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“I’m Finishing My Bathtub of Whiskey”: Arnaud Desplechin on Ismael’s Ghosts

Mathieu Amalric and Marion Colliard in Ismael's Ghosts

in Directors, Interviews, Screenwriters
on Mar 30, 2018

In 2014’s My Golden Days, Arnaud Desplechin revisited the childhood of Ivan Dedalus, brother of the anchoring protagonist of his 1996 breakthrough My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument. With Ismael’s Ghosts, Desplechin continues toying with  the Dedalus brothers — in this iteration, Ivan is played by Louis Garrel in a movie being written by Ismaël Vuillard (Desplechin’s regular on-screen alter-ago Mathieu Amalric). Vuillard is a director writing his latest film on a severe, mood-altering constant cocktail of whiskey, wine and pills. His longstanding relationship with scientist Sylvia (Charlotte Ganisbourg) understandably takes a hit when first wife Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) — who disappeared 21 years ago and has long been presumed dead — returns, expecting to slide right back into his life. On top of this already dramatically loaded setup, Desplechin piles on more plots and places, including trips to Tajikistan and Tel Aviv, the latter with his former father-in-law, filmmaker Henri Bloom (László Szabó). No wonder self-medicating Ismaël is going to hit a wall of some sort — in the film’s funniest moment, he actually shoots his line producer. (He feels bad about it later.) In New York for the film’s opening weekend, Desplechin discussed his latest.

Filmmaker: The last time we talked you said that shooting in Tajikistan was a nightmare. But you did it again. Was it smoother this time?

Desplechin: We cheated. I thought of the idea to go to Tajikistan for My Golden Days because this is what I wanted to film. As I told you, we improvised a lot in Tajikistan, but this time, most of the scenes there are in apartments. So when the producer read the script, he said “Come on Arnaud, it’s inside apartments, so you have to film it closer.” So we were in Morocco recreating Tajikistan rather than being in Tajikistan for real. The jail where the guy is trapped, which is the only astonishing set we had — the rest of it is quite modest, it’s inside apartments or houses and offices, so it was absurd to go spend money in Tajikistan. I regret it, but it made sense.

Filmmaker: Why do you regret it?

Desplechin: Because I love to film in places where I’ve never been before. Like when I was in Prague, and we had only three days to shoot all these scenes, and I didn’t know a thing about Prague. I had to find the roof where they get drunk and all these new sets. I love to discover another country. Perhaps it’s because I’m a terrible tourist and the only trips I make are for my work.

Filmmaker: Had you been to Israel before?

Desplechin: A few times, for film festivals.

Filmmaker: Do you enjoy being in Israel? Do you film there because it’s pleasurable for you to be there, or because it’s important for the character?

Desplechin: It’s definitely important for the character of Bloom. I think it’s important for Ismael and his brother. As Carlotta says on the beach, “I’m a reluctant Jew.” We had to have this trip, which was also the most contemporary part of the film. This guy, Henri Bloom, belonged to another world, and suddenly you have this new threat of terrorism. So in the plane you have this scene which starts like comedy and ends like tragedy, and it had to happen on a trip to Tel Aviv. For me, it was important that these very French words would be said in Israel. Also, it’s a country I love. It’s the middle of the movie, and I love to have the middle of the movie in this very specific land. If you are making it in an independent way, it’s not that expensive, you can manage. We were working with Amos Gitai’s set decorator, who can do anything for no money. We improvised everything.

Filmmaker: Is it a real plane?

Desplechin: It’s a plane that no longer flies that’s available for shooting. I wanted to have a very long lens. We were shooting with a 100mm and 150mm lens. For the actors, it was hard because of the lamps, which start to get warm. It’s exhausting. After two hours of shooting with all the extras, it started to get quite warm. So for them it was quite difficult, but for me, wearing a t-shirt, it was easy. I found my way.

Filmmaker: For some reason, when I was watching the movie, I missed that the name of Carlotta is from Vertigo. I didn’t realize it until I saw the trailer after.

Desplechin: I know the film very well. I can’t say if it’s Hitchcock’s best film. Is it the best film on earth? I don’t know. But it’s a film which invented a sort of definition of cinema itself. There’s a mystery that belongs to cinema, which doesn’t belong to the stage or novels — this idea of this woman who’s dead and then alive again, and it’s the same actress. Going through that myth, I had to name her “Carlotta” — not to hide myself behind a tree, but to say it loudly, to say “Obviously, there is a truth said by Hitchcock in Vertigo and we are always commenting on this, again and again,” from one film to another.

Filmmaker: So in fact it would have been disingenuous not to call her Carlotta, otherwise that would be hanging over the movie.

Desplechin: Plus, this woman disappeared for such a long time; she had to have a mythical name. What I love in Marion’s performance is that she’s not playing it in a mysterious way at all. She’s just stupidly alive, like a young girl. In the scene where they are mourning her before her appearance, I needed to have a name that sounded mythical, and “Carlotta” sounded great. You can’t forget such a name, because it’s odd. But if you didn’t notice it the first time you saw it, I did my job.

Filmmaker: There’s also her portrait on the wall, which is from Laura. Do you feel like your films are getting more meta-textual not just in relationship to your own films, but also in relationship to a kind of lineage of cinema?

Desplechin: With the history of cinema for sure. It seemed to me when I finished the last day of filming this with Mathieu, that we had played all the tricks that we learned together over two decades, that we gave you a digest of everything that we invented. I think this film plays with all the films I saw — 8 1/2 and Broadway Danny RosePersona, all these films which nourished me are reflected. I accept the fact that I’m the child of these films, which have been my teachers or parents. I think I’ve reached an age where if I didn’t accept that my character was a film director, just for once — I needed that to go a little bit further. I had to break one of my rules on Kings and Queen, when I had to accept that a character is an artist. That made me really afraid. I was saying to the co-writer, “They will hate him because he’s an artist.” We always hate those characters. I hate them, because they have this privilege. But this time I said, “This director won’t be a real director.” As Ismael says, “I’m just a filmmaker.” And in French, it’s even more bizarre than that. It’d be like saying, in English, “I’m a film builder.” So I thought that he was quite humble with his work, and that’s why I accepted him as a filmmaker. Bloom is the great director, but Ismael is just a humble filmmaker.

Filmmaker: But you’re both.

Desplechin: I don’t know. I’m still surprised by the fact that I’m making movies. I was not supposed to do that. My parents weren’t artistic, I didn’t know anyone in show business or theater or literature. Cinema was the dream — I had that dream at the age of eight. I’m still trying, in a very humble way, to be a filmmaker: to have better scenes, to go faster in my storytelling, to put the camera at the right angle with the right lens. I hope that through the writing process I’m able to offer ideas to the audience, but I can’t see myself — in French, we use the word “cineaste,” which is a word that’s too big for me. I’m not able to inhabit such a word. Plus, I think it’s quite impolite to give yourself the name of “cineaste.” I think it’s a name that someone else can give you, but for myself, “filmmaker” is enough.

Filmmaker: But you have been given that name by other people. You must be aware of it.

Desplechin: Yes, but I’m still surprised. I can’t say this has been misunderstood, because the audience is always right, but sometimes I’m playing with the names of my characters and using them again and again. The audience can think that my goal is to create a human comedy, like Balzac, where the whole thing makes sense together. But actually I don’t need that. On My Golden Days, I told the young actors, “Please don’t look at my films. Look at other films, like Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde. That’s better for your work.” I think the ambition is that each time I make a film, using these same names from one film to another, I go into my attic, like Ismael goes into his attic. I’m opening an old coffer where I have a few names, a few costumes, a few props, and I’m trying to invent new ones. This is the first time I’ve filmed a Carlotta, a Henri Bloom, so they’re new characters but they are old ones too, you know? New names, old names permit me to try to invent a new thing, like a kid in an attic using old toys to try a new story.

Filmmaker: Do you or Mathieu go back and look at your old films to draw upon them, or do you just work from memory?

Desplechin: I, never. Mathieu was in New York recently to show the restored My Sex Life, and he stayed in the theater. He wrote to me that he loved it again. I never look at one of my films, except when I can embellish them a little bit. when I had to restore my first films — La Vie Des MortsLa Sentinelle and My Sex Life — I had to look at them again. I do the same thing in the process of making a film: when I’m doing the color grading etc., I’m doing it in silence. When they put together the images and sound, I’m not there. I’m not able to be the audience of my film. When we were doing La Sentinelle, which is long, I was looking at a shot: “OK, two points of blue, one point of magenta, please more contrast” etc. And he would say, “OK, what is the next shot?” And I remembered it by heart. They’re just in my mind, because I don’t know another way to do that. So I don’t need to see them again, because they are in me. But it was nice to see them again. I’m waiting for the restoration of the other films to see them again, but without sound, because otherwise it’s too violent for me.

Filmmaker: There’s a lot of whiskey in the movie.

Desplechin: It’s a mixture of whiskey and pills, very violent ones. He’s using methadone, he’s on a lot of different drugs. Sometimes it’s wine. When he’s writing Bloom’s eulogy, he’s drinking wine all night. So he’s going from whiskey to wine, but he’s doing drugs the whole time. I could say that the character of Ismael is everything that I don’t allow myself. I love to drink, and when I’m making a film I’m so happy I have to pinch myself. I have to be absolutely sober.

Filmmaker: When you finish shooting, do you take a few weeks off to get that out of your system, or do you just go right into editing?

Desplechin: I give myself a few weeks, because I’m sober during shooting. You know this story about John Ford. He used to be in the bathroom, filling the bathtub with whiskey and closing the door. He stayed in there for one month and was drunk to death. His wife was knocking, and he’d say “I won’t open. I’m finishing my bathtub of whiskey.” So I’m sober during shooting, and then after that I’m drunk as an animal for two weeks. After those two weeks, I go to the editing room and look at what the editor did by herself. Then I think it’s a disaster, then I have to work and be sober again.

Filmmaker: Have you ever wanted to shoot your line producer?

Desplechin: Sure. Sure. Absolutely. Maybe not my line producer, but Pascal Caucheteux, who has produced all my films since La Vie Des Morts, we are an old couple, so this hate and love relationship — obviously it’s a daydream for a director to shoot your producer.


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