Arnaud Desplechin and the resurgence of the New Wave

Arnaud Desplechin (César de la meilleure réalisation pour “Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse”) – 41ème cérémonie des César au Théatre du Chatelet à Paris le 26 février 2016

Arnaud Desplechin, born October 31, 1960, is a French film director and screenwriter. He studied film directing at the University of Paris III: Sorbonne Nouvelle as well as the IDHEC from where he graduated in the year 1984. In his beginning years he made three short films based on the works of the Belgian novelist Jean Ray. From the late 1980s on, Arnaud Desplechin has worked as a director and scriptwriter in several internationally, critically acclaimed films.

Desplechin recognizes himself as an heir of the New Wave. We find in his films a balance between documentary, drama and/or fantasy. Attention to everyday gestures and cultural quotations are also ingrained in his signature style. Like Truffaut and Hitchcock, Desplechin offers an enticing storyline that absorbs the viewer’s conscious attention into a hidden psychoanalytical second reading which returns a flash of the past that needs be presented to turn and rearrange what could be a settling of accounts into a work of Art.

During the course of his films, the viewer’s mind is biased by two different and complementary modes of perception. While our attention is mobilized by the complex network of a story which, ellipses strength, twists and narrative puzzles, holds our energy- an unconscious reading is prompted by a series of rhymes, repetitions, returns, parallelisms that causes a separate catharsis of emotions.

Desplechin works with less torque more relationship based scripts (both co-exist but in varying ratios). Relationships more of a filial nature to be precise. He staged the belonging to a community –the community therefore acts as an arena, a perfect breeding ground for utopian plots where it is possible to question his perception of reality and make judgments on a clear future. The family becomes a privileged place of observation and in its various genealogical strata even the dead have their say. He is always careful in his films regarding every eventually that comes up: the dead, the hatred (betrayed fathers , mothers without love , poorly chosen women), hope to a world that could be different if the Jews had a larger share , old movies, films Desplechin himself. These “what if? s” jostling the narrative provide as much of depth and dexterity in his movies as entrenched feelings do.

 Desplechin is so far from being a subtle filmmaker, rather he is an incredibly violent artist who carries Nietzsche’s philosophy, mythology and literature and also the history of cinema and its classic narration.

As stated Sébastien David “In every movie there is a gush of unexpected yet critical events, as if unseen forces were disturbing the world, housed in its thickness and animated the characters and their relationships. It’s always the first rule of Desplechin’s films. Thus, in Un Conte de Noël (2008), one facing the audience gathered, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) said:

“My son died  … I do not feel sorrow. Suffering is a painted canvas (…) In my dying my son becomes my founder. This loss is my foundation.” (Subtitled translative- Adrian Wells)


Later, informed of his illness, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) Abel companion, went to the hospital to learn that only a bone marrow transplant could save her, the chances of finding a donor are minimal especially as Junon has no grandfather or brother, the only donors that the surgeons seem to approve of. Given the opportunity, presented by her husband, whether the children or grandchildren can be donors, the doctors still remain prohibitive, rejecting this as a possibility. The reciprocation to her idea appears as the violation, a taboo. Junon then asserts that nothing precludes her from taking a transplant from her kids and that her children “give life” too. There is a peak of ambivalence about this. A symbolic re-appropriation, the violent characters (especially Junon the iron-willed Matriarch) is a necessity of the natural order.

To this symbolic dimension is added a reconfiguration of the image. Indeed, if any cinema is motioned toward what would complement it, if the frame is a first cache, the films of Arnaud Desplechin involve much more in creating shapes of phrases between the present and the absent , the words and things, the dead and the living, by staging shock waves through plot plans and vibrant characteristics into characters .

Thus, early in La Vie des Morts (1991), while in the garden two figures reveal that Patrick is between life and death, a clip shows Pascale naked (Marianne Denicourt) in the bathroom overcome with nausea. The framework reveals his body half submerged and it is as if the violence of the revelation made another character elsewhere that found an echo in this plan and in the body of the young woman. Later again Pascale appearing just when her cousin takes his last breath, events which cannot be explicable –whether they signal agony, relief etc.

Similarly, in Rois et Reine (2004), the terrible letter from Louis (Maurice Garrel) read by him from beyond the grave, left on the belly of his daughter Nora a significant bruise caused by the horror of the words. Her affliction is visible in several shots later on, an expression of interiority affected or infested, which registered on the surface of bare skin like a real nuisance.

The images, symbols in the films of Arnaud Desplechin are then not only a field of forms, but furrowed and efficient invisible forces. In a way, the director updates the installation of expensive attractions about which Eisenstein said:-

“no longer limit the expressive possibilities to the logical course of action but helps to establish a final thematic effect” (the montage of attractions, SM Eisenstein, The movie form / meaning, Christian Bourgois, Paris 1976).

The thrill of shaping the order of things, the narrative coherence, the final assembly which points at a shape-expression and communication between peoples alive and absent, between events and characters, has become a solicitation to the viewer, leveraging the experienced symbolic violence.

Sébastien David concludes on the necessary participation of the viewer in Desplechin’s films. Arnaud Desplechin’s films can be such a visceral experience, so intense, so personal that if viewers accept this emergence of a liner by this invisible visible, the flow of a logic that transcends the representation, revealing that all the characters and all these bodies find their glow to be shadows of ideas or emotions that make them act. The attention of the viewer becomes the screen that reflects and makes them real, gives flesh to these beings of light and in return their radiation penetrates the viewer’s privacy.

– Paramita Roy


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