Benoît Jacquot came of age in Paris at the onset of the Nouvelle Vague and emerged in the mid-Seventies as a key figure of his generation. The formative films he saw at the Cinémathèque Française would echo in his own work: his discursive real-time surveillance of a working girl, La Fille seule (95), closely and cunningly recalls Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, and his first leading lady was none other than Nouvelle Vague icon Anna Karina. His widest acclaim to date arrived for the award-winning Versailles drama Farewell, My Queen (12), starring Lea Seydoux as a lady-in-waiting. Kent Jones observed of the film that the suspense derives less from palace intrigue and more from the protagonist’s inner turmoil—a construct Jacquot has characterized as “mental time,” also a useful concept for his latest film.

3 Hearts, which opens theatrically on Friday and kicked off Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, concerns two sisters (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni) who are involved with the same man (Benoît Poelvoorde). Their mother—played by Mastroianni’s real-life parent Catherine Deneuve—senses imminent disaster. The formidable cast of the melodrama-tinged story testifies to Jacquot’s reputation as a perceptive and compassionate director of actresses, having elicited sensitive turns from stars (Isabelle Huppert, Dominique Sanda) and then-newcomers (Isild Le Besco, Virginie Ledoyen) alike.

Jacquot took a moment during his busy New York visit to chat with FILM COMMENT about his seminal experiences—including his extraordinary stint working with Marguerite Duras—and how 3 Hearts fits into his career.

3 Hearts

In a previous interview with FILM COMMENT, before making 3 Hearts, you said that your films had not been explicitly emotional, and you wanted to make one in which emotions were everything. How much of a departure is 3 Hearts for you in terms of your past work?

It’s true that for someone like me, who always makes films, and makes them for the joy of making films, often the idea that I have before I begin shooting the film, and the ideas I have about the film after I’ve made it, are different. Once it’s completed, I see the film in another way. I think with 3 Hearts, it’s a little bit complicated. Now, I see it as a film that’s a logical progression from the film that came before it, the film that came after it, and the films that will follow that. Before I started working on it, I had been thinking that it was going to be an attempt to make a film that was more affective, in the Freudian sense of the term “affect.”

Do you think that filmmakers today are reluctant to treat emotions head-on? Or, that they feel audiences can only handle emotions when they’re tackled intellectually or delivered with irony?

It really depends on the filmmaker. I know that for me, it was very difficult to go to the emotion in its heart. But that’s also why I was interested in trying to do so. In many of my films, when I approach emotion, it’s in an indirect way. What’s interesting is then to see what is the emotion that suddenly comes up and jumps from behind you and appears.

Going back a bit, you grew up in Paris during the Nouvelle Vague. It must’ve been a great time to be a budding cinephile, at age 11 or 12.

That probably is around the time my interest in film started, because it was when 400 Blows and Breathless and Le Beau Serge were all coming out. I had learned more about the films before I actually saw them. I was very much taken by the discourse of these directors, what it was they were saying, and I really wanted to see their films. I had to go. I was just barely an adolescent at the time—I went to see them secretly. I went after school, I went without telling my parents, and I snuck in through the backdoor to be able to see them. I think that after seeing the films I became a real cinephile. I have always been very attached to this idea of being a filmmaker, and of the act of filmmaking itself as being something clandestine, where there’s always some question: is the filmmaker really an artist? I think it goes back to those secret entrances into the films.

Were there particular filmmakers who resonated with you then, who struck you as being greater artists than just craftsmen?

Many of the New Wave directors were people who came from a background of having been film critics, writing for Cahiers du Cinéma, which I read at the time. I considered them to be in this category of what was then called “Hitchcocko-Hawksiens,” who were people along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks: they considered themselves moviemakers but didn’t consider themselves artists the way a Picasso or a Stravinsky defined themselves as being an artist.

3 Hearts

Have you written any criticism yourself?

No, but before I made my first film—and I made my first film when I was really rather young—I was very close to a lot of the people who were writing for Cahiers du Cinéma. We’re talking about the Seventies, people like Serge Daney and others. I was very close with him. Of course, he’s no longer with us, but I’m still pretty close with a number of the people who were writing at the time.

Early in your career you worked as assistant director to Marguerite Duras, who was the subject of retrospective recently at Lincoln Center. Most of her films were shown, including the ones that you worked on, Nathalie Granger and India Song.

There were also others. Le navire Night is actually a dialogue between Duras and me.

What was it like apprenticing under her?

I liked her a lot, but she had this one quality, that she detested cinema. She detested cinema but adored making films. That’s her paradox. At the time, she was involved in the making of a lot of films. The shooting would usually be very short, maybe two or three weeks at a time, and there would be several during the course of a year. Normally, the shooting would take place at her home. She had a home in the country. She also had one at the seashore. The locations would be in places where she lived. She used a lot of the same actors repeatedly: for example, Delphine Seyrig, Gerard Depardieu, Jeanne Moreau. So it was kind of a club or this little family of people that she worked with. She really welcomed us there almost like the hostess, and she made me responsible for the part that she really didn’t like, which was the actual making of the film.

One of the first things I would do is to convey to the actors why it was that they were there. This was something she never liked doing, and so it was always up to me to tell them. I ended up creating this kind of Duras language, Duras-speak, and I was responsible for telling them what it was that they were doing there, between the time you say action and the time you say cut. She didn’t make films for that period between the time of saying action and the time of saying cut. She made films for everything that happens before and everything that happens after, but not for that very act of filmmaking itself. [Laughs]

3 Hearts

Was it just the process of making films, the mechanics of making films that she didn’t like? Or was it the idea of narrative cinema?

No. She just had this extremely hostile idea of what film was—that it was like the garbage that was left over after literature and writing, that it was not on the same par. Her theory, or her belief, with two or three exceptions, is that all filmmakers were generally failed writers. The exceptions were for her Chaplin and Dreyer and Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. She could see a film like Night of the Hunter a hundred times, Barbara Loden’s film Wanda, as well. For her, she considered that to be at the same level as literature. The rest was just shit.

Night of the Hunter was written by James Agee, who was a writer, and not a failed one at that.

Many films from writers aren’t very good. Even Land of the Pharaohs by Howard Hawks is from a Faulkner script. Duras liked Faulkner, but he worked on the script, and if she had seen Land of the Pharaohs, she would’ve died laughing. We used to argue about this all the time. I would say: “Land of the Pharaohs is a really good film.” She would say: “How could you say that this piece of garbage is a really good film?”

If she thought film was a lesser art, why did she keep making them? Was she trying to elevate the medium or was it just masochism that led her to make 20 films?

She didn’t have a very progressive attitude about cinema, as she felt that this was a lamentable symptom of what 20th-century life had become. I think this prevented me from ever having a really close kind of relationship with her because I didn’t see it that way. I tend to think that writers like Henry James and Dostoyevsky are not as great artists as say somebody like Fritz Lang. That’s why I make films. Otherwise, I would write novels.