For some filmmakers, forward motion is the only way to reach new heights. But for Arnaud Desplechin, backwards can sometimes be even better. The French writer-director, who often deals in smart humanist dramas, best exemplified in the sharply kinetic “A Christmas Tale” and the deeply felt “Kings and Queen,” has traditionally made films about his contemporaries (that is, adults). But after nearly 25 years in the industry, Desplechin has a new film far more interested in returning to youth and dipping back into the past, if only in an effort to understand our present.
The film is the luminescent “My Golden Days,” a nostalgic precursor to “My Sex Life…” and Desplechin’s most firmly footed entry in the coming-of-age tradition. “My Golden Days” sees a younger version of Matheiu Amalric’s Paul through encounters with death, deportation and the immediate pain of young love. The film, whose original title translates to “Three Memories of My Youth,” is a wistful tale of adolescence told in three chapters. As Paul prepares to move back to Paris after years away, he reflects upon his struggles with his mentally unstable mother, the dangers of his passionate, politically-motivated larks and his lengthy love affair with a young woman named Esther.
Arnaud Desplechin recently sat down with Indiewire in New York City before the first screening of the film at NYFF to discuss the magic of youth films, his fear of feeling awkward and why American audiences are often his favorite.
What about the characters of Paul and Esther specifically did you want to return to? It’s been almost 20 years since “My Sex Life…”
“My Sex Life…” was a portrait of people in their 30s. They have already had a lot of love affairs. They are a couple and they are now struggling to stay together. I remember the line at the beginning of the movie says that Paul and Esther have been together for 10 years and since then, they don’t get along. Okay, that’s a statement. That’s it. I thought it would be nice to make a portrait of people younger than that. I thought it would be fun to take younger actors than that, to take actors that are 17 years old, 15 years old, 14 years old and to work with them. To create something really new. The mystery would be not about this couple and how they managed to stay together and how they do not, but the story of how a man and a woman who are so different become one with each other. Esther being so brutal, absolute. And the guy being so shallow and such a scholar. So they are the opposite. That’s why they fall in love. To become Esther, she needs Paul, and for Paul to become Paul, he needs Esther to become the man he has to become. So, to paint that was something totally new for me.
Why are you interested in youth at this point in your life?
This film was a story I never told before. I never dared to work with younger characters. At the beginning of the writing, I thought how brave Wes Anderson was to work with young children — 12, 13 years old — in “Moonrise Kingdom.” Even though the material is elaborate, it’s tricky to be in a Wes film, it’s so clever. The drawing is so precise. So I said, “Okay, now I am mature enough to tell a new story.” That’s why it was new for me. I’m not interested in telling the story of Paul being old. I told that story. But the new encounter of these two worlds was different and interesting for me. I needed to be this old to make something that looks like a first film. Not to deal with characters in their thirties, no. To deal with teenagers. You know when you are making your first feature movie and you are depicting people in their 20s. I think I needed to the ability to look back on my past to make a first film. And to me, this seems like a first film.
It was actually the first film for Lou Roy-Lecollinet (Esther) and Quentin Dolmare (Paul). Can you speak about the process of finding these actors?
I met a lot of actors. A few of them had already played in TV dramas or small films, and I felt that their acting was already formatted. They were all the same. I was trying to find young guys and girls who would be different. Because they didn’t have the experience of the cinema, they were inventing more. After that, the difficulty wasn’t to judge them on whether they were good or not, because of course they were good, I hired them. The question was: would they accept me? When I’m directing them am I embarrassing them? Or am I a real help for them? I tried to find young guys and girls who think I am funny. Even if that means funny in an odd way, funny in a way that makes them think, “Okay, I can get along with that guy?”
I want these actors to think that I am the right guy to help them to get them to where they are trying to go, with very vivid performances. I’m in my fifties. It’s very difficult for me to speak with my nieces. I’m a terrible uncle. Sometimes I speak and I think, “Arnaud, you are too talkative, please shut up,” and sometimes I stay silent and think, “Arnaud, you’re so gloomy, please say something.” I feel awkward. I wanted to find people from a new generation with whom I wouldn’t feel awkward. And we could establish a dialogue to find equality and friendship in the work.
The film is very much a period piece. What was it like working on a movie that takes place in two different time periods?
It’s funny to do that. The choice of the music is wonderful. When you fix a period score it’s much more fun than to make a contemporary piece because you can dig on that. To deal with the costumes, you can only be so particular. You know the dresses on the girls are so horrible. And the haircut from the 80s, how can you have that hair on Esther? Come on, it is not possible. So you must play with that and try to be respectful with the period but to create something that still looks nice. Not just period. I think it also belongs to the genre. Teen movies are always nostalgic. They’re almost always period pieces. I thought about a film, which is so nostalgic and has influenced me a lot, it’s a lesser-known film by Francis Ford Coppola called “The Outsiders.” I love this film. Even for Coppola, it’s a period piece. It could be contemporary, but it’s not. Because time has passed, youth has passed and we are looking at that from a grown up perspective and you think, “We were so great, we were heroes.” That was a nice aspect of doing the period piece.
How much do you want this film to be viewed in conjunction with the previous one or are you interested in separating the worlds?
I wanted to separate them. When I met Lou and Quentin, they knew that I had made a few films, but they had not seen “My Sex Life…” and I asked them if they had seen any of my work that they please not speak about it. So we started to work on several scenes to see if we would get along. It was fun, it was great, it was good material to test. When it started to be serious, I said, “Please, I’m begging you, don’t look at ‘My Sex Life…,’ we are creating something that belongs to your generation, not my generation. It’s your film, it’s not my film. The film is speaking about you, you will be on screen. It’s not speaking about me, I will be behind the camera. So, don’t look at it.”
When they go back home, they told me they had stolen it on the Internet and they saw it. [laughs] So, yes, I guess the films have a link, but it’s not a link that I tried to create. I was trying to create something which could belong to them. That was the big concern I had. Lou, who plays Esther, met with a journalist who said, “It’s a period piece because you’re writing letters.” I was so glad when I saw that she responded, “No, come on. Nowadays we are writing texts. It is the same. They are as good as letters. It’s my film, it is me speaking about my own suffering and my own loneliness.” I was so proud to see her pride. That’s why I wanted to make a film that if you didn’t see “My Sex Life…,” it would work on its own.
It’s two different kind of audiences. I’ve been lucky that I’ve traveled a little bit in the U.S. with my films. I don’t want to sound stupid, but there is a generosity in an American audience that is very striking from the French point of view. The French audiences are definitely colder than that. Amongst all these audiences, when you’re showing a film in LA, it’s less easy. But when you’re showing a film in Boston, it’s great. The best though has been the New York Film Festival. It’s been so perfect. I remember when I arrived for the first time, I didn’t speak a word of English, but I noticed the cab driver spoke worse English than I did. So I thought, I can give it a go. Let’s be gutsy. And it was with my first film, “The Sentinel,” that I met this audience. They paid me in laughs and tears and with questions that were so fair.
We were talking about honesty between generations — there is a kind of American fairness. People are presenting themselves and speaking with a loud voice, and it belongs to that stage. That stage has been so important in my life. It’s really taught me a lot. I was a director before the New York Film Festival. I’ve been in Cannes, I’ve been in several film festivals. This very place mattered to me infinitely. I am incredibly proud to show my films here. The audience is really the best. The Canadian audience? Ugh! No, no. Montreal? Nothing to do with it. It’s something to do with the U.S. It’s very specific.
In many ways it’s a teen film, but it deals with themes that are very adult such as death and morality. Can you speak to that dichotomy between the adult themes and the young actors involved?
You know, I know a writer for screen. I didn’t work with him for this film, but a few years ago he told me, “You know when we were really political? When we were 14 years old.” And when you think about it, you are very political at this point in your life. Because after that arrives books, poetry, girls. Other worries, you know. But when you are 14 or 16, like Paul going to Russia with his passport, you are very political, you think that you can change the world. There is nothing as serious as to be young. And to think deeply about the deepest topics, subjects and matters when you are young. It seems to me that you are much more shallow when you are a grown up. The serious moment is between 13 and 19. Those are very serious years when you are experiencing what death is about, what life is about. That involvement in the politics of the world. The absolute topics. After that, you start to compromise. But those moments, before you become a grownup, you don’t compromise. That’s the beauty of it.
You use some very interesting techniques in the film, including split-screens and iris.
It’s something that I like to do. I use iris, also zoom and tracking. It’s a tool. Just a tool. And I love tools. Some people say to me, “This is coming from Truffaut,” and I think, “Come on, it is coming from the silent films, it is not coming from Truffaut.” It’s also coming from Scorsese: He uses a lot of iris. What I love about Scorsese is that he uses all the tools that the cinema is proposing. The cinema is offering a certain amount of tools and Scorsese is the only one on Earth using all of these tools. And that’s why I think his films are so great. He is using everything. And I am trying to be playful when I’m making my films. Not just to be clever, but to try to communicate the enthusiasm that I have when I am making my film. I hope you can see that.
I would say that you absolutely can.
Then maybe I have succeeded. [laughs]
“My Golden Days” is directed by Arnaud Desplechin and written by Desplechin and Julie Peyr. Magnolia Films has aquired U.S. distribution for the film.