Just reality

Arnaud Desplechin on reality, childhood, filming animals for Oh Mercy! and Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Arnaud Desplechin on the roles played by Léa Seydoux, Sara Forestier and Antoine Reinartz in Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, Une Lumière): "They look as children.”
Arnaud Desplechin on the roles played by Léa Seydoux, Sara Forestier and Antoine Reinartz in Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, Une Lumière): "They look as children.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Arnaud Desplechin’s coruscating Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, Une Lumière), co-written with Léa Mysius, received six César nominations: Best Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Lumière winner) Roschdy Zem, Supporting Actress Sara Forestier, and Original Score by Grégoire Hetzel. Arnaud’s staging and direction of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, (French text by Pierre Laville) at the Comédie-Française in Paris, starring Michel Vuillermoz as Roy Cohn opened on January 18.

Roschdy Zem won a Lumière and received a César nomination for his portrayal of Commissaire Yacoub Daoud in Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, Une Lumière)
Roschdy Zem won a Lumière and received a César nomination for his portrayal of Commissaire Yacoub Daoud in Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, Une Lumière)

In the second instalment of my in-depth conversation with Arnaud, he credits The Rider director Chloé Zhao and her cinematographer Joshua James Richards’ framing of horses as an influence. We discuss his screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man for the cast and crew of Oh Mercy!, how Torn Curtain, Frenzy, and Suspicion entered the picture, childishness, plus Denis Lavant’s 'visiting cats'.

Anne-Katrin Titze: There is a great nostalgia in the character of Daoud [Roschdy Zem]. During the scene on the roof, he points to the playground he remembers fondly. A glorifying of childhood?

Arnaud Desplechin: Yeah, all the characters in my movie are so childish, aren’t they?

AKT: Yes.

AD: You know, the silly young lieutenant [Antoine Reinartz] is so childish, the two women [Claude, Léa Seydoux and Marie, Sara Forestier] are so childish. All of them are. They look as children. And I realised that not when I was editing the film, not when I was mixing it, but when I started to show it.

Sara Forestier as Marie in Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, Une Lumière) received a César nomination
Sara Forestier as Marie in Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, Une Lumière) received a César nomination

I remember a spectator in the audience asking me “Did you realise that you were filming the childhood of each character as the very key?” And I said “Honestly, no, I didn’t realise. That’s my way of looking at human beings, is to try to guess what kind of kids they were.” It’s my way of understanding them, you know.

AKT: You spent your childhood in this place, Roubaix. So it’s also the childhood of the place that you might be capturing. And now it’s so different.

AD: Sure, it has to do with the fact that I was shooting in the city where I grew up.

AKT: It felt as though you were looking for kernels left from the past. Hitchcock is always somewhere in your films. I thought the hotel where Daoud is having his drinks is probably the most Hitchcockian place that he could find in town. When they are re-staging the crime, there is Suspicion and the glass of milk carried up by Cary Grant.

AD: Yeah.

Antoine Reinartz is Lieutenant Louis Cotterel
Antoine Reinartz is Lieutenant Louis Cotterel

AKT: And with the idea of how difficult it is to strangle someone, I thought of Gromek in Torn Curtain.

AD: Torn Curtain, yes, and the English film, not the last film but the previous to last film, with the guy who is strangling.

AKT: Frenzy.

AD: It’s shown that it’s a hard job to kill someone. I was also thinking about the races, the horses, the newspapers that Daoud is carrying. You know already that I’m picking a film and showing it to the whole crew and the actors before the shooting of each one of my films.

And in this case I showed The Wrong Man because it was the main inspiration for me. To get rid of the fiction and to base everything in the film on reality. That incredible scene where Henry Fonda arrives and he has got do …

AKT: … the fingerprints?

Arnaud Desplechin was influenced by the framing of horses in Chloé Zhao’s The Rider on Brady Jandreau
Arnaud Desplechin was influenced by the framing of horses in Chloé Zhao’s The Rider on Brady Jandreau Photo: Anne-Katrin Titize

AD: The fingerprints. It was an inspiration because when I started the project with this idea of refusing. After Ismael’s Ghosts, which was a firework of fiction, I couldn’t go further. I said everything. And to jump into a world where there is no fiction at all! Everything would be just reality. To pull the fiction out of the film.

AKT: People often talk of escape into fantasy. No, you escape into reality. If fiction gets too much - that’s exactly what you describe - there is always reality to escape to.

AD: It’s strange, it’s a strange thing. Reality is a great tool. Even Truffaut said it. That reality can create fantasy that imagination can’t find.

AKT: Watching this film, I thought - and I never noticed this before - you are so good filming animals! I loved the scenes with the cats and how you showed the legs of the horses. You should film animals!

AD: Everything in this film was so new! I was so scared. I’ve been to visit horses, plus to frame a horse, for a guy like me, it’s a nightmare. Also I saw films with horses. You know, the Chinese director, shot in the US, the wonderful film? It was at the New York Film Festival two years ago, the young guy [Brady Jandreau] doing rodeos?

Arnaud Desplechin on Denis Lavant’s “visiting cats”: “That’s nice. I just have one cat. I’m not as daring as Denis Lavant.”
Arnaud Desplechin on Denis Lavant’s “visiting cats”: “That’s nice. I just have one cat. I’m not as daring as Denis Lavant.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titize

AKT: The Rider?

AD: Yes, The Rider. So I was looking how she [Chloé Zhao] was framing The Rider [cinematography by Joshua James Richards]. There was one shot - speaking of childhood - where I couldn’t fail. It was absurd and I wanted to film it. It’s when Daoud is on the horse like a boy. You know “I’m a cowboy. I’m a native.”

And you can see how clumsy he is, how silly he is. He’s 11 years old. He’s not a mature man any longer. To find the right frame and the right distance with the horse and the right lens, etc., it was nightmarish.

AKT: I loved what she did with the horses in The Rider. It captured the soul. And then you have the cats. I had a conversation with Denis Lavant some time ago and he was talking about cats. So I asked him how many cats he has. He said “Two…. Three …. Four” and I said “You don’t know how many cats you have?” And he said they’re “Visiting cats, tourist cats.”

AD: “Visiting cats”, that’s nice. I just have one cat. I’m not as daring as Denis Lavant.

AKT: You have one cat but you do have visiting cats in the film.

Lieutenant Cotterel (Antoine Reinartz) with Commissaire Daoud (Roschdy Zem)
Lieutenant Cotterel (Antoine Reinartz) with Commissaire Daoud (Roschdy Zem)

AD: Yeah, because it’s wild cats. He [Daoud] doesn’t want to have a cat in his house, they are staying outside. So we had to find the proper makeup for them.

AKT: To make them look wild? The visiting cats?

AD: Yes, the visiting cats and to find something that would be comfortable for them. Because cats are so scared, you know. But it worked out.

AKT: You’ve never worked with animals before, have you?

AD: Never, never. This was the first time. And there are two shots, just two but necessary in the plot, with the dogs, the two big dogs. The two girls [Claude and Marie] were afraid because the dogs were freaking big. I mean, they were gentle, but big.

Read what Arnaud Desplechin had to say on editing and composer Grégoire Hetzel for Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, Une Lumière) and a Cries & Whispers scene.

Coming up - Arnaud Desplechin on Léa Seydoux and Sara Forestier.

Angels in America, directed by Arnaud Desplechin, runs through March 27 at the Salle Richelieu of the Comédie-Française.

The César Awards will be announced on February 28.

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