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Arnaud Desplechin’s Eloquent Hybrid Doc

Arnaud Desplechin’s Eloquent Hybrid Doc

Movies are hot, according to Marshall McLuhan, who wasn’t paying them a compliment but placing them within his theory of hot and cool media. He was referring to the sensory richness that makes movies such a captivating and complete experience that they require little active participation from the audience. Just sit in the dark and let the magic wash over you. Arnaud Desplechin doesn’t disagree about the magic, but he puts a different slant on things in the docufiction Filmlovers! (Spectateurs!), whose focus is the moviegoer as an essential part of the equation.

Abounding in movie love, the auteur’s first feature since Brother and Sister cites more than 50 films in its eloquent onrush of clips and philosophizing and memory. But, in a departure from most such cinema essays, there’s no auteur namechecking (or onscreen titles ID’ing clips); it’s not those 50 films’ making-of or even their makers that matter here, but the watchers, the enthusiasts. Us.


The Bottom Line

A shimmering fusion of memory and movie love.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Milo Machado-Graner, Françoise Lebrun, Louis Birman, Sam Chemoul, Salif Cissé 
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Screenwriter: Arnaud Desplechin, in collaboration with Fanny Burdino

1 hour 28 minutes

In the press notes for Filmlovers!, the director waxes idealistic about movies: “We talk about them, we discuss them, all as equals. The cinema is the most democratic place there is.” Apparently he’s never been on the lower rung of Cannes’ press-pass hierarchy. Cruel industry realities aside, though, Desplechin’s embrace of the audience, not as a distant other but as a group he’s a part of, comes through in every facet of his new film’s vibrant prism.

A key sequence excerpts a collection of interviews with anonymous moviegoers, each one seated against the blankness of a silver-white backdrop, answering questions about the first movie they remember seeing, or the scariest, or the films they’ve seen more than once. They talk about whether they cry at the movies, and, delving into a rarely examined but probably crucial aspect of the experience, where they like to sit in the theater. As to why they watch movies, it’s hard to top one man’s answer: “I go to live what I can’t live.”

Filmlovers! moves back and forth between vignettes tinged with autobiography and film theory convos, its discursive flow guided by the voiceover narration of Desplechin and his frequent collaborator Mathieu Amalric. It’s divided into chapters, and the cuts are clean, brisk jolts in time and place (the editors are Laurence Briaud and Naïri Sarkis). Noé Bach’s cinematography has a dream-edged beauty, matched by Grégoire Hetzel’s elegant score.

There are familiar touchstones to set things rolling: Muybridge’s groundbreaking photographic studies of motion, Edison’s kinetoscope, the Lumières’ revolutionary fabulosity, Godard’s 24 truths per second. (And a bit of cultural pride: Acknowledging that “America invented the first films,” Desplechin quickly adds that “France found cinema.”) There are discussions revolving around matters of spectacle and surveillance, the movie-attuned musings of philosopher Stanley Cavell, the influential observations of critic André Bazin. But Filmlovers! is no theory-laden yakfest; it’s a personal walk through the charged territory of a life’s movie-loving story.

Desplechin is 63, a natural age for backward glances and taking stock, although such delves into formative memory always have been central to his filmography. Paul Dédalus, the alter ego whose surname evokes Greek mythology and James Joyce, and who has appeared in three previous Desplechin films — My Sex Life, My Golden Days and A Christmas Tale — provides a throughline here. The character (previously played twice by Amalric) is embodied at age 6 (Louis Birman), 14 (Milo Machado-Graner), 22 (Sam Chemoul) and 30 (Salif Cissé).

I’m guessing that McLuhan would consider streaming a cool medium, as he did TV, but when it comes to the small screen, Desplechin begs to differ: He gives us the 6-year-old Paul transfixed by Spellbound on his family’s TV, not to mention Day of Wrath by Carl Theodore Dreyer, whom his father (Jeremy Zylberberg) pronounces the world’s greatest filmmaker. When his grandmother (Françoise Lebrun) takes him to a movie theater for the first time, he’s as fascinated with the patrons around him and the light pouring out of the projection booth as he is with what’s on the screen, and not happy when his sister (Flavie Dachi), terrified by Fantômas, insists they leave.

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The teenage Paul, played with self-possession and a sense of wonder by Machado-Graner, who made a searing impression in last year’s Anatomy of a Fall, deepens his infatuation with movies by leading a cinema club in school. Serving as curator and projectionist, he’s a conjurer summoning whole new worlds from the machinery. When he inflates his age by a few years to get into a theater showing Cries and Whispers, the ticket seller warns him, “You’re going to be bored!” — as pithy a depiction as I’ve seen of the difference between those who feel at home in the art house and those who don’t.

For the young adult (Chemoul), an ardent admirer of Francis Ford Coppola, the art house is the place to be, Ring Lardner hardcover in tow and romantic triangle to explore, however noncommittally, with two female friends (Marilou Poujardieu, Salomé Rose Stein). For the grown-up Paul, played with aspiring-director passion by Cissé, a chance encounter with a filmmaker (narrator Amalric, stepping onscreen) is a sign of destiny.

Desplechin’s nods to the past also include tributes to departed figures he admired: the actor Misty Upham (Frozen River), whom he compares, provocatively, to Marilyn Monroe, and the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann (Shoah), whom he calls a creator on the level of Picasso in terms of his reinvention of the medium. Thirty-seven years after seeing Lanzmann’s indispensable nine-and-a-half-hour documentary about the Holocaust, Desplechin pays a visit to Tel Aviv to thank literary critic Shoshana Felman for her article about the film. Together they discuss the experience of viewing Shoah, a searching conversation that’s devoid of dogma (and which took place before Israel’s policy in Gaza put it at the center of global political tensions).

Philosopher Sandra Laugier also weighs in, in a fiction scene involving the actor Olga Milshtein, and Desplechin has another sit-down, with filmmaker Kent Jones in New York. For Desplechin, cinema is a question, not an answer, and his earnestness is affecting in his quiet intellectual wrestling with established experts and professional opiners.

But the heart of Filmlovers!, which earns its exclamation point without a big to-do, is best summed up in the impassioned testimony of an unnamed tween girl, one of the anonymous interviewees sitting before that blank white wall. Well versed in West Side Story before she saw Spielberg’s remake, she was astounded to find the movie not only moving, but life-changing: For the first time, she wanted to write musicals.

When film lovers these days enjoy movies, we’re not always sitting in the dark before imagery that dwarfs us. But whatever the size of the screen, Desplechin convincingly argues, that screen is a place where reality, transmuted, “glimmers with meaning.” As it does in this artful blend of narrative and nonfiction.

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