Q&A: Arnaud Desplechin on the Thrill of Discovering the Past in ‘My Golden Days’

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

In the roving, restlessly imaginative films of Arnaud Desplechin, everything is in flux and nothing is nailed down. Like Greek gods and goddesses fallen to earth, his characters rant and storm, banter and cajole, turn on each other one moment and fall into an embrace the next. His freewheeling visual style, often predicated on iris shots, zoom lenses and disjunctive editing techniques, turns clutter into clarity as it follows the tempestuous logic of his characters’ emotions. Even his titles can’t always make up their minds: “My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument,” the name of his sprawling 1993 magnum opus about an incurable and incorrigible lover of women named Paul Dedalus (played by Mathieu Amalric), captures the character’s chronic logorrhea as well as his maddening indecision.

While Desplechin has worked with Amalric in several films since — “Kings and Queen” (2004), “A Christmas Tale” (2008) and the English-language psychotherapy drama “Jimmy P.” (2013) — the two collaborators return specifically to Paul Dedalus in their wonderful new film, “My Golden Days.” A prequel of sorts to “My Sex Life,” this flashback to Paul’s early years has an unusual episodic structure that is better evoked by its more lyrical French title, “Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse,” or “Three Memories of My Youth.” It begins with a short, harrowing tale of Paul’s unhappy childhood in the northern French town of Roubaix (Desplechin’s own hometown), and then jumps ahead to a captivating account of a high-school trip to Minsk that plays like a spy thriller in miniature. The third and longest chapter shows Paul meeting and falling in love with Esther, the ravishing young woman who will grow up to be played by Emmanuelle Devos (another of Desplechin’s muses) in “My Sex Life.”

The characters, as embodied and redefined by the first-timers Quentin Dolmaire, 22, and Lou Roy-Lecollinet, 19, are almost as voluble as their older counterparts, in thrall to the rigorous yet free-flowing rhythms of Desplechin’s dialogue. But they also bring to the screen a youthful magnetism and freshness of spirit that is tremendously touching and marks a foray into new territory for the 55-year-old filmmaker. Speaking by phone about “My Golden Days” (which Magnolia Pictures is releasing theatrically March 18 in New York and Los Angeles), Desplechin leapt among a characteristically dizzying range of literary and cinematic reference points as he discussed his collaboration with Dolmaire and Roy-Lecollinet, his playful approach to bottling memory on screen, and the sense of eternal, even mythological recurrence that defines his cinematic cosmos.

Throughout our conversation, he sounded more like a fledgling filmmaker enraptured by a new discovery than an artist working at the very height of his powers. Appearances can be deceiving: The youthfulness of Desplechin’s ninth feature, easily mistaken for frivolity, may explain why it was mysteriously denied a competition slot at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Judging by his recent Cesar Award for best director (his first win after multiple nominations for directing and screenwriting), history will be kinder to a film that feels like both a career-crowning work and an act of renewal.


You spent many years working on “Jimmy P.” After that film was finished, did you want to make a film that could be done relatively quickly?

That’s exactly what happened. “Jimmy P.” was really hard to produce — raising the money and finding the two actors (Amalric and Benicio Del Toro) was really nightmarish. So I started to write “My Golden Days” in bits and pieces while waiting for production to start, and afterward, actually, I didn’t make one film but two films — the other one being a French TV adaptation of the Alexander Ostrovsky play “The Forest.” And yes, because I worked with Benicio and Mathieu, two movie stars, and the play adaptation was also very experienced actors, I was very eager to find something new and fresh — to do something that I had never done before, which is to work with actors who had never been in front of the camera. I was terrified by the idea. My dialogue can be quite tricky: Would I be able to direct very young actors? Would I be able to find a sort of rapport with young guys and girls? And it happened and it was really great, and the fact that we did it so fast is quite exciting.

The actors, Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet, are marvelous. Can you talk a bit about finding them, and how much or how little direction you gave them?

We met a lot of girls and boys in Paris. We saw all the young actors who have already been on TV or on film, but something didn’t work. But the two of them, Quentin and Lou — perhaps because they were not Parisian, they come from the provinces, and they brought something of that to the film. Usually on films I hate to rehearse; if the actors aren’t good in rehearsal, I’m afraid that they will be terrible on the set, so I don’t rehearse. But on this one I had to work with them a bit, so I used scenes from films that I adore, like Clint Eastwood’s “Bird,” because of the love story, and so they learned my ways and I learned their ways. I was afraid that they wouldn’t feel free enough with my direction, and so I would ask them, “Am I a hindrance or am I a help to you?” But they felt free with me. I didn’t want to be the teacher, and I didn’t want them to be my students. I wanted them to bring a sort of freshness to it. It was a bet. I was betting that even though the story is quite dark here and there, they would bring something real and full of light.

There’s this long scene in the museum, where Quentin is describing Lou’s face, and it was quite difficult for him because the lines were quite tricky and very long. Something didn’t work at some point, and I realized the character is referencing a character from mythology (Diane), and so I went to Quentin and said, “By the way, do you know who Diane is?” He said, “I have no idea.” So we stopped the shooting for just five minutes, and I explained to him who the characters were, and he said, “OK, I got it,” and after that it was a piece of cake.

For Lou, it was the scenes where she has to cry — the scene where she’s yelling at the station, and the scenes depicting her loneliness. At this point in the shooting, our link and our friendship became so deep, I remember saying to her, “I’m the only friend you have on the set, so lean on me. Please lean on me.”  And she did, and it was a miracle. It was three takes and it was done. It was perfect. But she was scared. I was scared, too.

When I saw the film at Cannes, it struck me that we should feel free to imagine it as a completely independent story from “My Sex Life.” Do you think viewers should feel that freedom? Does it matter to you if audiences — especially young audiences — have seen the first film or not?

It doesn’t matter to me at all. I even forbade the actors to see “My Sex Life.” They asked me, “Do we have to see the first film?” And I said, “Please, please don’t. What I want from you is to invent something new. I want you to speak about your own generation even though it’s a period film.” During shooting, I realized they had cheated. They had already seen it; they did their homework. But we never spoke about it. I like the idea that the two films are pretty independent from each other.

Characters and character names have often resurfaced across your films — there is a Paul Dedalus in “A Christmas Tale,” and Jean-Paul Roussillon turns up as Abel Vuillard in both “A Christmas Tale” and “Kings and Queen.” You have Esther in “My Sex Life” and “My Golden Days,” and a different Esther in “Esther Kahn.” Do you imagine your characters as sort of living in these parallel worlds that occasionally overlap?

I guess it’s something that I stole from Bergman. If you look at his films, the characters have the same names (Maria, etc.). So you find the characters again and again. At my age I realize that each time I make a film, I have to go into my cellar, I open my trunk and I find a few names, a few disguises, a few props, a few masks. I’m trying to invent something new, but I can’t say that everything is new. I like to find these names. To me, Esther is this woman whose name describes this very brutal way of being on earth. I like Paul Dedalus’ line when he says, “You exist like a mountain.” So I say that she’s a rock, and he’s stumbling on that rock. So Esther is the name of this way of being on earth. So yeah, I think that Esther in “My Sex Life,” and Esther Kahn, and now this third portrait of Esther — I guess they share something.

How did you settle on the structure of the film, with the three stories told one after the other?

I knew at the very beginning of the writing process that I didn’t want to write a big, two-and-a-half-hour bildungsroman. In a way, “My Sex Life” is a bildsungsroman. But I didn’t want to do that again. I wanted to paint someone who is lost in his memories, and so I tried to build the film, let’s say, like a brain. And I found this idea of having three adventures, the first one being very much influenced by Bill Douglas’ “My Childhood” (1972). It’s the story of a small exile: The boy doesn’t get along with his mother, so he escapes to his grandmother’s house, which is just a few blocks away. But at his age, a few blocks is a big exile. And then he loses his mother. These scenes, which last just seven minutes, are not that novelistic; I would call them more poetic, like in the Douglas movie.

And after that you have a sort of long-short feature film which is the adventure in the U.S.S.R. — a second exile. And after that we have the third one, which is about an exile too, because Paul is now in Paris, but he’s experiencing it as if he’s still living in Roubaix, and he’s exiled in Paris, in the big city. And after that he will go to Tajikistan, which is the next exile. All these stories turn around the same motif. I had the idea of the structure before writing the script. The producer was terrified that it would be really complicated, and I was saying, “No, no, it will be so simple.”

I love the second chapter, in particular, and the way it introduces this very playful espionage element. Paul willingly gives his passport to a young Russian Jew, which leads to a case of mistaken identity several decades later and further complicates our sense (and his) of who he is.

I guess it’s coming from a worry that I have — this idea that you are not sure that you have your own identity, that you are not sure who you are, etc. It’s a crisis that we go through when we are adolescents. I wouldn’t like to have this theme as an abstract theme. But when I transform this theme into a plot, into a story — when it has to be for real, where Paul has to give his papers to another guy, and now there are two of them, and he doesn’t know who is Paul anymore, and one is dead and the other one is alive. All of a sudden these themes, which could sound very philosophical, instead sound very novelistic and incarnated. I tried to transform something very theoretical into something very sensual, into a plot. Also, the pleasure of working with Andre Dussollier was so great; he was so funny.

It’s also a period piece from an era that is not very well known. Since the fall of the Wall, it’s as if all these memories have disappeared. And when I was a kid, all these stories about Jewish people who were not allowed to go to Israel — it was a big thing. It moved me to go back to that.

I know that you’ve cited Wes Anderson and “Moonrise Kingdom” as a key inspiration, because it gave you the confidence to work with young actors. Were there any other filmmakers who specifically influenced you while you were writing?

When I’m writing, I’m deeply influenced by the films that I cherish. I’m not afraid of being influenced. I’m the most influenced guy on earth, for sure. Two films helped me a lot, one being Bergman’s “Summer With Monika” (1953), which inspired the portrait of Esther, and so I saw it again and again even though I know it by heart.

The other was Milos Forman’s “The Loves of a Blonde” (1965), which was so useful for us. Each time, when I start a new movie, I organize a little ceremony where I show a film to the crew and the actors. I pick a film and I say, “This is the goal. We will fail, but we have a goal. Let’s aim at that goal.” And the film that I chose for this one was “The Loves of a Blonde.” And I also love “All the Real Girls” (2003). Zooey Deschanel is so great in that film.

Even though this is Paul Dedalus’ story, Esther’s presence is so overpowering from the moment she first appears. It’s interesting, too, that we don’t see her older counterpart, Emmanuelle Devos. And watching the movie, that makes sense — there’s not enough room for both her and Roy-Lecollinet on screen.

It always seems to me that I’m still not mature enough to write a film just about female characters, period. When I am old enough, let’s say in five or six years, I will be able to do it, but now I’m still too young, so I’m obliged to have a male character to plunge into the writing.

Esther, who starts out as a secondary character in the film, becomes the film, just as she becomes everything in Paul’s life. At the end of it, Paul doesn’t know who he is. He says, “I don’t know who I was, except that I was the guy who loved Esther.” And so I was asking Lou to take the film and become the film herself, and she did it. And I was astonished to see that. You’re right, it’s what happened with Emmanuelle Devos in “My Sex Life” — it’s a portrait of three women, but she became the film.

You use many of your signature formal devices in “My Golden Days,” but at the same time they seem a bit less overt than in some of your other films. At what point do you decide how much you’re going to experiment visually?

It doesn’t come in the writing. When I’m writing I have very few directors’ lines; mainly I have dialogue and that’s it. I try to improvise on the set, so I always have the iris in the car just in case I need it. I love the zooms and the tracking, but the iris permits me to focus the attention of the audience without being emphatic. I’m playing with all that. You know that I’m a big fan — more than a big fan — of Truffaut and Scorsese, who uses the iris a lot with different kinds of techniques.

I didn’t want to use a long shot in the group scenes outside the school, and so there came the idea of using split screen and showing different pieces of it. It’s the first time in the film that we’re not following Paul’s point of view. For once, we can follow the point of view of other characters. You can follow the sister, or the brother when he’s going to church. The split-screen was a perfect technique to say to the audience, “OK, so here’s a different film, with a new way of filming, and different points of view.”

Speaking of the brother who goes to church — throughout the film you have these characters who are obsessed with religion. The role that religion plays in this movie, as part of the dialogue the characters are having — Paul is skeptical about it, but nonetheless the theme seems very persistent in a way that is sort of funny but also serious.

It’s still enigmatic to me. It was striking and very powerful to me that this was the first question I was asked when I showed the film at the New York Film Festival. A young woman asked me, “Please, could you explain me your relationship to religion?” And I realized that at the end, in the Greek quotes that Esther is teaching Paul — one of them is “Of course I’m not an atheist, I believe in God,” which is a strange line with which to conclude the film.

But I know one thing: I don’t buy that the character is neutral. Of course in the modern world, we all pretend that we are neutral, we are atheists and we’re enlightened and we don’t need any God. But I like to scratch the surface and say, “OK, you don’t believe in God, fine. But tell me what was your parents’ faith? OK, your parents were atheists, fine. What was your grandparents’ faith?” And to have this kind of inquiry about my characters fascinated me. And to have these two brothers — one fascinated by Catholicism, and the other one fascinated by the synagogue — I thought it was a perfect coupling. It was novelistic to me, and more interesting than to think that my characters are just neutral and modern. We are less modern than we think.

This idea of revisiting characters in your work, and spinning them off into new stories — would you ever revisit your other films in this fashion?

I just finished a script last week for my next film, “The Ghost of Ismael,” or “Ismael and His Ghost.” We will shoot it this summer. “My Golden Days” was about very young guys and girls, and this one is about mature guys and girls, full of bitterness and anger and furious characters. Strangely enough, one of the characters shares a name with a previous character, but the two characters are quite different. This film will be shot all around the world. We have a lot of cities we will visit — the shape and form of it are quite different from anything I’ve ever done, and in the beginning it’s much more like psychological thriller, which is a genre I’ve never explored. I’m happy to have this new material, even if the character is named Ismael, just like in “Kings and Queen.” Let’s say that the two characters share a certain furiousness, or rage, and they are two wild characters — really wild. And so that’s why I call him Ismael. (laughs)