Arnaud Despleschin on his two new films: “One is a dream, one is a nightmare”

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Arnaud Despleschin on his two new films: “One is a dream, one is a nightmare”
In the opening scene of Arnaud Despleschin’s Deception, an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel, “the English Lover” (played by Léa Seydoux) addresses the camera. In a darkened room that looks as though it might be the backstage of a cabaret, she’s lit by the golden light of an illuminated mirror. Leaning in as if inviting us to listen to a secret, she lays out the details of her life: she prefers to remain nameless, she’s 33 years old and every year her marriage is a little more “disastrous.” Yet, she’s smiling and speaks reverentially of her lover, an American author named Philip (Denis Podalydès). The golden light surrounds her like a halo and sets her ablaze as if she were glowing from the inside out.

Deception touches on many common themes in Despleschin’s work, namely sex, intimacy and family. It’s a movie with the free-wheeling quality of a lucid dream, where characters are unsure whether they’re flying or falling. It’s structured around extended discussions, and the film’s edit feels intuitive rather than linear, building on the erotic imagination of its characters. While few Roth adaptations are successful, this one (even translated) captures the rhythm of his words and the profane reverence of his obsessions.

Though the film premiered at the 2021 Cannes film festival, Deception only made its Canadian debut this month at the Cinemania Festival in Montreal, just ahead of its Canadian theatrical release.

Due to the pandemic, Despleschin has two films set to release this week. The second, Brother and Sister, was in the official competition at Cannes earlier this year. Starring Marion Cotillard and Melvil Poupaud, the film is a stark melodrama about two feuding siblings who have long forgotten the source of their rivalry. After a terrible accident endangers their parents’ lives, they’re forced to reunite. Structured around the present day and tangential flashbacks, the film feels like a hall of mirrors, where characters’ actions and behaviours distort common experiences and passions.

When he was in Montreal for Cinemania, Arnaud Despleschin sat down to discuss both films with Cult MTL.

Justine Smith: Why did you decide to adapt Philip Roth?

Arnaud Despleschin: I have always been a huge fan of Philip Roth. He was the writer who taught me to laugh at myself. He provoked the grotesque and the comic. He was the writer who brought me to life and who taught me insolence. But I am not a fan of (film) adaptations of his books.

There’s a little book of his, Deception, that’s quite austere. It’s all about the relationship between men and women, which is one of the great subjects. It is on a subject that fascinates me, partly about the friendship or love between a Jew and a Christian.

One day, because I loved the text, Emanuelle Devos and I made a small film of the epilogue. It became a DVD bonus of Kings and Queen. This bonus material found its way to Roth’s agent with subtitles and arrived on Roth’s desk. 

One night Roth called me to tell me he saw it. He insisted I call him Philip — “Just call me Philip,” he said — but I couldn’t, so I called him Mr. Roth. He said, “Why don’t you make it into a movie?” And I said thank you, but it is very difficult to make (Deception) into a film because it is set before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is set in England and America, in Prague. He told me to “shoot it like (the short we made), with Emanuelle whatshername.” At the time, 15 years ago, I thought, “This guy is a literary genius, but he doesn’t understand anything about cinema. He’s a madman.”

Then, one day, during the confinement, I was working on Brother and Sister, and I understood what he meant. (The book is) about sincere and universal love. It’s not about being American or English. It’s just a love story. So, I did it in French with Léa Seydoux and Denis Podalydès. And that pushed me to my desire to go back to the text.

JS: How did you approach the material?

Arnaud Despleschin: I wasn’t interested in playing with language — English, American, Polish, and so on. What interests me is the words. I didn’t want to weigh down an already light book. It’s like a love dream. Doing it academically would weigh down the love story instead of making it as light as a bubble. For me, collecting all these little miracles in Deception was important. The little miracles of love that happen when you have an extramarital affair. 

When you have an affair, every moment is important. Tomorrow, you might never see each other again, but if it’s your wife — well, if you split up, you’ll have to see her for at least eight months during the divorce. But when it’s an adventure, maybe tomorrow, everything just fades away. Every moment becomes infinitely precious, and I found it very cinematic to show how each moment is precious.

JS: The film is about infidelity. What about the subject fascinates you?

Arnaud Despleschin: For me, one very important thing is that the English Lover and Philip are both true to themselves. That’s what counts. When you die, people don’t say, “I was faithful to my wife or my kids.” If you are true to yourself, you are true to the people you love. Through this affair, the English Lover takes control of herself. She has a child she doesn’t really want and a husband she doesn’t really like, and she forgets who she is. Thanks to this adventure, she was able to find a part of herself she lost and become a narrator of her life. 

That’s the thing about infidelity: It can help you recover a part of yourself that would otherwise be completely dissolved into daily life. An affair is not daily life, it’s exceptional life. It’s a space where you can remember who you are and reclaim your voice. Even, for example, the Czech character he meets; they don’t end up together. She spends two hours at his place complaining about her life. But, at the end of the two hours, she’s a little more of herself than when she started. That’s the utopia of the writer’s desk — it’s a place where you can recover yourself. 

JS: When they enter this intimate space, people can speak honestly in a way that’s almost unnatural but only possible in this exceptional meeting with someone you don’t owe anything to.

Arnaud Despleschin: That is what’s wonderful and so beautiful with Philip Roth’s approach. Think of other writers like Tolstoy or Flaubert. The (men) in those works ask of the women they love to do or be something exceptional, throwing themselves in front of a train, eating poison. But when the English Lover says, “why do you like to listen to me so much?” It’s because he finds her exciting! She says her husband is boring, I have problems with my child’s nanny and he finds all of it exciting and even heroic. He pays attention to the uniqueness of each woman. When Rosalie (Emmanuelle Devos) calls him and says the chemotherapy did not go well, he does not ask her to be exceptional. He finds her exceptional all the time. That’s what allows these women to have such a full, singular voice. He’s attentive, and he listens.  

Deception (directed by Arnaud Despleschin)

JS:  Let’s talk a little bit about Brother and Sister. It’s a very different film. 

Arnaud Despleschin: The first film is a dream, and the second is a nightmare. 

JS: How did you come up with the story?

Arnaud Despleschin: I’ve made a lot of films built on digressions. One digression builds on another; I loved it and still love it. I wanted to make a film obsessed with its subject matter, and the subject here is something I already touched on in Un conte de Noël. I saw all this hatred, this anger and fear — all these sad emotions — and I have to get rid of it. I have to make a movie because, in life, you can’t really get rid of it, but maybe you can through the art of fiction. Fiction gives you a chance to settle things. 

JS:  Why are you so interested in sibling and family relationships? 

Arnaud Despleschin: The family interests me because it is the smallest society there is. We can say Chekhov only made plays about the family, but through his plays about the family, he spoke about Russia, the arrival of the modern world, the passage of the old world, etc. The family is the smallest society and the one we all know best. 

What interests me among siblings is that rivalry; there are two sides to things. You can see the negative and the positive side. What interests me is seeing the positive side win. It makes me laugh to see them scene after scene acting the same way. She goes to the psychiatrist asking for drugs, he’s a drug addict. He’s an alcoholic, and she’s drinking too much in front of a journalist. He yells at his nephew, and she yells at the pharmacist. It’s all to say, “You are the same, so stop arguing!” 

I’m under the impression that’s what’s so touching about relationships between siblings: they love each other too much, almost like lovers. (When they were younger), he was in full admiration of his sister, and she loved being admired by her brother, but eventually, they had to move on with their lives. So, it fell apart when they split up and tried to be adults. It all leads to an awkward scene in a bed where they’re back to being in bed. It is about them being kids again, not having to pretend to be adults. They are small; they’re in bed, and they laugh, they talk. 

Marion Cotillard in Brother and Sister

JS: Does adult life exist, or is it all an illusion?

Arnaud Despleschin: I think it is all an illusion!

JS:  How do you work with your actors? Do you do a lot of rehearsals? 

Arnaud Despleschin: I don’t do rehearsals. We never read the text together (as the whole cast). I will read with them one-on-one. I’ll read with Marion (Cotillard) and then Melvil (Poupaud). Etc. We share, and I change the text a little bit. I do something that every film manual forbids, and I will act out scenes for the actors — the way I would do it. I’m clowning around, and I do everything to make sense of every word and gesture — glass, table, phone, I love you, I hate you. I do thousands of things, and I have them choose what they like and what they don’t like. I do improvisations, and when they like it, they take note, and if they don’t, they ignore it. So, when they arrive on set, everyone can show up and know a little about the film but also have room to discover things. They won’t know what the other actors will be doing.

At the start of the film, Marion doesn’t want to see Melvil. Only after we shot the scene at the supermarket (where the characters reunite for the first time), she would go to dinner with him. It was like she needed to preserve this secret until that moment. I wanted to give Marion a lot of space to invent and improvise. It wasn’t the same play with Melvil and Marion.

JS: When did you start this technique, playing with the actors?

Arnaud Despleschin: It’s always been something I’ve done. It just happened. I’m a very bad actor. In real life, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’ve been offered film roles and always refused. I’m not interested at all. But I think it’s so bold to be an actor. I admire this willingness to face ridicule with a team of people watching. It’s like diving into an icy pool. So, I do my (acting) in front of the technicians, and I’m ridiculous, so I take the ridicule, and they’re able to take the glory. Since I’m the first to do it, they are less shy. 

Deception and Brother and Sister open in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 11.

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