In our current moviegoing climate of remakes, reboots and sequels, not even the arthouse is immune to the nostalgia. Indeed, acclaimed French director Arnaud Desplechin proudly embraces both the regret and longing for days gone by with his latest film My Golden Days. A loose sequel to his My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument, this vibrant coming-of-ager beautifully captures the early years of Paul and Esther, the characters originated by Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos respectively.
In anticipation of its North American theatrical release, I recently caught up with Desplechin to discuss the inspirations behind his decision to return to the story of these forlorn lovers. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Shane Slater: The film acts as a prequel to My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument. What was it about these characters and this story that made you want to return to it?
Arnaud Desplechin: In the very beginning, I thought it would be novelistic, this story of this guy living in the big city, dating a girl from the provinces. I thought it was a very beautiful, novelistic motive. And I remembered the beginning of My Sex Life… and the film opens with the narrator saying that Esther and Paul have been together for more than 10 years and they don’t get along for more than 10 years. I thought it would be interesting to look at this couple that is a disaster and the perfect match at the same time. I thought I would love to see the beginning of that, when they meet and everything is against them even though they get along.
SS: I read that the film is somewhat autobiographical. How does that affect your writing process, in terms of sticking to the “facts”?
AD: I’m afraid the film is a lot less autobiographical than you say. My life is a bore! [Laughs]. But it’s correct that I’m trying to communicate to the audience a tone that is autobiographical. I’m trying to give the feeling of intimacy. On this level I have to say that Truffaut is one of my masters. Each time you look at Truffaut’s films, you feel embarrassed because it’s so intimate, it’s so close to him. It’s like a self-portrait. So I’m trying to mix this feeling with the adventures which will happen to Paul.
I didn’t lose mother, happily. She’s still alive, while Paul is an orphan. I’ve never been a scholar, I’ve always worked in cinema. I never made that trip to Russia. So my life is quite different. But I hope I gave the audience that feeling of intimacy.
SS: You mentioned that section of film that is set in Russia. Where did that idea come from? It was so unexpected.
AD: It’s a period piece, and the main part is happening during the fall of the wall. And I thought about this guy growing up in a world which was separated in two parts and suddenly, the world is one. Strangely enough, in all his adventures – escaping to his mother’s house, learning Russian words at his grandmother’s, making this trip to Russia, going to Tajikistan to be an anthropologist – there is a sort of Russian theme, which to me was accurate because it was related to the period, this big shift.
Freedom for the North African people was a big fight during my parents’ time. For my generation, it was freedom for the Jews in the USSR. It was printed everywhere in the French newspapers, and that was something I felt linked to. Immigration in Israel.
SS: You’re known for shining a spotlight on rising actors and once again, you got these impressive performances from your young leads. What did you see in these two debut actors (Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet) for this film?
AD: Oh, it was a shock when I met them. Quentin already has a craft and maturity and a very specific way of delivering the lines in a mature way. And he’s so young! He was 19 when we did the film and I loved that he shared this maturity with the character. When Paul is young he behaves like an old man. When he’s played by Mathieu, he is wild and furious like an adolescent. And the character is quite talkative and Quentin being experienced with theatre was not afraid of long lines. So it was really great to see his craft in embellishing the lines.
What I can say about Lou is what Paul writes about Esther. “She exists like a mountain.” She’s like a rock and Paul is stumbling on her. And I stumbled on her. She has too much face, too much cheeks, too much eyes and this “too much” is perfect for my camera.
SS: A lot of the film’s central conflict revolves around the difficulty of a long distance relationship, which means something very different today with our modern technology. How did you get these young actors to understand the time period of the 1980s and inhabit these roles?
AD: It’s funny, I’ll answer with a short story. I remember Lou’s first interview and I wasn’t too far away having another interview. But I was listening to her and I was anxious about whether she would be able to answer and articulate anything. And I think it was the first question, about Facebook and text messages etc. I remember the pride of Lou saying, “All these feelings, all these words are mine. I’ve been through that with Facebook and all the technology.” I thought it was really lovely to see that they used my writing to express the feelings of their generation.
SS: There’s this perception of the French as being very romantic. Is there still a big demand for romantic dramas in France, compared to when you did My Sex Life…?
AD: Oh yes. But I don’t know, you use the word “romantic” but I would use the word “novelistic”. Because it’s romantic but what I like is that Esther is not shy. I mean, she sleeps with anyone. She’s not afraid of life. Paul is afraid.
They have a deep affair, they really need each other. But on the other hand, they don’t have to be faithful to each other. They are more free than that. So sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s a bit cruel. But they are in love. And I love that the two characters experience love as knowledge, as a way of understanding themselves and becoming an adult. Going through this experience is a way of getting some knowledge about the world. I like this idea of romance as knowledge.
SS: Are you working on anything now?
AD: Actually, I’ve just finished a script that I’m quite proud of. It’s a new thing with characters in their late 40s, three women. They surprised me in the writing process. I fell in love three times with the three different women. And for each one of them, I had never depicted that kind of character. So it’s brand new.
Click here for Joseph’s review of My Golden Days.