Interview: Arnaud Desplechin, director of My Golden Days | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Arnaud Desplechin, director of My Golden Days

The filmmaker talks about working with Mathieu Amalric, his Lincoln Center retrospective, and why he never acts in his own movies

Mar 18, 2016 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Arnaud Desplechin’s latest, My Golden Days is a prequel to his breakout film, My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument from 1996. My Golden Days provides nostalgic insight into protagonist Paul Dédalus’ childhood and the origins of his romantic tumult. Desplechin is known not only for intellectual, clever, and emotionally brutal films, but also for directing unknown actors to stardom. Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet who portray young Paul and Esther (roles originated by now Desplechin regulars Mathieu Amalric and Emanuelle Devos when they were just starting out) both make their feature film debuts. On the occasion of the theatrical release of My Golden Days and a career retrospective at New York’s Lincoln Center, Desplechin discusses his 20+ year collaboration with Amalric, his unusual methods of inspiring great performances, and the ties between My Sex Life and his latest film.

I just watched My Sex Life and My Golden Days one right after the other and it’s a real pleasure. I was wondering about the challenges or joys of revisiting Mathieu Amalric’s character, Paul Dédalus, after all these years.

For Mathieu and I it was quite overwhelming. Because also it’s linked with the fact that Mathieu was not an actor when we did My Sex Life together. And now he has become this very important French movie star and so it was moving to go back to these early years to when Mathieu wanted to be a technician and when I asked him to be an actor in front of my camera. So it brought us into the past in a very nice way.

And I guess it was one thing that I loved in the movie, the quality of the relationship between Paul and Esther, to see the birth of that was fascinating. To revisit this couple and to see how you can be at the same time a perfect match and total disaster is quite exciting.

How do you feel about people coming to My Golden Days who haven’t seen My Sex Life? What do you want them to take away from it?

You know, I have a strange relationship with that in the sense that when I met Lou [Roy-Lecollinet, Esther] and Quentin [Dolmaire, young Paul], the two of them were shy and impressed. It was their first casting and they asked, “Do we have to see My Sex Life? I guess we have to.” And I really begged them, “Please don’t look at it. Invent something new. I want you to stand for your vision and not for mine. You were not born yet when I directed My Sex Life so let’s get rid of it and let’s invent something different.” After that I realized that during the shooting the both of them cheated. They swore to me at one point that they didn’t see it, but they did their homework. So I don’t think that you have to see one to appreciate the other. I think they stand apart even if there is a natural friendship between these two films.

And has Emmanuelle Devos [who played Esther in My Sex Life] seen My Golden Days? What are her thoughts?

It was a very excruciating thing that, for such a film as My Golden Days to happen, I had to miss Emmanuelle Devos throughout the whole thing. And she couldn’t be part of it. It was also overwhelming because her son plays Paul’s brother, Ivan. It was his first time on screen, you know. So there was a sort of, it was a way to tell to her how much I missed her. But the whole film is based on the fact that Paul is missing Esther, that he is always thinking about her and she’s not there because foolishly he left her. Or she left him. Who knows… But they are not together anymore. And the film is built on that lack.

And right now there is a retrospective of your work at Lincoln Center and this film is so nostalgic and to be re-watching some of your old films, how does that feel right now?

It’s an honor. So I feel honored and moved. I’m mainly happy because of one thing, and it will sound silly to you. I restored these films so we have good prints. I am obsessed with that. Because we have wonderful DCPs that we restored. And so I’m really happy with the quality of the films because the old prints were really gray and so to see these films again, to show them to a younger audience, it’s overwhelming for sure.

Revisiting the same characters years later, have you noticed a change in the way you work, taking into consideration the new technologies now available?

I’m not sure I’ve changes that much. I’m more confident, I used to get about 25 takes and now I only need 18 or 20 takes. I’m a little bit faster. But the technology didn’t change that much. I love that this was my first feature with the digital camera. We did some tests with Super 16 and 35, but today the French labs are not that good, and we got incredible results with the new technology. But the DP I worked with [Irina Lubtchansky] was used to the 35mm so she didn’t change that much, even in the editing process. I’ve been an editor with film, with the whole editing table, and it didn’t change that much. So I’m much more impressed with the continuity than with the differences.

Can you talk more about working with Mathieu after all these years and doing so many different kinds of films together?

I guess it’s strange because after the years it’s even more challenging. Mathieu wants me to surprise him; he wants to surprise me. We’ve known each other for such a long time, it becomes just like in the love story: time doesn’t make things easier, it makes things more complicated.

This collaboration with Mathieu, to me it was, what I told him after the first screening, I told him, “I don’t understand how you do it, but you had so few scenes and you became the heart of the film.” I remember this line that he says, “In one way or another there is just one thing that I hope, that I was not bad for her,” for Esther. And the way he delivered the line was so full of suffering and sorrow and regret and it became the very reason why I was making the film.

I thought it was a strange story. When Paul is played by Quentin he behaves as if he were in his 60s. He’s a young guy behaving like an old man. He’s too reasonable, he’s too cautious, he’s too straight. He has to reach the age of Mathieu to at last allow himself to behave like an adolescent. And I love this contrast between the seriousness of Quentin and the lightness of Mathieu.

Were there any film or music or books that you were reading or watching or listening to while preparing for this film?

I remember I saw again a film that kills me, Wild Strawberries about a man looking at his past. Which is one of the greatest films on earth, the Bergman movie. And I’m sure it has to do with that. The main character in Wild Strawberries was played by a director [Victor Sjördström] and Mathieu is a director – an important French director – and I guess it has to do with that. So perhaps our collaboration continues through his films too. An actor is also a director, so our friendship takes on a different color.

When Mathieu started directing were you involved?

The first film he directed, he gave me the script to give him some advice. And I said, “You know I am so happy you are directing, I don’t want to be a judge, I want to be a friend.” And the film was great. It was called Eat Your Soup. And that was his first film. I was happy and proud that my production company could help him achieve his first film. I loved The Blue Room. I remember he send me a rough cut of asking me, “Arnaud, did I find something?” and I said, “Come on, the way it’s directed it’s incredible, as a director your craft is growing and growing.” And I know it’s a film that hasn’t been released in the US, but I love Tournée, which is his best film. There is one conversation we had around Tournée: he was playing around with all these eccentric girls, you know dancers, etc… and he wanted to hire an actor to play the part of the manager. And I said to Mathieu, “Are you a fool? Yourself, you will be the best tool in your film.” I tried to influence him to play the main part and he did some tests with other actors but he played the main part, and it’s his best film because he’s playing in it.

But you would never act in your own film?

No. I’m a terrible actor. I’m a shameless actor. I can act in front of Mathieu but I can’t play in front of you because I know the results and I know I’m terrible. So I can help the actors playing and being stupid in front of them. There is something ridiculous about acting, you know, you always look like a fool when you are acting. So I like to perform the scenes in front of them first, and that way I am the ridiculous one and they are the glorious ones. So in front of the crew shamelessly I play the part and I say, “OK, this is bad and now you will be great. I take the shame and you take the glory.”

What did you do to help new actors Quentin and Lou?

With Quentin I’m sure that he ­– the part is heavy on his shoulders and it was his first time on screen – he had to lean on me. And I remember we were really close, I was always whispering in his ear and I was saying to him, “Catch the music, catch the music. I know that I am a terrible actor but catch my music.” And so he did. It’s funny because Mathieu, after the film would say to Quentin, “The way you were speaking, it’s unbelievable because you sound just like me.” And Quentin’s answer was, “But I was just imitating Arnaud.” And Mathieu looked and me and I said, “When I am acting I’m imitating you.” We didn’t know which one of us was imitating who. It was a circle.

But with Lou I didn’t dare to play a part. I wanted her to become the movie, to embrace the whole movie. I needed her to give me something deeply personal. I didn’t want to influence her. I wanted her to give me something intimate. And the movement of Esther, this character who appears for the first time as a smaller role becomes the whole movie. That was the goal, and she did it. I was so glad when she accepted to carry that burden.

In My Golden Days, why did you choose to have Paul confess his past transgressions to a customs official, of all people?

Why I chose [actor] André Dussollier as the confessor? For stupid fan reasons. I love Dussollier I love his work in all his films. To me it was a dream to work like that. And I remember when I sent him the script and I said to him, “It’s just like in the spy story, you are sort of a diplomat and you are interrogating him. And so he has to go back to his memories and to remember this trip to Russia. But in a way you’re his shrink. And so you have to play the spy but you also have to play the psychoanalyst.” And so he said, “OK, I’ll do it.” And it was great to have these two guys, you know Mathieu and Dussollier in the same film. It was such a pleasure, a pleasure that I wanted to share with audience.

Is there going to be another Paul Dédalus movie?

I remember after the screening for the crew, Mathieu came to me and said, “OK, now I think we are done with Paul Dédalus.” Except one thing: if I’m lucky and I have a long life, what I would love to see is, like in the last Bergman movie you know, Saraband, I would like to see Paul and Esther when they are past their 70s and they are full of anger and bitter and cruel. And it would be a terrifying movie just like Saraband is. But it would be after our 70s, not before.


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