Hennessy, the cognac brand, has made a habit of producing lavish short films with A-list directors. And here’s the latest—a lush and theatrical seven-minute film from DDB Paris and “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle that takes stock of a musician’s entire life through a series of beautiful, enigmatic and sometimes bittersweet visions and memories.
The film opens with a cellist asleep on a bus. As he awakens and quickly exits, he finds himself in an empty square, where he soon comes upon a giant marble bust of his own head—fallen sideways on the ground.
It soon becomes clear we’re in a dreamworld, as the musician wanders through past, present and future—an emotional journey of what his life has been, and might still be. There is no dialogue. Rather, the film is carried along by a piano-driven orchestral score from Chazelle’s longtime musical collaborator, the Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz.
The film—which follows prior Hennessy collaborations with Ridley Scott (2019) and Nicolas Winding Refn (2016)—was inspired, as the onscreen copy suggests at the end, by the product itself, that each drop of Hennessy X.O is an odyssey. That starting point led Chazelle, known for his emotional, music-driven film odysseys, down a path of exploring “the French way of wistfully looking back at memories, of reflecting at the paths you have taken and the ones you haven’t.”
Chazelle, who’s made commercials for Apple, Squarespace and other brands in the past, also said there are parallels between Hennessy’s artisanal methods of making cognac and his own filmmaking methods—something the client echoed as well.
“In his epic Odyssey, Damien Chazelle delicately infuses each element of the film with the craftsmanship and timelessness of cognac-making,” said Laurent Boillot, president and CEO at Hennessy. “A French-American storyteller with a gift for rendering larger than life emotions on the screen, Chazelle is the ideal partner to encapsulate the greatness that lies in each single drop of Hennessy X.O cognac.”
Alexander Kalchev, chief creative officer at DDB Paris, called the film “an homage to the greatness of a human life,” adding: “In a way, X.O takes the form of Proust’s madeleine, taking us on a multisensorial journey through the past, present and future. Telling this story took hundreds of extras, handmade sets designed by the wonderful Florencia Martin and the poetic beauty of Damien Chazelle’s delicate direction. It’s been an honor and privilege to work on this film and continue building the Hennessy X.O brand.”
The brand provided a lengthy Q&A with Chazelle, which you can read below.
Why partner with Hennessy?
Damien Chazelle: From the start, the idea of the Odyssey immediately grabbed my attention—how you can travel through space and time in the span of one distinct moment. All you have to do is to look inward and the past, present and future can all happen at once. I felt that cinema and the tools of filmmaking could really lend themselves to bringing this Odyssey to life.
What was your experience visiting Cognac with Hennessy?
Visiting the Cognac cellars was an inspiring prelude to the film I shot in Prague for Hennessy X.O. I tried to bring the craftsmanship and timelessness of cognac-making into each element of the film. I see definite parallels between Hennessy’s artisanal methods and filmmaking.
Can you tell us more about your main character’s odyssey?
It is the story of a man in his forties who has been a musician his whole life. He happens to find himself in this dreamworld that is populated with his life’s memories spanning places he’s visited (concert halls around the world), people from his past (parents, old friends, old lovers), sounds and pieces of music, and emotions he’s experienced at various chapters of his life, from childhood to early adulthood and later on.
He finds himself swept away by these memories which eventually give way to a version of the future that could ultimately be a reality, or could be premonitions and fantasies. What the true future holds sort of does not matter—it is the trip, the Odyssey, through his consciousness and through his memories that is valuable.
The piece culminates with going back to find the character in his forties, sitting back on a couch with his partner by his side, reflecting on how he got to where he is now. He understands it might be due to big things, but also small things. In the end, the cumulative scope of any life is profound and really emotional. The idea was to represent the concept that those in-between small moments that movies will often skip are just as important as the big ones. In the end, all lives are extraordinary.
Where did you start when tasked with representing the grandeur of Hennessy? What is it like looking at the legacy of the brand through one drop of cognac?
It was a beautiful challenge to look at the macro within the micro, trying to use something that could be so small or fleeting as a conduit to bigger questions, bigger ideas, and bigger things.
It doesn’t take much to produce an epiphany for someone. For example, the smallest thing like a piece of music can change the atmosphere of a room, or the way the light hits a tree can trigger a memory. You can be turning a corner and feel in a situation of déjà vu.
The smallest of things can trigger an epic journey of thoughts and memories. It’s what is fascinating about consciousness and the human brain.
In many ways, it is easier in literature to capture this epic back and forth of movement from macro to the micro and back. Lots of great novels and short stories have done it. But it is definitely challenging to do it with film, to do it with a medium that looks less suited to it because film has literalism to it. Film is ultimately defined by what you’re seeing in front of the lens.
In the film, the way elements come together, from how the montage interacts with music, the way images speak to one another, is how I try to get close to that movement, that free association between macro and micro.
Why choose the juxtaposition of time as a core concept for the film?
The idea of different times overlapping is fascinating to me. I’ve always felt inspired by similar moments in literature. One of the most famous that I often go back to is Proust’s madeleine, how a single bite of the cake can conjure a whole host of memories.
There’s so much that film can do visually and sonically to approach the same density, texture and richness. When films don’t do that, they can remain linear and adherent to a certain theatrical tradition. But when you start mixing up different temporal and spatial plains, the result can feel like a fun, inventive, and rich mosaic.
How did you translate this idea in the piece?
I wanted to have this starting point where old rules would disappear. I wanted to go backwards and forwards crossing different time periods throughout the piece in a fun, playful way that would resonate with the viewer.
What was your inspiration for the movie?
I was interested in capturing the French way of wistfully looking back at memories, of reflecting at the paths you have taken and the ones you haven’t. It’s almost a bittersweet way to look at life that I find extremely emotional and a tone that I felt important to portray in the film.
If there was one overall guiding spirit behind the film more specifically, it would be Max Ophuls, the German-French film director. As part French, part American myself, I’m fascinated by Ophuls and his Europe-by-way-of-Hollywood-back-to-Europe sensibility. So many of his movies feel both timeless and almost placeless even though they’re specifically rooted in the cultures he was raised in.
Ophuls’ filmmaking feels very universal to me. It is sophisticated and full-hearted without ever being pretentious. There’s a sort of playfulness and whimsy to Ophuls that a lot of filmmakers try to emulate and few succeed.
Can you explain the inspiration behind this beautiful sequence when the main character travels through different periods and locations in the film?
This stems from a collaboration with production designer Florencia Martin. We wanted to reveal the artifice behind life and we leaned into the concept of sets physically changing in succession, with props being moved in and out of the screen. It is almost like a movie within a movie.
With Florencia we narrowed it down to what were the important moments we wanted to explore in the span of the memory of a life, highlighting those few images that stay with you and feel resonant.
Your film for Hennessy X.O looks and feels artisanal. It was shot on location and hundreds of people participated. Why choose this route over shooting in a studio, for example?
The film was shot in Prague, a city with a deep history of theater, puppets, and magic. The city of Kafka. I tried to soak it all in because I have a soft spot for the kind of films where you see the seams, the humanity. These films are like puppet theaters, where part of the magic is that you can see the strings and even the puppeteers behind the curtains but that doesn’t stop you from being immersed and invested in the story.
It is magical to me that both of these things happen at the same time. There’s a tension there that is emotional and even richer than if you were to film a complete verisimilitude. The imperfections you sense are human, and humanity is where the emotion is.
It’s also why I love musicals—when watching, you know instinctively that it’s not real life people snapping into a song. But when done right, you can actually get at something more profound than real life! You can get at something that speaks to our innermost beings where the rules don’t apply, and logic goes out the window—it just becomes about emotions.
In the end, we approached the project like a silent film, a story without a dialogue, just images and music. I tried to pull a trick or two from the silent film playbook and look at how they would have done things back then.
What is one thing that makes you most excited about the film?
I like the idea of a window to anything. In the movie, it translates into using the motif of the apartment windows as a way to look at scenes of the apartment but also scenes from anywhere.
I also get excited about shooting certain scenes. Like the sequence where the main character travels through the cities that his music brought him to. The transitions are all happening on a real street with a steady camera and without cutting because of light effects and different decors passing.
What sort of impression would we want the audience to be left with after watching the movie?
At some level, it is for the audience to decide. My hope is that the story and where we end it prompts audience members to reflect on their own lives, their own memories, and their own visions of the past, present, and future.
Ultimately, our main character ends up in a place of gratitude, of hopefulness, and of serenity. That is the sort of emotional tone that we’re trying to hit at the end of the piece. From there, the filmmaking leaves it to the audience to complete the picture, so to speak.
They can finish the sentence at their own discretion. It allows for different interpretations and different emotional responses, which I think is truly beautiful.