This spring brings Richard Linklater‘s “Everybody Wants Some!!,”the coming-of-age “spiritual sequel” to “Dazed And Confused.” But it isn’t the season’s only tale of young love and dawning maturity. The latest film from Arnaud Desplechin, “My Golden Years,” stars newcomers Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet as a pair of teen lovers navigating a long-distance relationship in late-’80s France, soundtracked by pop songs of the era.
“My Golden Years” is in fact a prequel (of sorts) to Desplechin’s 1996 movie “My Sex Life…Or How I Got Into an Argument.” The two films are distinct enough to stand on their own, however. The ’96 effort starred Mathieu Amalric as romantically challenged Paul Dedalus. While Amalric appears briefly in the new film, Dolmaire ably takes on the role of young Dedalus as he navigates difficult familial and romantic territory, and even experiences some low-key espionage.
While Desplechin has become more rigorously formal in films like “A Christmas Tale” and “Kings & Queen,” this new film is more loose, with a breezy and quick-witted vibe. With Desplechin turning the clock back 30 years for his characters, we asked the director to do the same with his own life in film. For our latest “The Movies That Changed My Life” feature, the director spoke in great detail about his defining film experiences, expressing at the same time his passion for the medium and belief in the power of film to change culture for the better.
What’s the first moviegoing film experience you can remember?
I saw a lot of films on TV before going to the cinema. We didn’t have a TV at home; I was looking at the TV at my grandparents’ house. But I remember the first time in a theater, so clearly: I was with my grandparents. Having already seen films on TV, to me the show was to look at the light. I wasn’t looking at the screen — I already knew about that. I’d seen a screen in the TV. But I was fascinated by the light, the little obscure cabin where they were projecting the film; that’s what I was looking at. Facing the wrong way. My grandparents said, “No, you have to look that way,” but to me it was interesting to look at the booth where you have the projection of the light. That was my first screening.
I don’t remember the film. I know after that I was deeply into Walt Disney movies, the cartoons. But it’s strange: If I’m trying to relate my passion for cinema, it didn’t have to do with the films I was looking at. I was fascinated by “the cinema.” I don’t remember — it was not the films which mattered, it was the fact of cinema itself. This room, this dark theater, the light projected on the screen, the fact that the screen was suddenly a new space.
My mother and father loved movies. There was a bad review of “The Jungle Book” in a French magazine, saying that Walt Disney was a fascist and that there were a number of scenes with the monkey singing “I want to be a man,” and it would be sort of a mockery of an African-American character singing “I want to be white.” And so it was a racist issue about this film. So it was a rightist film, and we were a leftist family, and I thought two things. One was my fear, and I said to my mother, “Yes, but will I be allowed to see it?” She said yes, you can see it and you will have your own judgement. And the second: I thought it was so great to have films made for kids which had several meanings — that you could say about a film just made for kids that the film is leftist or rightist. And I was fascinated with the fact that adults were directing films which belonged to youth, to kids.
At the time, did audiences smoke in cinemas? I wonder, if so, if that added to the light.
No, not in France. It is a wonderful image, of smoke going through the ray of light. When I was in school, I was running the ciné club where we had screenings. There we were allowed to smoke, but in a regular theater in France it was already forbidden.
What’s the best film experience you ever had?
I remember two great experiences later in my life. After a while, it was not possible to see some of the Hitchcock movies because of problems with the rights. These films were shown on TV when I was something like 10 or 11. I saw them on TV at my grandparents’ place, and I remember mainly “Marnie,” which I saw in black and white. And I was terrified and fascinated by the story of this woman. I remember it so vividly.
And I remember the first time I cheated to see a movie, it was “Cries and Whispers.” I was too young to see it. I was so curious, I was 15 or 16, something like that. Not yet 18, and the film was forbidden for young audiences. I saw it and was again terrified and fascinated. It was so good. It’s cruel, it’s bizarre, but it’s powerful.
What was the first film that made you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?
It was not linked to films. I knew I wanted to be a film director when I was seven, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a director or producer — I didn’t know what the job was. I knew there was one guy behind the camera who was “fixing the show,” and I wanted to be that guy. It was not connected to specific films; it was connected to that experience I just described, the fact that adults were discussing objects which belonged to childhood. I never saw an adult in a serious discussion about my toys — they didn’t care about my toys — but they did care about the Walt Disney movies, the Polanski movies. I was listening to a radio-show broadcast in France with famous critics debating films, and I thought it was wonderful. Because films matter, and I wanted to be part of that discussion. But it was not linked to one film.
What was the first film you saw that you realize you could be a filmmaker?
There is one, which happened later in my life. When I was 17 or 18 at cinema school, I was a big fan of Godard. I loved his films, and it was a moment in his life when he went back to films. He’d quit for a while to do political videos, and suddenly he was back. So I discovered his films and connected to them; it was incredible. But [François] Truffaut was not important to me — he belonged to the world of my parents, the grown-ups. I didn’t see his invention.
Then I started to work in cinema as a script writer and a DP and editor, and I remember there was a screening of “The 400 Blows.” I saw that so many times on TV, and in school, I knew everything about “The 400 Blows.” And suddenly I realized it was a film I’d never caught before. Now that I was in the cinema, I could see all the tricks, all the science and precision of it that I couldn’t see in the previous experience of the film I had before working in cinema. To me, it was an absolute revelation.
So I say the films of Truffaut, because that arrived so late in my life, I was 24 or 25, something like that. To me, it was Truffaut who found solutions in storytelling, and how to manage with camerawork, who taught me that. When I saw this film, I realized, “now I am able to direct a film, I will write something.”
What movie always makes you cry?
Tons of them! One is “Fanny and Alexander.” Another is “A Star is Born,” with Judy Garland. The film where I’m crying each time, and it’s terrible because I’m crying in the opening scene because I know the ending is so terrible is “Bird,” the Clint Eastwood movie about Charlie Parker. It’s so tragic, and to me it’s the perfect love story; it’s even better than “A Star Is Born.”
What movie always makes you scared?
Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” terrified me. [It’s like] I am this woman, and I’m pregnant with the devil and I’m terrified. I guess because I used to be a Catholic, and as a Catholic you’re scared to death when looking at the film. I just bought it, everything. I saw it again and again and each time I felt so uncomfortable, there’s something so sick, and the couple is terrifying, their relationship. I’m scared to death looking at it, really.
What film have you re-watched more than any other?
I’m a maniac, so when I like a movie, I see it again and again. The two films I’ve seen the most in my life are “Wild Strawberries” by Ingmar Bergman — I really know it, and have seen it tons of times. Another which might sound bizarre because the film is long, but I’ve seen it 15 or 20 times, is “Shoah.” It changed my life. I don’t think it just changed my life; I think the film changed the world. Godard used to say that eventually someone will be able to film the Holocaust process, and this film will change the political landscape. Claude Lanzmann directed [the film], and it was not expected. He was not well-known as a director. But this film changed everything about representation. This film shows the most terrifying event of the 20th century and we bear witness. The camerawork is so well done, the editing is amazing, a simple spiral of storytelling which made something invisible, visible. To me that is the definition of cinema: to make something visible when it is invisible.
What movie do you love that no one would expect you to love?
The question is, which one. At the New York Film Festival I was just discussing “Notting Hill,” with Julia Roberts in England. I have a real passion for “Notting Hill,” and I can prove that it’s a great film. People are surprised that I worship such a film, but I really love it. The scene with the chocolate cake is such a great dialogue, it’s a complex scene. And the great scene where they just got laid and they’re under a white sheet and she’s talking about why men are interested in feet, I love this scene. I love the whole film; it’s a great film.
What movie defined your coming-of-age or high school experience?
I can’t say one, but I would like to mention one thing. There was a gap between the mature spectators and the French critics about the “new Hollywood.” It struck me, because for us, it was such a wonder to see two or three films each with with new directors: Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Michael Cimino. The list was endless!
The established French critics did not acknowledge this cinema. To me it was such an obvious mistake. I thought: How can you go on with your boring French films? In those days the films were not that good. I just had one hero, André Téchiné, who was the only one who was novelistic. I thought it was absurd, “Are you blind, don’t you see that ‘Raging Bull‘ is incredible — just new?” We didn’t know before “Raging Bull” that it was possible to film that way, to have such camerawork. Scorsese made it possible and the established critics didn’t like it. I wondered if they learned anything, because decades before they didn’t acknowledge Hitchcock, and then they were not acknowledging Coppola as one of the greatest artists alive. So I remember at this moment of my life, which has been really important, my dedication to the American cinema.
“My Golden Days” is now playing in limited release.