The Pre-Fight: Arnaud Desplechin on My Golden Days
Arnaud Desplechin invigorates through assault tactics: aggressive camera movement, even more aggressively fragmented editing, seemingly irreconcilable musical cues that butt chromatic classical cues up against golden age hip-hop, a university library’s worth of citations and allusions. His films are scarcely less restless than their characters, who chafe against themselves and others. In his 1996 breakthrough My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument, Desplechin promoted Mathieu Amalric from supporting bit player (in 1992’s La Sentinelle) to his regular onscreen alter-ego. A philosophy graduate student adept at tormenting both himself and girlfriend Esther (Emmanuelle Devos) while putting off completing his dissertation, Paul Dedalus (Amalric) embarks on an epic, nearly three-hour quest in search of romantic and inner peace that will probably never be forthcoming.
Desplechin’s latest, My Golden Days is an unorthodox prequel that’s unexpectedly, almost overwhelmingly, moving: shards of memory swirling around, stabbing both us and the reminiscing protagonist at unexpected moments. Amalric returns as Dedalus in the prologue and epilogue that bookend the film. The French title Trois Souvenirs de ma jeunesse, which translates as Three Memories of My Youth, gives a better idea of the film’s structure. We see young Paul (Quentin Dolmaire) in three increasingly long episodes: fending off his literally insane mother during traumatic adolescence, as a teenager on a trip to pre-glasnost Minsk to help convey passports to Jews hoping to flee, and finally in the early collegiate days of his relationship with Esther. Dolmaire looks nothing like Amalric, but young Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet) is a dead ringer for Devos, whose conspicuous absence — from both this film and adult Paul’s life — haunts the film. Amalric and Devos have repeatedly sparred with each other, largely in Desplechin’s films (My Sex Life, Kings & Queen, A Christmas Tale), as well as in Sophie Fillières’ undervalued 2014 If You Don’t, I Will, which harnesses their shared onscreen energy for stylistically different ends; her absence here hangs heavy, one of the many ways My Golden Days plays curious tricks with viewers’ memories. This is, recognizably, the same Paul Dedalus as before: restless, self-tormenting, romantically peripatetic. But this incarnation of Dedalus is now an anthropology major (the film begins and ends with him performing field work in Tajikistan), and the film generally displays no urge to maintain strict continuity with its predecessor.
Desplechin arrived at the 2015 New York Film Festival fresh from his first-ever project as a theater director, a production of August Strindberg’s The Father. The director — whose twitchily garrulous, attentive resemblance to his onscreen stand-in is instantly discernible — appeared at a postscreening press conference to explain that he was in part inspired by Moonrise Kingdom and the idea that an aging Wes Anderson was able to work with performers generations younger than him to revitalize his craft. Here — after the tepidly received detour of his 2013 psychoanalysis drama Jimmy P. — Desplechin returns to his cinematic home terrain and similarly transfers it to a new generation. I spoke with Desplechin later that day, and, a few weeks later (see sidebar), Amalric. Thanks to Richard Brody for his help with some passages of French; the film enters limited release on March 18.
We’ll start with a version of the question you have had to answer many times already: Why did you revisit this story? You’ve worked with Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos so much that even in your films when he’s not playing Paul Dedalus, there’s a history that builds between him and her. Why did you have to specifically go back to this character? Perhaps, as I was saying this morning, it had to do with the opening of My Sex Life. That film started with a narrator saying, “Paul and Esther have been together more than 10 years. And they don’t get along these 10 years.” And I thought, “Part of the story is untold, in small details of Emmanuelle Devos’s costumes and details like that.” It’s the fact that she doesn’t belong to Paris. She’s coming from a small town, and she’s arriving when Paul is already a Parisian. He has all these friends, he’s a scholar and he knows the codes, and this girl is arriving from a small town into the big city. I couldn’t develop that in My Sex Life. But in this plot, I could tell the story of this girl, from the small town, and this guy going to Paris. We have this expression, “C’est l’histoire d’un provincial qui monte à Paris,” the country hick who goes to the city. I never told that story. And I love the fact that Paul, arriving in Paris, doesn’t want to become a Parisian. When he’s in Paris, he’s missing Roubaix, and when he’s in Roubaix, he’s missing Paris.
Not to be too presumptuous, but you are from Roubaix yourself, so there’s an element of yourself in this? Yes. You can see that A Christmas Tale is [set in] Roubaix. I think that in America, you would say [the equivalent is] Duluth, which means the worst place on earth, the place where you don’t want to be born. That’s where I grew up. And it’s personal because it’s humble. It’s a place that is like nothing, a city that is so poor, so devastated, you know? To learn how to be proud of it is part of my artistic process. I could compare it also to Philip Roth’s new book [Nemesis]. It starts in Newark. Where is Newark? It’s just this small city between the airport and Manhattan. But he has a sort of pride of claiming that he’s coming from such a humble place.
When I’m drunk, I’m able to speak with a Roubaix accent in English. [Can] you imagine how painful this accent is? When I arrived in Paris at the cinema school, I had this stupid accent. I forced my mouth to speak like a Parisian because I wanted so much to be part of it. And I loved arriving in the big city. I wanted to escape; I wanted to flee. I couldn’t bear it any longer. And I realized, making my first film La vie des morts, that I set everything in Roubaix. And so, I was back. There is always this moment of hating the place where I am coming from and loving it. So I guess that’s why I’m not that popular in Roubaix, because [in] my films you can’t see it as a gorgeous city. [Laughs] I still have to go back in my tracks, as a malediction — not as a dream, but as a curse.
Your films are stuffed with book titles and music cues and paintings. How do you go about selecting these citations? It feels like everything’s just bursting out there. The thing is, I’m really working hard on that. I hope and I think — I cross my fingers — I’m not snobbish. I’m everything but snobbish. But it happens that my films are released on DVD or are shown on TV, and that a few spectators — not a lot of them, but a few spectators — are looking at them a few times. So I’m trying to add these layers of meaning, notes of reference. That way, when you look at the film a second time, you’re not too bored. And so, if you see it a third time, you can see the details here: “Oh, he put that detail in the film. The guy was reading the Stendhal autobiography, and actually later [he discusses] Hubert Robert’s paintings, who was the favorite painter of Stendhal, and actually that was relevant.” So there is the main drawing, the main thing I’m working on, but after that, I’m working on several other layers. It’s a game with the audience.
Another way to answer your question: the character is called Dedalus. The film, I made it really for the actors. I wanted them to be proud of it. And Louise was 17, Quentin was 19, when we shot the film. So they were young, they’d never heard about James Joyce. Plus, they are French, and Joyce is Irish, and this book was more famous in America, and all of these things. So when they see the film, when they read the script, they thought that Dedalus was a good name for a character because he’s lost, not because of Joyce. Who cares about Joyce? But if a 45-year-old spectator is seeing the film he can think, “Oh, by the way, which reminds me of something from Ulysses.” [It can open] not just one door, but several doors. This is one of the things I like to place in the script, thinking that there are different meanings. So, I can choose a book because I like its cover or because I know I love [it]. The two books when the two guys are in the train going to Russia — one is reading Edgar Allan Poe [The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket], and the other one is reading Stendhal [Memoirs of an Egotist]. And you can see, one wants absolute adventure and the other one wants a more sentimental adventure. So it’s a depiction of the two characters, details that make things more alive.
For anyone who saw My Sex Life 10 or 20 years ago, they are going to have a very different experience with My Golden Days than somebody younger, who could theoretically come in and watch it cold. Is that something that you were thinking about when you were constructing the film? It’s different. I think that if you didn’t see My Sex Life, the film will rivet you more directly. It’s funny. I was saying that I really begged my actors not to look at My Sex Life, and they betrayed me, in a nice way. One week ago, there was a screening of the new DCP of My Sex Life, which is really gorgeous; I worked on it with [its DP] Eric Gautier. We had a very important screening at the Cinémathèque Française. Strangely enough, the young actress was in the theater. And she told me after that, “When I saw it the first time, I didn’t understand it. But now that I played the other Esther, I can relate to what Emmanuelle Devos is.” So let’s say that there is just a dialogue between the two films. It’s not that you have to see one or the other; the two films are speaking along with each other as if they were two different people. I remember a letter that I received from a spectator of My Golden Days. She wrote that the film is full of joy, because these young guys and girls are so full of energy and rage and they want to break the walls down. So it’s nice, and it’s awfully sad. The first time she saw it, she was saying, “It’s great because, in a way, it’s more full of light than My Sex Life.” And the second time, she said, “Oh, I realize what you did. This time, it’s sad, and the loneliness of Mathieu is devastating because he lost everything.”
Why did you decide to shoot in Tajikistan? You could’ve chosen a number of former Soviet satellite republics. And what was it like logistically for you to go there? A nightmare. I chose Tajikistan because I had no idea where it was, but in a poem, Tajikistan sounded great. After that, we realized that we had to take three planes to go to Tajikistan, to Khujand in the north. It’s the main city in Tajikistan, and it’s ugly. It’s a new one that they built in the ’50s; it’s not interesting, and it’s not a good location for filming. After that, I sent a very close friend of mine to visit other countries and Uzbekistan; the sun is less good than in Tajikistan, and the landscape was less good. After that, I saw a Tajik feature film, which was interesting, so I just went into contact with the director. And so, I had one cell number. We called the guy, and we said, “Okay, we’ll go there with a very small crew.” And everyone was saying, “You’re mad. You’re bringing Mathieu there just to shoot during three hours in this room, and on the big yard in front of the mosque, and to have that landscape behind him?” And I said, “Yeah, but I’m not able to shoot in a studio. I’m not able to. I have to shoot on location.” It brought a different color.
What was that Tajik film that you saw? I remember the story, but I forgot the name. The guy was raving mad, actually. The guy sent us to his brother-in-law, and his brother-in-law was part of the crew. We had no electrician, no assistant, nothing. Mathieu came and Quentin, and an AD, so just the four of us. [Mathieu and Quentin] were doing their own makeup, taking care of their costumes. It was a very, very tiny crew. We worked with people from Tajikistan, who helped us to fix the location. It was a wonderful experience because they don’t have the experience of cinema. When we said, “We need electricians for the film, to fix the lamps,” they sent us actual electricians, guys who were building houses and fixing the electricity. They had no idea how to fix a lamp.
How long were you there for? Oh, it was brief, three days. I’m quite good with production value. It’s less expensive than the studio, and it’s the real Tajikistan. So you have the real Tajikistan for the audience, and it’s less expensive. So it would be foolish to do it in the studio.
So how did you organize the production? Did you start in Roubaix, move to Paris, and then go to Tajikistan? Your question is quite accurate. To save money, a good thing is to do it at the very last minute. The producer read the script, and so he said, “Okay, you will shoot in Roubaix, for sure.” After that: yeah, but there are a few scenes in Paris. The producers say, “Yeah, fine. It’s in the script, fair enough.” And then you say, “But, by the way, there is a district in Russia and it would be less expensive if we are going to Minsk for real.” And the producer starts to worry and say, “Okay, you can go to Russia.” And after that you say, “Just a few days in Tajikistan.”
This is your first feature on digital, right? You shot Jimmy P. on 35. I made a TV film, La Forêt, and it was the first time I worked with this DP [Irina Lubtchansky], the daughter of the famous French DP [William Lubtchansky]. I was really nervous. I saw a few films where she has been the DP that she shot on digital, and the result was really, really impressive. When I had to work on this movie for TV, I said, “We’ll do it on digital,” because it was part of the budget [after] dealing with the production company. And so, I asked her to work with me as a test. We had to do a lot of day for night in the forest. The results looked so much better than the 16 millimeter results. Because of her life, because she’s the daughter of Lubtchansky, she has been raised in the cult of 35 millimeter. She’s working really in the same way with the digital camera. What I’m saying is really French. I saw American films shot in 16mm, which are gorgeous. I’m thinking of Black Swan, which was shot on 16mm, and the result is really amazing. But with the French industry, now, when you are working with 16mm, it’s less good. You should do 35. So on this one, I was happy to go along with this experience and with the same DP. And I didn’t find it that different than 35mm. It was quite good. But I’m not quitting on film. The next one will be on 35. Now that I did two films in digital, I would like to go back to the 35 to see if it taught me something that I could use.
You just directed a play, right? Yeah. First time.
How was that? I made the promise that I would never work on stage, never. I hated theater so much. To me, it’s for the bourgeoisie, and I hated that and was pro-film and against theater. Foolishly, this guy proposed to me to create a play. I had just seen Birdman, and I thought, “It’s stupid at my age not to experience that. Plus, it would be good material for a film. So I want to be part of it just to learn something.” I started to work on films when I was 17, so I [am familiar with] stage fright. Now, [while] I’m speaking with you, I have stage fright. But I know where the fright is in my body. I know how to use it. Working on stage, I was just an animal of fear. I didn’t know where it was in my body, I was not able to manage it. My big anxiety was, will the actors have use [for] me? Do I have any knowledge that I can share with them? And it was absolutely great. It was such a powerful experience. It just ended six days ago. It was intense, and it worked. It worked. It was really moving. The performances that they gave me were amazing, and it was a great moment. I learned a lot.
What did you learn? The blocking is different. You have this system of rehearsal, which is so different. What I know is, I know the trip that you have to make from take one to take 15. I know how to make it fun, how to make it interesting for the actors. It’s not boring for them: it’s not doing it again, but it’s finding a different color, finding a different energy, and never being bored, even if you are doing 20 takes, because you are improving. Each time, you are improving. I know that [process], but I didn’t know how to proceed with the rehearsals. I was afraid that it would be boring from one day to the other one. You know, Mathieu is always saying, when we are [shooting] — it’s forbidden in all the books, and for theater, but he [is] actually saying, “Please, Arnaud, do it. Don’t speak, just act it.” And acting in front of him [he scratches his nose and flips his left ear as an example], and overacting it, he says, “Okay, I get what you mean.” And so we don’t know which one of us is acting any longer. In the theater, the split is larger. I have all the blocking when I’m starting a film. I know the blocking. I know when the guy is doing this, when he’s moving, [on] which line he’s taking the glass. But all of this blocking on the play, you are inventing it with the actors. You are sharing it, much more than on the film. So perhaps now I will be less afraid to share the blocking with the actors than I am on the film.