Arnaud Desplechin (with Anne-Katrin Titze) on an Ingmar Bergman film: "I remember this scene that I saw so young … in Cries & Whispers, where Erland Josephson is visiting Liv Ullmann.” Photo: Ed Bahlman
Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, Une Lumière), co-written with Léa Mysius, shot by Irina Lubtchansky (Ismael's Ghosts: Director’s Cut, My Golden Days, Frédéric Mermoud’s Moka), music composed by Grégoire Hetzel (A Christmas Tale, Kings & Queen, La Forêt, The Beloved, Mathieu Demy’s Americano, Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room, Catherine Corsini’s Summertime, Emmanuel Bourdieu’s Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Anne Fontaine's The Innocents) stars Léa Seydoux, Roschdy Zem, Sara Forestier, and Antoine Reinartz.
Arnaud Desplechin on his Oh Mercy! composer: “It was not a Bernard Herrmann inspiration or George Delerue inspiration. It was just pure Grégoire Hetzel. It was a perfect fit with the plot. ” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
In the first instalment of my in-depth conversation with the director the morning before the North American premiere at the New York Film Festival we discussed his work with editor Laurence Briaud, listening to Ryuchi Sakamoto and Toru Takemitsu, not having a Bernard Herrmann or George Delerue inspiration for Grégoire Hetzel’s score, what is or is not a small truth for Léa Seydoux and Sara Forestier’s characters in Oh Mercy!, and a Cries & Whispers scene.
With Oh, Mercy! Arnaud Desplechin returns once again to Roubaix, the town in northern France where he grew up. This time around, it is not the slightly magical realm of his childhood and fantasies, but a more realistic world of a place with lots of problems. Once a booming textile industry capitol, Roubaix now is one of the poorest communities in France with a high crime rate. The police headquarters during Christmas time is the setting where the infallible Commissaire Daoud (Roschdy Zem) holds reign. He is a loner who stayed on when his family returned to Algeria.
Oh Mercy!, unlike most crime procedural movies, is never cold. There is a glow of mercy shimmering and pulsating through all the crime reports and investigations and insights. An elderly woman is found dead in her bed in the same poor area of town where one of the fires happened and where Daoud had interrogated two witnesses earlier. Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier) were the woman’s neighbours and the inspector has his suspicions. What follows is a fascinating row of interrogations to get to the truth, or rather, the truths of what happened that night.
Anne-Katrin Titze: You mentioned your connection to the Dardennes ...
Arnaud Desplechin on Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier): “I think, what your characters are saying are small truths.”
Arnaud Desplechin: Yes, they are releasing Oh Mercy! in Belgium.
AKT: I was surprised seeing your film and where you were going. It's a different direction, but still very recognisably yours, I thought. One constant is Grégoire Hetzel's music.
AD: Yeah, the score by Grégoire, which is so present in this film.
AKT: Even when he does the score for other filmmakers, it's never quite the same as with you. It's the greatest constant.
AD: It's strange, because usually, I'm harassing Grégoire on each film with Delerue and Herrmann. But for this time I thought - and I was really proud when we were recording the score - it sounded like Grégoire. It was not a Bernard Herrmann inspiration or George Delerue inspiration. It was just pure Grégoire Hetzel. It was a perfect fit with the plot.
It's strange, I talked to Grégoire before shooting, I didn't send him the script because it's not our habit, and I told him, okay, I will shoot a new film which belongs to a different genre from all the films that I made before. Let's say, the realistic kind of genre. Realism, social movie, that kind of thing. So I don't know if I will use any score. So I warned him, perhaps it is a film I will do without any score. And then I tried that.
Commissaire Yacoub Daoud’s (Roschdy Zem) response to Lieutenant Louis Cotterel’s (Antoine Reinartz) question "How do you know if a suspect is guilty or innocent?": “Oh, easy. I just think like them.”
When I started the editing, I did it my usual way. I can't see the performance with the sound. I can't edit with the direct sound. I'm editing the film as if it were a silent movie. I'm bringing CDs, mainly [Toru] Takemitsu, that kind of thing, Japanese music. And the other Japanese composer is Ryuchi Sakamoto. And I was editing the images like a silent movie. You know, a feeling, the answer, she's confessing, she's crying, that kind of editing.
And after that I was asking the editor [Laurence Briaud], can I hear the dialogue? And it always worked. Trying to analyse my process, before working with Grégoire, I realised that the score was regarding something which was so crucial for me in this film. It's the fact that human beings have a soul.
AKT: A soul?
AD: They are not just their social condition. You can't reduce them to a statistic. You can't reduce them to a sociological aspect. They are more than that. For sure they are social victims, for sure. I hope that the film is addressing that. But they have something more, a little sparkle. And the music is taking charge of that.
AKT: The score in charge of the soul?
AD: Yeah. To show that these two women, they are opening the film as victims and after that they are suspects and they end it as guilty ones. When they are guilty they are still social victims. And though they are exceeding any sociological depiction that you could have about them, and that's what the score is bringing to it.
Claude (Léa Seydoux) with Daoud (Roschdy Zem)
AKT: The film is very much about truth. How do you get to the truth? How do you deal with someone you know is lying? You show that with the guy with the burning car at the beginning.
AD: Who is trying to fraud with the insurance company.
AKT: These are questions asked in folktales. How do you get to the truth? There's a tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, called The Virgin Mary's Child. The Virgin Mary is testing a girl not to open the thirteenth door of heaven where the Holy Trinity resides.
The girl opens the door, her finger turns golden. Virgin Mary knows that the girl is lying. And the girl keeps insisting "I didn't do it, I didn't do it." Eventually her children are taken away from her, still she doesn't repent until the very end. I was thinking of that watching your film.
AD: It fascinated me, for sure. There was sort of a deal with Sara and Léa when we started the film. I said there is one commitment, if you don't do that, I'm dead. I don't want you to lie at any point of the movie. I think, what your characters are saying are small truths. It's not exactly the true truth, you know what I mean?
Roubaix, Une Lumière poster - screening at the French Film Festival UK
AKT: Perhaps. I think I do.
AD: It's a small truth. It's a childish truth. Like, you know, "I didn't break that plate." Yes, you did! But when you are five or six years old, you know that it could have happened that you didn't break the plate. It could have happened. That kind of truth that you are depicting when you're a child. Now the two women are saying "We were not there, we were not there."
And actually they are not properly lying, they are saying another truth. Which is, "If I had one more beer, or if I smoked a little more grass or less, if a neighbour just passed by, if there was a song on the radio or no song on the radio, I wouldn't have been there." And that's the kind of truth that they are depicting. And now Daoud [Roschdy Zem] arrives and says yes, but this truth is not enough. I want a truth which will go a little bit further, slightly further.
I don't know if Daoud is looking for the absolute truth. I think what he is looking for is a true speech, a true voice. That will be enough. And at the end of the movie, the two women still disagree about the premeditation. It's not 100% truth, you know, but it's 75%. That will be enough. I would say this inquiry in order to get truer words make him a shrink. I'm not a judge, so I don't need the absolute truth, I'm just a cop.
AKT: Is he the subject supposed to know?
AD: He is! It's funny, the film in France was released as a detective story but it's so far from a whodunit. In the beginning the scene with the guy who defrauds the insurance company by burning his own car? In one sec Daoud knows that the guy is lying. Done. Case closed. When he is meeting the parents of the young runaway girl, he asks "Why is she called Duhamel? Why does she not have your name?" And in one sec he has this intuition; he knows.
I love this shot when he is in the courtyard, just after the crime of Lucette. The camera is on the crane and you can see him walking. Okay, here is the burnt house, the two girls did go there, and four days later they break in and they kill. So all the plot is thought out in one shot. He knows, he knew. And I love the fact that he knows not because … We have different perspectives Roschdy [Zem] and I. I love his way, he is saying, “It's not a human being, it's a Marvel character.” He's a superhero. Because he knows. He knows things.
57th New York Film Festival - Film at Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: He is also like an audience member who knows cinema traditions.
AD: Sure, one could say, as you say, a spectator or a director. He knows the codes. And I love this one dialogue that he has with the young lieutenant on the roof of the hotel. The lieutenant is anxious and he is asking "How do you know if a suspect is guilty or innocent?" And Daoud's answer is, "Oh, easy. I just think like them." He's not above them. He's just like them.
AKT: Empathy is easy to him.
AD: If I was a woman, alone with a child, staying in a shitty place with this old lady, slightly drunk, drug addict, I would have killed. That's how stupid I would have been. And that's not because he's superior to them, but because he's their equal.
AKT: At the same time, he is giving his interpretation of both of their lives, saying "You were always the beautiful one. You were the queen of the school." And to the other he says "You were always suffering." As a woman watching these explanations, you cringe. He is really pushing this.
AD: Yeah, he's aggressive. In these two scenes which are quite aggressive.
AKT: I am the male judge who interprets how women's looks affected them.
AD: He is a male cop. I remember when I started writing these two scenes. These two visits by night. With the guy making the portrait of one girl and the portrait of the other girl. When everyone was saying, you're foolish because it's a repetition, you have twice the same scene. Yeah, but that's why I'm making the film!
Arnaud Desplechin on Roschdy Zem in Oh Mercy!: “Daoud arrives and says yes, but this truth is not enough. I want a truth which will go a little bit further, slightly further.”
And I dig into my memories and I remember this scene that I saw so young, which was even much more aggressive. It's the scene, if you remember, in Cries & Whispers, where Erland Josephson is visiting Liv Ullmann. And they were ex-lovers and they are in front of the mirror. And Josephson is making the portrait of Liv Ullmann in such an incredibly aggressive way.
AKT: Oh, yes, I remember it very well. Yes, yes.
AD: "Can you see this little wrinkle? That's despair. This is mockery. This is bitterness." And at the end of it, I think it's Liv Ullmann who says "Yes, you can read my face because it's the same as yours." In a way, I could unfold the scene. He had been this young boy in school in love with girls like Léa Seydoux and rejected by her.
He has been this boy in school neglecting a girl like Sara Forestier and dismissing her. He has been this man. And if I wanted to finish to unfold it, I could say that he has been Léa Seydoux, because he thought that way when he was successful in school at the age of 14 and then discovered that you had to pay.
The 2019 New York Film Festival runs through October 13.
Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, Une Lumière) will screen at the French Film Festival UK next month.