Arnaud Desplechin on the set of My Golden Days, 2015. All images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin—well known for Kings and Queen (2004) and A Christmas Tale (2008)—has made a sort of “prequel” to his first major cinematic work, My Sex Life… or How I Got Into An Argument (1996). My Golden Days assigns an origin story to Desplechin’s former protagonist Paul Dédalus. It’s a personal and golden-hued tale of careless youthful passion. It stars Mathieu Amalric (the original Paul), and introduces the gusty newcomers, Quentin Dolmaire (the new Paul) and Lou Roy-Lecollinet (Esther).
Remembering his adolescence from the ripe old perch of middle-age, Paul Dédalus recalls three distinct chapters of his early life: the first, a painful childhood involving a depressed mother and violent father; the second, a strange trip he took to the USSR, where he offered up his own identity to a young Russian whom he deems his ghostly “double”; and the third, detailing his love affair with Esther. She’s the girl who matters most.
In the final and longest part of the film, Paul spends lazy days and nights studying at a university, exchanging angst with his variable circle of friends—and chasing Esther. She is beautiful, arrogant, and unflappable—where Paul is hesitant and changeable. Though thoroughly absorbed with each another, they sleep with different people, in a casual display of European promiscuity representative more of curiosity and boredom than true debauchery. Desplechin constructs their relationship tenderly, acknowledging that, while a first love usually won’t last, that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. In Paul’s case, his first innocent blush of candor was the defining moment of his life.
I spoke with the director about why inexperienced actors are wonderful to work with, his interest in juvenile perception, and filmic evocation of memory.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold Quentin Dolmaire is a first-time actor. Did you want him to imitate Mathieu Almaric in My Sex Life, or were you looking for somebody who would be totally original?
Arnaud Desplechin When I met Quentin, he asked if he should watch My Sex Life, and I begged him not to. I told him: “It’s an old film, and you weren’t born when I directed it. I want to make something new. You need to find your own voice.” They met briefly during production—for half-an-hour. I wanted Quentin to invent his own Paul Dédalus and not try to imitate anyone. It’s funny, since Mathieu said to Quentin, “It’s incredible—you speak just like me!” And Quentin said, “I didn’t know you, I was just imitating Arnaud!” Then I said, “Yes, but if I’m acting, I’m imitating Mathieu!” So we don’t know anymore about who is imitating whom. We are just sharing a character—the three of us.
AJG What did you enjoy about working with Quentin and Lou—actors who had no previous film experience? Did their lack of film history help their performances?
AD Actually, Quentin was in a theater class, so he had a certain knowledge of how to deliver the lines. But we met nearly 900 young boys and girls, and I noticed all the young actors were already practiced. They had been filmed a little bit in TV dramas, and they all started to look the same. They had the same way of acting. They had tricks. But because Quentin and Lou were virgins, so to say, they were accepting the lines and not imposing certain ideologies about how you have to act in a scene. Their minds were free, and that was so exciting.
AJG Your career has been spent making films about adults, but this prequel is a coming-of-age story. What interested you about that period of life—the teenage years?
AD I came to a moment in my life when I thought that, as a writer and a filmmaker, if my dialogue was just a useful thing for movie stars or experienced actors, it would become boring. I think I’m not bad at writing punch lines, but my lines are tricky—you can’t do them with naturalism, you have to have more of an off-the-cuff approach. I’m not good with improvisation, so my lines are sometimes long and elaborate. I was afraid of this experience, but still full of desire to work with inexperienced actors. When I saw Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, I thought it was so gutsy for him to work with that young girl and boy, because they always brought something so fresh. The script of My Golden Days is quite dark, brutal, and violent in some ways, but Lou and Quentin were bringing a freedom and an appetite for life to it. They enlightened the movie. That was the best. With my writing, I would go for dark issues, but they brought light.
AJG Paul is looking back on his childhood in the film, reflecting on experiences that shaped who he became as an adult. Is this autobiographical, in the sense that it’s similar to you, looking back on your own work and trying to invent an origin story for your old character?
AD On one hand, my life is so boring. It’s just the life of a cinephile and filmmaker, so that wouldn’t make a good movie. I watch films and read books. That’s it. I never experienced the adventures that happened to Paul. But, on the other hand, you were asking me why I didn’t work with experienced actors. What I ask of them, why I hire them, is to provide something more than a craft—something intimate. The feeling of an autobiography. I want them to depict themselves through their characters. So, in a sense, I feel obliged to work the same way. I share a lot of feelings with Paul Dédalus—even if his life is much more interesting than mine. It’s also a certain thing I love in the movies, that is, when the audience asks, “Is it autobiographical or not?” With one of my mentors, Francois Truffaut, you never know if it’s the story of his life, or if it’s more novelistic than that. This mixture of real life and the novel interests me, and that’s the effect I’m trying to produce. The ambiguity of—is it true or not? I’m just trying to be a good actor among good actors.
AJG You often collaborate with Almaric. Why does he inspire you so much?
AD First of all—it’s his sense of humor. There are not too many actors in France, of his age, who have that sense of humor. He’s not afraid of the tragic dimension of the character, but he brings a humor that I would miss otherwise. Each time, we’re trying to create a new character with Mathieu, even when it’s the prequel to My Sex Life. In My Golden Days he really broke my heart. When he writes the letter to his friend and speaks about what a stupid moron he has been with Esther, about how he was not able to love her perfectly, only imperfectly—that moved me. After that, looking at the film, I thought it was funny, because when you see Quentin playing Paul Dédalus in his youth, he’s just like an old man without a wife—very cautious about everything. It’s as if Paul needed to be older—in his forties or fifties—to allow himself to behave as an adolescent at last. I love the contrast.
AJG The second chapter of the film, titled “Russia,” is like a spy thriller. It takes place in a very different world than Paul’s love story with Esther. What do you see as the connection between these two chapters, with Paul giving up his identity and having a kind of “double?”
AD In the first chapter, Paul loses his mother, who commits suicide. So that’s his main loneliness. The second chapter is about the uncertainty he has over who he is. He gives his identity away—which is a strange moment—and he’s doing it out of friendship. I suppose he wants to get rid of his double. There’s the loop produced by the script, where at the very end of the film Paul says, “I don’t know if I’m the right one.” It could be the story of a man who loses his identity—and who needs a woman to know who he is. Paul is less solid than Esther; Esther is solid, like a stone or a mountain. Paul is much more shallow. I love the fact that the male character is shallower than the female character. I’ve been that same guy who loved someone like Esther. So she became the movie. I think it had to do with memories; when I dig into my own memories, I don’t remember any straight lines or reasonable stories. I remember small separate blocks. I wanted to build the script as if we were entering into a brain or a memory, where you have separate elements existing in the same time and you don’t understand the logic. You have to wait until the last scene of the film to understand that logic.
AJG The film takes place pre-Internet, so the characters can’t email or text when they’re apart. They write long, beautiful letters and get to miss each other deeply. Young love might be different today—with technology we’re constantly connected. Can people still long for each other in that same way?
AD I don’t think that’s a thing of the past. I’ll tell you a story that I cherish: During the first interview Lou gave, to a French magazine, I was being interviewed in the same room, so I could hear her answers. At one point the journalist asked her in a rude way, “These feelings and deep love in the letters you’re exchanging with Paul—that couldn’t happen today—because of texting and Skype, and all the new technology.” Lou said, “Each one of these words I’ve said with my technology. Even if we’re using Facebook or whatever, we’re sharing the same words and feelings. We’re experiencing the same despair.” I could see her pride—and I was proud of it. Even when we text, we can be terribly complex. The fact that she made the character and the lines out of her own material is great.
AJG Paul, in the film, is compared to Odysseus returning home to Ithaca. His last name mirrors the Daedalus who built the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Was there any significance in surrounding Paul with Greek mythology?
AD I wanted to tell the story of a man who is lost, and I thought that a guy whose name was Paul Dédalus… well, Dédalus means “lost.” You don’t need to know the mythology to know anything about that. It’s always very simple. I like films to look like dreams more than realism. There’s another girl who is in love with Paul, and she has a very small part in the film, and I was looking for a name for her… she’s always waiting for him, because he’s in Paris. And I thought “Penelope” would be a good name, because she’s waiting for him. It’s dreamlike. It’s just another poetic way of communicating with the audience. Her name is so beautiful it’s like a flag—so that you remember the character.
AJG You use splits-screen frames and a lot of iris shots. Were you trying to evoke the dream-state or dichotomy of memory with these stylistic choices?
AD I use all the tools cinema is offering to me. I knew I needed to have a shot at the beginning of the third story, the relationship with Esther—what the film is really about—and I needed the split-screen to get rid of the first two parts. I think that works, because at this point of the story, suddenly we don’t just follow Paul’s POV, we are also following the sister and the brother. Plus it’s funny, because it’s a period thing. It reminds the audience of the films of the 1970s. It was the bringing of something new, as if I was saying to the audience, “Okay, we’ve finished with the first two chapters, now let’s start the main one.” I’m using the technology to create a pace and rhythm. I’m trying to be playful!
AJG Will you continue to make films about young people?
AD Every time I make a film I try to make something that works against my previous film. The latest thing I wrote is about characters in their fifties. They’re dark, whereas my young characters are light. They’re bitter, whereas my young characters are so generous. And they’re full of rage—as is Mathieu at the end of the movie. So, it will be quite different. Making My Golden Days was a wonderful experience, but for the next one I need to go in another direction… so I can surprise you.
My Golden Days was nominated for 11 César Awards, the most of any film this year—including Best Director, which Desplechin won. The film is playing now at The Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center.