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Spectateurs! by Arnaud Desplechin

Spectateurs! by Arnaud Desplechin

Spectateurs! is Arnaud Desplechin’s latest film, which was screened as a Special Screening during the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. As the title suggests, it is a tribute to cinema spectators of different kinds, not only an arthouse audience but also those who love Michael Bay, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Luca Guadagnino. When I interviewed Desplechin, he explained that the project was initiated by producer George Gilibert, who suggested a documentary project, something that the director rejected outright. What we have instead is a hybrid work that branches out in different directions with a slight twist. Even though there are clips from 50+ films here, the heroes are not the directors or auteurs but the people watching the works.

That also applies to the autobiographical parts. Desplechin uses his alias Paul Dédalus, but only as a spectator rather than a filmmaker. We first see him as a child when he goes with his grandmother (a great turn by Françoise Lebrun) to watch Fantômas (1964) but is mostly fascinated by the projector light. A droll scene occurs when Paul, in his early teens, lies about his age to watch…Cries and Whispers (1972). The ticket cashier doesn’t seem bothered about Paul’s age but warns him that he will be bored.1 I wish I would have had such a cashier before I saw it. The depiction of that screening is one of many highlights of this delightful work.

Spectateurs!   Arnaud Desplechin
Spectateurs! by Arnaud Desplechin

The film is divided into chapters, some more theoretical than others. There are charming segments where spectators talk about their relationship to cinema and their favourite movies. The entire work is marinated in the passion for cinema in all its shapes and forms and is carried by Paul Dédalus’ narration (voiced by the director and Mathieu Amalric). One of the questions posed is, “What happens to reality when it is projected?” The answer is multifaceted and Spectateurs! will branch out in different directions looking for possible answers or further questions? Another statement proclaims that “cinema is a question, not an answer”. Both these quotes appear in the trailer, which might make the film seem more pretentious than it actually is.

Spectateurs! for spectators

Philosopher Stanley Cavell may be the most important theoretical figure in the film, but there are lengthy ruminations on André Bazins’s ideas about realism as well. One section has Desplechin going to Tel Aviv to discuss Claude Lanzmann’s monumental Shoah (1985) with literary critic Shoshana Felman. Another discussion takes place with filmmaker Kent Jones in New York, and once again, one is struck by the open-mindedness and lack of facile statements. The director also devotes a segment to Blackfeet actress Misty Upham. She might be most famous for her part in Frozen River (2008), but she also appeared in Desplechin’s Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian in 2011. Incidentally, that was also Lily Gladstone’s first feature role.

Spectateurs! or Filmlovers! as the film is called in English, manages to pack a lot of food for thought into its 88-minute running time. With all the disparate concepts on display in Spectateurs! it all comes together in a fashion that feels simultaneously profound and entertaining. In that regard, Grégoire Hetzel’s score plays a prominent role. This is a film not only about spectators but also for anyone who wants to feel the true fascination of cinema. It is highly recommended for any film lover.

Desplechin is currently working on two projects: a comedy called The Thing That Hurts and a drama tentatively titled Une Affair. I am especially eager to find out what hurts. It’s not this film, for sure.

YouTube video
Trailer for Spectateurs! by Arnaud Desplechin

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