Arnaud Desplechin: 'Theatre is for the bourgeois. Film is the art of rascals!'

The revered film director vowed never to touch theatre. So why is he staging the great Aids epic Angels in America? Apparently, it’s all a misunderstanding

Arnaud Desplechin looks surprisingly calm as he excuses himself to listen to a voicemail from the Comédie-Française’s technical team. France is one week into a general strike over pension reform and the country’s premier theatre company has followed suit, resulting in cancelled performances and rehearsals. “We take it day by day,” says Desplechin, whose new production of Angels in America is due to open in mid-January. “It will start to get difficult if it continues.” We spoke in December and the strike is still going strong, but there is no plan to delay.

It doesn’t help that Tony Kushner’s sprawling 1990s play about the Aids crisis is only Desplechin’s second theatre project, his first being a 2015 version of August Strindberg’s Father. The 59-year-old auteur is renowned for such character-driven screen dramas as Kings and Queen and My Golden Days, which often draw on his own life and background. Yet this month he will be in two Paris theatres at once, since an adaptation of his film A Christmas Tale is appearing at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe.

It’s an unlikely development for a film director who never pined for the stage. “I always told myself I would never do theatre,” he says. “For me, it was for bourgeois, adult people, while I was making cinema, the art of rascals.” Father, he says sheepishly, came out of a “misunderstanding”. Eric Ruf, the Comédie-Française’s director, had a small part in My Golden Days, and one morning asked Desplechin if he would direct a production for the company, 10 minutes before filming was due to start. “I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ But if he’d asked me to run around the block in my underwear, I would have done it – anything so the actor is good.”

Festive froideur … Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve in A Christmas Tale.
Festive froideur … Mathieu Amalric and Catherine Deneuve in A Christmas Tale. Photograph: Allstar/IFC FILMS

Ruf took him at his word and the result was Father. Angels in America is a more ambitious undertaking. Desplechin says the company was “terrified” when he proposed more than 40 set changes: the Comédie-Française is a repertoire theatre, so productions must rotate from one day to the next, and come with a strict three-hour time limit. To make it work, Ruf, an experienced set designer himself, provided support and extra rehearsal time on the stage of the Salle Richelieu, the company’s historical home, not far from the Louvre.

Desplechin, who is focusing on the romantic relationships between the mostly gay characters, admits to some trepidation, not being a member of the LGBTQ+ community. “I felt it was missing from my work,” he says. “I think that some heterosexual love stories have the privilege of being universal, while there is something singular about a gay story. So how do you make sure everyone in the audience is moved? Am I capable of it?” Like fellow film-maker Christophe Honoré – who crafted an impressive play, Les Idoles, about the toll the Aids crisis took on the French intellectual scene – Desplechin lost some of his artistic heroes to the illness, and vividly remembers the pervading sense of “terror”.

When discussing his theatre work, the soft-spoken French director seems in awe of his Comédie-Française cast. “There is a technical knowledge that I don’t have. I feel very lucky to be a student. If my actors are happy, if they think I haven’t said anything stupid, then it’s fine.”

A different side of Desplechin comes out when the conversation turns to cinema, his childhood love. “On film sets, I like to be the king,” he says. “I’m a despot. When I need to go to the bathroom, everyone shouts, ‘The king is going to the bathroom’ – because it takes three minutes and everything is organised around me. I love it.”

‘You want a production to be the best it can be, the rest doesn’t concern me’ … Oh Mercy! starring Léa Seydoux (right).
‘You want a production to be the best it can be, the rest doesn’t concern me’ … Oh Mercy! starring Léa Seydoux (right). Photograph: Shanna Besson / Why Not Productions

He says he has never once regretted drawing on personal material on screen. Roubaix, the nondescript industrial city in northern France where he was born, has provided the background for many of his films, including A Christmas Tale and his latest, Oh Mercy! He even filmed his own family in a 2007 documentary, L’Aimée. “You work on a production, you want it to be the best it can be. The rest doesn’t concern me.”

Not even, I ask, when he was sued, unsuccessfully, by his former partner Marianne Denicourt, who claimed in her 2005 book Evil Genius that Desplechin had lifted painful episodes from her personal life without permission to write Kings and Queen? Desplechin appears unconcerned: “Of my films, it’s the one that performed best at the box office, what can I tell you?”

The rest of his family, he adds, has learned to live with it. “You know what they say: there is no worse curse than to have a child who is a writer. If you’re Kafka’s father, you’re not going to be very pleased.” Does Desplechin hope his own son won’t turn to writing? He laughs. “Look how much of a masochist I am. Of course I hope he’ll be Kafka! As long as I’m good material for him.”

Desplechin seems genuinely happy to take a back seat for his Angels in America – “I’m here to serve Kushner, that’s it” – and to see A Christmas Tale reinvented for the stage. Don’t expect him to write a play any time soon, however. “I feel like you need a lifetime of theatre experience to do that. Films are much easier: anyone can do it.”


Laura Cappelle

The GuardianTramp

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