A nostalgic and deeply emotional tale, My Golden Days is Arnaud Desplechin’s second film about Paul Dedalus. Very loosely based on the filmmaker himself (his name is a nod to James Joyce’s alter ego in Ulysses), Dedalus is played here by two actors, longtime Desplechin collaborator Mathieu Amalric as a middle-aged man looking back on his youth, in three scenes that frame the adolescent action, and Quentin Dolmaire as the young Paul. In an unexpected and generous twist, what appears at first to be a male coming-of-age story winds up being less about Paul than about his first love, the volcanic, creative, and fearlessly original Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). We spoke to Desplechin late last year, when he was in town to promote the film during the New York Film Festival. Animated and articulate, he talked about why it’s French to love M. Night Shyamalan, why it gets harder to collaborate with an actor after years of working together, and why it’s important to him to include black characters in his films. My Golden Days opens on Friday; the Film Society of Lincoln Center is running a Desplechin retrospective all this week.
Doing a story about young people is unusual for you. How did you find the young actors you worked with, and how was that different than casting more experienced actors?
I was so scared I would not find them, because when you are working with non-actors, you have to meet a lot of them. It’s cruel, but it’s a rule. If you meet 100 persons, ok, but if you meet 800 persons, it’s better.
What I was trying to find is people that could use my own way of working, that would be comfortable and would feel more free with me than without me. My anguish with that was, will I find young guys—you know, we have 30 years difference between them and me—that I won’t embarrass? Would they feel free to be the characters with me? That was my first worry. After that, it was: Are they good enough to create these characters? And I realized, after meeting these guys and girls, that I was trying to find people who are not representative of their generation. They are just standing for themselves, they are not standing for a way that would be a la mode. So I met this girl [Roy-Lecollinet] who you don’t know if she’s beautiful or if she’s ugly. And you have this guy [Dolmaire] who has the voice of Charles Denner, a French actor who played a few times with Francois Truffaut. [Dolmaire] had a very deep voice, in this body which is so frail, and he had a sort of charm. And he didn’t feel contrived with my lines. I couldn’t work with actors who were basing their work on improvisation. They had to feel free with the material that I was bringing to them.
When the professor asks Paul if he likes music and he says “very much,” I had the feeling he might be speaking for you. Can you talk about how you used music in this film?
I love to use music to shock, like the Stravinsky, which is so magnificent and classical, and the hip-hop—to put opposite musics in conflict. To me, it creates life. And I was trying to depict these people, coming not from Paris but from a small town on the border of Belgium, so they hear few American tunes. It’s more English tunes, because it’s close to Belgium, and Belgium means England. In these days, we had all the vinyl coming from England that Paris didn’t have, because we were close to the border.
So you grew up where Paul Dedalus did?
Yeah, yeah. And it’s not the blues, it’s English music, but influenced by the black sound. It’s white, but with a deep black sound, very influenced by black American culture. I remember a good friend saying to me, you were a mod, but why? What is a mod? And I found the answer in a book, which is: to try to live with dignity when you have to experience a life without dignity. That is the arrogance depicted with all these characters, [who are] experiencing a tough life but with a sort of pride, a stupid pride.
The families in your films tend to be not so happy. What was your family like, growing up?
Actually, my family is quite happy. (laughs) A thing that the two Dedalus movies—My Sex Life and My Golden Days—are sharing is the fact that this guy has a terrible relationship with his mother. And the fact that the hero is committing this sin of not being able to love his mother is something that fascinates me, ever since the James Joyce book, Ulysses. It fascinates me that he is committing this sin, and that he has spent all his life trying to repair this sin of not being a loving son.
Actually, my mother never committed suicide. She’s old and happy and we are fine. You know, to create films, it’s better to have tough situations. It creates a life more intense. My life is less intense than my films.
But maybe that’s a good thing, like Flaubert said.
Paul is so messed up about women, and his friends are even worse than he is. At first, Esther seems like just another pretty girl in a movie about a bunch of boys who treat her like a toy. But she winds up dominating the film, and the last shot is of her. Was that always part of your plan, or did the story become more and more about her during the writing or shooting or editing?
Actually, it was a dream when I first started writing it. The dream was that this girl would cannibalize the film. I’m thinking of a French expression, but I think it works in America, when you say someone is taking all the room in bed. This kind of girl, she’s too much. And so she’s ultimately the only reason why Paul is alive. Without Esther, Paul would be too shy, too embarrassed with himself, perhaps too intellectual, too cold. She’s bringing life. Even if she’s also bringing a mess, she’s bringing life into this film. So my dream was to draw a character who—the film is not starting with her, the film is starting with Paul, and the more the film is going the more the importance of Esther in his life is growing. At the end of it, an audience would say, Esther is the film. She became the film.
But I became so scared, during the shooting, that it wouldn’t happen. Because something special had to happen with the actress playing the part. I told her, ok, you are not a princess; you are the queen of the film. You have to work with me on that. Your loneliness becomes the heart of the film. You have to be able to impersonate that and make it happen.
And she had never acted happened before?
Onstage, just in school. She was 17 years old, so she was still young.
Is she planning to become an actress?
I don’t know. She doesn’t know. I think she will, but who knows. I remember a line from Milos Forman, who has still such a great influence. I’m sorry we didn’t work together. The actress in his film Les Amours d’une Blonde—
The Loves of a Blonde.
Yes, the actress in the film is a genius, but after the film she disappeared. I saw Milos Forman speaking about his actors—his non-actors—and he said afterward they just disappeared. They went back to their own lives, and that was the beauty of it. So right now, like a good father, I’m calling [Lou and Quentin] and saying: “Just do your homework, don’t push to be an actor. Just try to have a good life. That would be a good start.”
What is it about making movies that’s satisfying to you? You’re a writer, but why write for the screen and not for the page?
I came into films at a moment when the main ideology in films, in the French cinema, was reality. I’m thinking about directors like Pialat. It was a cinema that I rejected, because I thought it was too boring. I prefer cinema that presents life in a much more novelistic way, a much more intense way than common life. I’m trying to dramatize and to intensify the moment. That’s not something that I dreamt about in my 20s. It’s something I discovered in my 30s. I realized that the New Wave—the Truffaut films, mainly—had an aspiration to novels, to create films like novels rather than like common life, to present characters that are bigger than life rather than smaller than life or like life.
So why not just write novels? Why make movies?
It’s a statement that I made when I was 12: Never work for a snobbish art form, but work for a popular art form. And it’s a pleasure to work with other people. I never had the vision of becoming an artist, because I would feel too alone. But when you write a line that you are happy about, when you think a scene will be interesting, the pleasure is that you improve when you give this line to actors and they say, “Actually, it’s funny to write that,” and they find another way [to express it]. Then I’m feeling like I did my job, because someone else has made use of what I’m doing.
You’ve talked about choosing film because it’s a “vulgar medium,” a popular art, and you love American movies in particular. Is that un-French of you? Or is it actually a very French way of rebelling against the strain of intellectual elitism that runs so strongly through French culture that you have to react against it if you’re growing up in it?
Oh! I love your question, but I will just check with [his translator] to make sure I got all the particulars. [She translates.] It’s part of the French history, this love for popular American films. And it’s a long story. It’s a story that begins in the 50s—but even before that. Jean Renoir had two filmmakers that he revered, Charlie Chaplin and John Ford. And after that François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard loved Hitchcock. Hitchcock was despised at that point because everyone thought he was not a proper artist, and they thought a proper artist would be William Wyler. And [Truffaut and Godard] said, no: William Wyler is okay, but Hitchcock is superior.
Perhaps it’s because I’m French, but the film produced by the French film industry doesn’t fascinate me. The Chinese films which belong to the film industry don’t fascinate me either. I love Jia Zhangke, but I have been to China once and I’ve seen popular movies there, and they are not that good. But when you see, for instance, the first films of [M. Knight] Shyamalan, when you see Unbreakable, it’s a masterpiece. It’s an absolute masterpiece. How can you make a film as accurate about racism and about the frailty of the African-American community and about the boredom of the white American suburbs? And the way it’s shot. There is a lot in the film, although it’s produced by the industry, which can seem a contradiction but which is the American part. Some people think I’m a fool, when I’m speaking with an English or an Italian film buff, because they don’t like the same films as me. It’s part of the French culture to revere the popular American films.
So you’re really not anti-intellectual. What you have is an intellectual appreciation of popular culture.
Besides the United States, are there other countries whose film cultures you admire these days?
I’m a great admirer of the Hong Kong cinema. And the Chinese cinema.
Yes, Hou Hsaio-hsien. And Edward Yang, who directed Yi Yi. I love American and Asian cinema: I’m deeply interested in Japanese film. To me, the best director alive, it used to be Tarantino but today I would say Jia Zhangke.
You have a particularly good collaboration with Mathieu Amalric. What is it like to work with him? Is it easier to collaborate because you’ve worked together for so long?
When I met Mathieu, he was not an actor. He was a technician, a filmmaker. He was doing short films, working as an assistant to the director. He had a very small part in the first feature film that I did, just because he was a friend. After that, I proposed to him to do another and he was terrified. And he was having a hard time learning his lines, because he didn’t have a process, a memorizing process. It was in My Sex Life, where he had endless lines, that he saw he was able to do that. Who cares about the difference between being an actor or a non-actor? On the screen, am I an actor or am I not an actor, it’s not a relevant question. It’s relevant, but not that relevant. Matthieu was generous enough to say once that I invented him as an actor.
But with the years, each time I am starting a new film with Mathieu we have the fear of disappointing your friend, and the pressure is higher for us than on the previous film. I knew that he would revere me after My Sex Life, because he didn’t know a thing about it. Now that I am directing him on My Golden Days, he wants to impress me and I want to impress him, so it is more difficult with time. Just like in a couple. It’s great, it’s nice when you achieve it, but it’s not easy to love someone after 10, 20 years and then to try to be sexy. And he achieved it! I’m so grateful.
In My Golden Days, he had three scenes: the opening, the middle, the long interview with the guy, and the monologue at the end. And he achieved the goal of becoming the heart of the melancholy, of the rage, of that film. The emotion that he’s bringing to the character amazed me: in one scene, to condense all this emotion, all this nostalgia and all this anger. I thought it was a tremendous achievement. He’s still sexy. (laughs)
You have a lot of black authority figures in your movies, including the teacher in this one. You told an interviewer in Sense of Cinema: “It matters to me to work with black actors and characters.” Why is that?
Because I’m white. I am too white. I love difference. I think that I love life. I know that we are all the same; to me it’s boring. What I love is the fact that we are so amazingly different. I’m Catholic, but I’m so glad there are Jewish people and other religions in France. It’s so great to have North African people and black people. I’m not able to depict diversity like a sociologist. Like like I was saying to you, my way is more novelistic, so I’m not able to go, like Fred Wiseman in Jackson Heights, to document the diversity of France. But I love, here and there, to reflect the pleasure of not being the same.