Arnaud Desplechin on 'A Christmas Tale’

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Widely regarded as one of France’s leading contemporary filmmakers, writer-director Arnaud Desplechin has become known for expansive character dramas such as his 1996 breakthrough ‘Ma Vie Sexuelle’ and ‘Kings

Was the traditionally acrimonious ‘family Christmas’ a jumping-off point for the story?

‘Sort of. I tend to write by shaping things around a genre, and in this case it was the notion of “the Thanksgiving movie”. So that became Europeanised to Christmas, where the family gets together under obligation, nothing works between them any more, and you can see the fights building up.’

The fact that the Deneuve character is disarmingly open about not loving her son seems to have caused a bit of a stir – was that a surprise to you?

‘Well, in my personal life I’m not surprised by the notion of a mother not liking her kid. I remember the first time I read Freud, I was 25 or 30, and I was expecting it to be about the Oedipus complex. But what I actually discovered confirmed my own common experience, that you also had little boys who loved their fathers and little girls who loved their mothers. In the film, it seems to me that the father, Jean-Paul Roussillon’s character, is the most motherly, while Catherine Deneuve, the mother, is actually the most fatherly.’

Presumably, the richness and believability you bring to your characters starts with the writing?

‘For each scene that’s used in the finished film I’ll write another five or six scenes which don’t make it but which help me learn everything I can about a particular character. I never rehearse scenes with the whole ensemble, because I need to preserve some surprise. Instead I work with the cast individually on their characters.’

How do you ensure that the broad selection of camera devices you use never obscures the emotional conflicts in the drama?

‘Each time it’s a tool to reach the emotion. For instance, near the opening, where Catherine Deneuve has just had some bad news, I use the iris shot, which is a technique from the days of silent cinema, because I needed to focus only on how she’s trying to hide her feelings from her husband. The device enabled me to catch that moment precisely, so it’s a solution, it’s never a trick.’

With your use of literary quotations, how aware are you of the danger of excluding the less well read?

‘There’s a phrase I like which talks about “bringing the words home”, just to use them in a very simple way. Take the scene where the father is trying to comfort his daughter: he takes a book off the shelf and reads the passage which describes how people in search of knowledge are like bees in search of honey. If a single viewer knows that’s from Nietzsche, fine, but what I’m more interested in is the 14-year-old watching the film on TV one night, feeling pretty low, and those words maybe being some sort of comfort – it doesn’t matter where they’re from. If you can touch one single person, then as a filmmaker you’re doing well.’Desplechin and Deneuve will attend a preview of ‘A Christmas Tale’ at the Ciné Lumière on Jan 9, before the film opens at selected screens on Jan 16.

Author: Trevor Johnston


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