Although he prefers to conduct an interview outside to allow some tres francais cigarette smoking, writer and director Arnaud Desplechin does not come across as either enfant terrible or agent provocateur, the two default modes for branding Gallic filmmakers on these shores.
His films are mix-tape concoctions of drama and comedy, blending with head-spinning ease such disconnected topics as family dynamics and arms dealing, or philosophy and philandering.
Such madcap combinations have yet to capture the American public, but they've made him a favorite of film critics and art house programmers around the world.
His latest film, "Kings and Queen" -- it's his sixth -- has garnered rapturous notices wherever it has played and was a box office hit in France, where it received prestigious year-end awards and seven nominations for the Cesar awards (France's equivalent of the Oscars).
The film, which opens May 20, reunites Desplechin, 44, with two actors he has worked with a number of times before, Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric.
This time out, Devos plays Nora, a single mother who must find someone to care for her 8-year-old son while she nurses her father through the final stage of terminal cancer. To that end she reconnects with an old boyfriend, Ismael, who has recently been committed to a psychiatric hospital.
A disaster as a couple, Nora and Ismael form an unsteady bond as friends, and through the course of the film each of them is destroyed and, in a sense, reborn.
Stuffed to the brim with literary allusions, fantasy asides and an elegantly ramshackle narrative style, the film, co-written by Desplechin and Roger Bohbot, follows a typically offbeat structural conceit.
"I had this idea to do a pure melodrama," explains Desplechin, his quiet singsong voice something of an authoritative whisper. "Nora would go through all the worst in life, the pain, the curses, the magic, all of this in one hour and seven minutes, and then all of the burlesque of Ismael also in one hour and seven minutes. They would meet just one time right in the middle of the movie and then once at the end. And we would give 12 minutes to the kid. That would be it.
"When we were writing, not when we were shooting, it didn't seem a problem to host those two things side by side. I didn't want the laughs to make a mockery of the tears or for the tears to overwhelm the laughs. Would they agree to jump from one story line to the other?"
The avenues of distribution for international films being what they are, Desplechin's second feature, 1996's "My Sex Life ... or How I Got Into an Argument," was released theatrically in the United States before his first feature, 1992's "La Sentinelle."
He made something of an art house splash with "My Sex Life," the sprawling tale of a perennial graduate student (played by Amalric with the same manic comic grace he brings to "Kings") who stumbles through a chaotic love life. Devos played his long-suffering, on-again/off-again girlfriend, which might lead some audiences to see "Kings and Queen" as somehow picking up where "My Sex Life" left off.
Certainly, "Kings" is the first of Desplechin's subsequent films to focus on that most beloved of subjects for French cinema, the complicated interrelationships of romantic intellectuals. While Desplechin does not play up the connection to his earlier film, he does not deny it either.
"The audience will tell me that. When we were writing we never allowed ourselves to even think of Emmanuelle and Mathieu because we thought, 'Oh, come on, they won't.' Then it seemed, who else except Emmanuelle and Mathieu could do it? So we tried to forget about 'My Sex Life,' but I can't stop the audience from seeing them as the same couple, or as an extension of that other couple."
His connection to the actors proved useful while shooting, as Desplechin often tried to achieve something more nuanced than what he had on paper, something he could achieve only through open collaboration with his actors.
"I am often trying to shoot scenes without knowing what the scene is truly about," he explains. "So if I don't find something interesting hidden between the lines, I'm not doing my job. My job is to look at the scene and find new ways of delivering lines or gestures, and then suddenly the scene starts to mean something I was not aware of.
"It works. Suddenly the actors and myself have discovered another meaning, something that is not written. It's not about the scene as it is written, but trying to find an interpretation through the performances."
In addition to the awards and box office success, in France "Kings and Queen" also generated its own share of tabloid infamy.
Desplechin's former girlfriend, the actress Marianne Denicourt, openly decried the film as being pulled directly from the most private aspects of their life together, and published a novel that included a withering look at a self-involved film director named Arnold Duplancher.
The controversy also served to heighten the connection between Amalric and Desplechin, which many have likened to the legendary collaboration between director Francois Truffaut and his frequent on-screen avatar Jean-Pierre Leaud.
"First of all," responds Desplechin, "I think the audience is always right, so if they think that you must respect it. To me the point is that Mathieu is also a director, so our relationship is quite different because he is also a filmmaker."
A conversation with Desplechin is not unlike one of his films -- slightly dizzying in its circuitous curlicues of logic, but still managing to come together in a way that is pleasing and satisfying in an unexpected way, like an improbable flavor of sorbet. He is, one can be relatively certain, still discussing a character in his latest film, but he may just as easily be speaking of himself.
"The guy has all the faults you can imagine, and yet you still love him. You don't know why, but you do."