Arnaud Desplechin and star Mathieu Amalric discuss Ismael’s Ghosts, what they bring to each other, the bigger-than-life characters they create and play, and the secrets that they keep.
The latest film from Arnaud Desplechin, one of the most eccentric French directors working today, merrily goes in all directions. Mathieu Amalric plays Ismael, a film director about to embark on his next project when his former partner Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) suddenly reappears out of the blue. The woman had mysteriously vanished years ago, leaving Ismael confused and distressed, until his new partner, the calm and collected Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), saved him from total despair. Carlotta’s return triggers a series of flashbacks into the lives of each character: in an unpredictable whirlwind of revelations and quiet confessions, old wounds are reopened, while others are finally healed.
With Desplechin’s usual knack for wild storylines and fantastical flourishes, Ismael’s Ghosts is an often disorienting, thrilling experience. As part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, Desplechin and star Amalric talked to Elena Lazic about what they bring to each other, the bigger-than-life characters they create and play, and the secrets that they keep.
7R: In many interviews, Mathieu [Amalric] said that you were the one who made him as an actor. What do you find so interesting about Mathieu?
Arnaud Desplechin: That was very kind of Mathieu to say. But as time passes, now, I could say that Mathieu has invented me as a director. It’s true! I wouldn’t write in the same way if I hadn’t met that guy. Because the first film we made together, My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument, changed my life. With it, I realised that I could find actors able to act my lines out. My writing became freer after I met Mathieu. Today, I don’t know what belongs to Mathieu and what belongs to me anymore, and I think that’s a nice definition for friendship.
I met Mathieu at a casting session for My Sex Life, and Mathieu didn’t understand what was required. He was sure that it was a casting for him to be the first AD [Assistant Director] of the film, and that he was supposed to give the lines to the actresses, as we do during the casting process. So I whispered to Mathieu “actually, you are the one who’s being cast.” And so he started to become serious and deliver the lines as an actor.'I met Mathieu at a casting where he thought he was up for the job of Assistant Director. So I whispered to Mathieu 'actually, you are the one who’s being cast.''Click To Tweet
But because he was also a director — he’d already made some short films — every time he would look at Jeanne Balibar or Chiara Mastroianni, he would play the same scene completely differently. He wasn’t giving me a performance — he was affected by the performance of the woman in front of him. And that’s an absolute gift. It’s not a craft; it’s a gift. Mathieu has this gift because he’s a filmmaker. I remember I was shooting just the women’s faces with Mathieu’s shoulder in the corner, and after a while, Mathieu started to say, “OK Arnaud, now you can put your camera here to see better,” and I said, “No it’s OK, I can see from here.”'He wasn’t giving me a performance — he was affected by the performance of the woman in front of him. And that’s an absolute gift.'Click To Tweet
And after that, I realised that this was the depiction of the character I’d imagined: Paul Dedalus, a man in love — in love with his friends, in love with his wife, in love with his brother, in love with his cousin. Dedalus has so many defaults — he can be selfish, etc. But he has this generosity, where he is affected by the people around him. — a guy who worships his friends. I thought “with Mathieu, I’ve found the definition of my character.”
When I write a film, I just daydream about characters that are bigger than life. Once I have a scene that makes me go, “This scene is un-actable. It’s impossible to do, it’s too complicated,” I think, “OK, this is a good scene.” So I don’t like to start by thinking about the actors, because it would lower my scenes.
For My Sex Life, I had no idea what the character of Paul Dedalus would be before I met Mathieu. Then I realised “Oh OK, that’s what I wrote!” The casting process is the way to try to interpret what is written. The script, you throw it away as soon as the film is finished. It’s not like a novel, it’s perishable and it’s not important. The film is what is important.
I’m not making novels or serious theatre plays. I’m making films: I am working in entertainment. I’m using things which terrify me, and I’m trying to make funny films with them. There’s a scene in Ismael’s Ghosts, which I think is quite abstract and hilarious at the same time, where Mathieu is comparing the perspectives of two paintings, pulling strings and explaining an absurd theory about how to end antisemitism in Europe. His Jewish friend says, “Don’t you think it’s asking a little bit too much of cinema? Just finish your film!” It comes from a nightmare I had about two paintings and their perspectives… I’m using material that is quite intimate and scary to me, and I’m just trying to have a good punchline at the end.
Mathieu Amalric: What is amazing is that Arnaud’s bigger-than-life characters made my own real life not a shitty life. If he hadn’t invented me as an actor, I don’t know if I would have loved such extraordinary women, or have been really aware of the world, of my parents, of the future, of the work, of the knowledge. This love of knowledge — the fact that you are not allowed to be on Earth if you don’t use all of the human possibilities. That’s what Arnaud’s world really awoke me to — he exalted the secret person that I could be.'If Arnaud hadn’t invented me as an actor, I don’t know if I would have loved such extraordinary women, or have been really aware of the world, of my parents, of the future, of the work, of the knowledge.'Click To Tweet
I told you, Arnaud. When I’m depressed, I think of Arnaud’s films, and I remember the importance of waking up in the morning and of being in love with knowledge. I remember the importance of generosity, of being attentive to others, of friendship. I remember the beautiful possibilities of human beings. It’s spiritual. That’s what I feel in all of Arnaud’s characters: the beauty and importance of knowledge.
7R: In Ismael’s Ghosts there is a mystery, but we don’t necessarily understand everything about it by the end. So what else pushes you, Arnaud, when you’re making a film, if it isn’t this problem-solving process?
Arnaud Desplechin: Each character has to have a small mystery, a treasure, in order to be interesting for the audience. It’s good for me when I have the answer, and I can share it with the actor. But sometimes, I don’t want to share the secrets with the audience.
Marion Cotillard knows why her character Carlotta Bloom disappeared. She explains why. She says, “I was too young. I was crushed. I had to escape. I couldn’t breathe.” She’s giving you the answer, but you know that there is something behind this answer, which is her mystery.
'I think that’s what makes a character interesting in cinema — the fact that she knows something, a secret, that you can’t share entirely. You can only guess the silhouette of the answer, but you never have the full answer.'Click To Tweet
I think that’s what makes a character interesting in cinema — the fact that she knows something, a secret, that you can’t share entirely. You can only guess the silhouette of the answer, but you never have the full answer. I could say that about the character of Marion, but I could also say that about the character of Charlotte [Gainsbourg]. I love this line, where she answers the question, “Why don’t you have children?” with “Married men.” What happened in her life?
Actually, Charlotte and I, we do know what kind of life she had, the romance behind that. You fall in love with a man who’s engaged, then you have a long love story with him; after that, you fall in love with another man who is engaged, the years pass, and you find yourself in your forties without a fiance and without children. You never had a sad life — it was a life full of feelings — but you are lonely now. She feels secure in that loneliness, in a way. In it, she is protected. And then she meets this monster, this wild, scary man who looks like a tramp. Will she dare to date him or not? She will. She will offer herself a second chance, and that’s the beauty of it.'Cinema is an industry, not a pure art. You do what you can with the time you have!. It's a very sensual, exciting feeling, making films.'Click To Tweet
7R: Mathieu, your character’s creative process in the film is portrayed as rather dangerous. Does creating feel dangerous to you?
Mathieu Amalric: It’s a very sensual and attractive danger. Absolutely. It has to do with the unconscious. I remember when Arnaud showed us this Howard Hawks film Only Angels Have Wings and said, “C’est des durs à cuire” [they’re tough guys]. There has to be a physical courage and also maybe a moral courage. I don’t know. And that’s what is attractive with films, because cinema is an industry, not pure art. You just do what you can with the time you have! It’s like in Only Angels Have Wings: the plane can only go up between two clouds. When you’re shooting, it’s exactly that feeling. It’s a very sensual, exciting feeling, making films.
We’ve interviewed several actor-director pairs about their collaboration: Robin Campillo and his stars for BPM and Yorgos Lanthimos and Ariane Labed for The Lobster. There have been pairings from hidden gems worth discovering: Wild, Homesick, Sand Storm, and Rebecca Daly and rising star Barry Keoghan for Mammal. We’re particularly excited for an emerging actor-director pairing in Vivian Bang and Daryl Wein, who made one of Seventh Row’s Sundance favourites, White Rabbit.