing a film that's so insolent: all these modern techniques to make a film that looks like the great films of Griffiths. The guy is so free. He's doing anything he wants. And I'm amazed by this sense of freedom.
iW: Are there any young filmmakers who take that kind of initiative?
Desplechin: I'm not sure that my generation is as daring as the older guys. The last Alain Resnais film was also very daring. How can you imagine to base a film around silly French songs? It's so insolent! I'm not sure our generation is able to be so daring. I know I love the films of Noémie Lvovsky and Philippe Faucon. I love "Rushmore." I think one of the most important American films is "Jackie Brown," which is such a humble depiction of humble characters but so powerful. The film was pure depiction of the American poverty of the 90s. And I love "Magnolia."
iW: What's the next step for you?
Desplechin: I'm working on a comedy, "Kings and Queen." In "My Sex Life," there was some humor and there was some melancholy. I was thinking that it would be great instead of just having some humor, to be comical, brutally comical, and instead of being melancholic to be brutally dark and violent, to just make a brutal film and try to be just a little bit obscene. But I will do it in a soft way.