Playful Memories: Arnaud Desplechin Reinvents a Romance From the Past in My Golden Days

To remember is to reinterpret, when thinking about the past the flow of memories is never linear or even fully accurate.

What we recall is not precisely the succession of events, but the emotions associated with them; thus, not all recollections are equally resonant or vivid. Depending on the current state of mind we find ourselves in, these visions from bygone times take on different connotations and blend into the subconscious, sometimes as altered or improved versions of what they really were. Graciously and with an intrinsically elegant approach, French director Arnaud Desplechin takes a new iteration of one of his previously created characters and explores his youth by way of three chapters that, though not equal in length and detail, marked the protagonist and paved the way for him to become the adult he is today. Added to the liberties he takes in terms of temporal structure, Desplechin pulls from a hat of storytelling tricks that bestow on his latest film My Golden Days (Trois Souvenirs De Ma Jeunesse in French) an eclectic and unpredictable cinematic grammar whose aim is to immerse us into this specific chapter in the characters’ lives. Performances brimming with passion beyond belief, lush photography and a sense of being a collective memory to which simultaneously everyone and no one at all can relate are what make Desplechin’s latest a delicate and playful depiction of rememberance.

MovieMaker had the pleasure to chat with the acclaimed auteur about his stylistic approach, film vs. digital and his very own golden days.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Why make a prequel for one of your films 20 years later? What was it about My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument that you felt demanded to be explored further in a narrative about its protagonist’s youth?

Arnaud Desplechin (AD): I didn’t start with the idea of a prequel. I started with the very vague idea of working with young actors, which is something that I had never done before. Would I be able or not to be close enough with actors around 16 or 17 and to be able to help them to act? I remembered the opening of My Sex Life, which starts with the narrator saying, “Esther and Paul have been together for more than 10 years and they haven’t gotten along since 10 years ago,” and I thought it was quite interesting. I love the motif of this Parisian guy, a scholar with friends in Paris, and this girl who is more popular and linked to a small town, Roubaix. I thought it was quite novelistic as a story, so I was curious to see the birth of their love, as Esther and Paul are a perfect match and a total disaster at the same time.

MM: As you were writing this film, did you feel like you already knew what the characters’ pasts looked like or did you have to go back and explore the original film to track their emotional journeys?

AD: I remember my film by heart. I don’t need to go back to them, but I knew that I didn’t want to be absolutely respectful to My Sex Life. I remember when I met Quentin [Dolmaire, who plays Paul] and Lou [Roy-Lecollinet, who plays Esther] they asked me, “Do we have to see My Sex Life? I guess we have to.” I begged them not to. I said, “Please never do that. I want you invent something new.” Even in the writing it’s different. In My Sex Life Paul was a philosopher and in this one he is an anthropologist. In the first one the mother died from cancer and in this one from suicide. It’s not exactly the same characters. The two films share a few elements but they are not the same. I said to myself, “Arnaud, try not to be too respectful of your previous work. Try to invent something new.”

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Lou Roy-Lecollinet in My Golden Days

MM: The visual grammar of the film is incredibly inventive. Can you tell me about your intentions using the iris and the split screen, and how these change with the characters throughout the film?

AD: First of all, I asked the actors to be playful on set, to try to invent things, to bring something fresh. I also have tons of notes and I do stupid little drawings of the shot, because when I’m on set I’m trying to improve, find new ideas and the best way to tell the story. I love zooms and studied them in all of Ingmar Bergman’s movies and I love tracking forwards and use a lot of them, but sometimes they are very emphatic. Sometimes I just want to show a detail without being emphatic. The iris allowed me to focus the audience without too much emotion a little shyly.

I remember the way we shot the opening scenes. The beginning of the first part we’d have this split screen, and I was looking for a visual shot that would clearly say to the audience, “Now the real film starts.” Because it’s a period piece I thought, “Yeah, actually the split screen is nice because it seems like ‘the good old times.’” Also, at the beginning you just follow Paul’s point of view without the point of view of the other characters. Then in the third part, you follow Esther without knowing what Paul is doing, you follow his sister when he has a discussion with his father, and you follow his brother when he visits the church, so I thought it was relevant in terms of storytelling to say to the audience, “This part won’t follow just one point of view,” and I thought that a split screen was the perfect tool to express that to the audience.

MM: The film’s French title translates to “Three Memories of My Youth,” but we only see the first two memories briefly, and then the largest part of the film focuses on the third memory: the romance. In terms of structure, why did you decide to do this rather than give all three equal representation within the film?

AD: If I’m digging into my own memory, I just find bits and pieces, not the novel of my life; I have sparse memories but not one big one. I just like the idea of having three films within this one and each one with a very different length. I guess my goal in the writing was that Esther would become the film, as Esther is the definition of Paul. He could be a guy wondering to himself, “Who am I?” and the answer is, “You are just the guy who loved Esther. This is who you are.” I said to Lou, the actress playing Esther, “At one point you will have to become the film itself. You are the film.” The film starts as the depiction of Paul and then becomes Esther, because she was the most important part of his life.

MM: Can you talk about your intention with the narration? It starts with Mathieu Almaric as older Paul telling his own story, and then it turns into a narrator who is talking about Paul and Esther in third person. Why did you feel this was a fitting element to employ?

AD: The narrator arrived late in the writing process. The narrator starts to speak in the middle of the film, which I thought was playful and funny. It allowed me to go faster in the storytelling. The narrator here is less important than in My Sex Life, but it permitted me to shoot my scenes just like a silent movie. In the part where Paul is in Tajikistan as an anthropologist, we just have the narration, which was great because I could improvise the scenes during shooting. We looked at the landscape, met the people of Tajikistan and found the locations; we then improvised the scenes to figure out, “How can express this feeling or this moment?” So the ideas came and I worked as if I were a director from the silent era, which would be my dream. I loved the speed of the narration via the narrator and the fact that I could be more visual in those kinds of scenes.

MM: Can you describe how you worked with your DP to achieve your desired look for the film? There is a dreamy quality to the romance that that comes from those aesthetic choices.

AD: I work with a wonderful DP, Irina Lubtchansky, but it’s difficult to say how we work. I guess there is a dreamlike aspect and I wanted to make it colorful also because it was a period piece. It was my first time shooting a film on digital rather than 35mm. Irina has worked for a long time on 35mm, so we tried to find a way use this new tool to be more precise because you can’t have that precision in 35mm anymore. The labs are not that good. But we didn’t want to lose the spirit and the colorful aspect of the image in 35mm.

MM: Is there a particular reason why you decided to shoot this on digital rather than 35mm? Did it make more sense financially?

AD: It’s a little more expensive on 35mm, but if you do fewer takes it’s not that much of a problem. I liked digital because when I saw the results of the tests on 35mm we had some problems. It didn’t look like The Hateful Eight, which looks so gorgeous because it was done in a great lab that was knowledgeable dealing with film. For me, the tests we did on 35mm film weren’t as good as the tests we did with the digital camera. I was curious to see if we would be able to make a period piece with digital, but that doesn’t mean my next film will necessarily be on digital.  To me, it’s not that big of an issue; the storytelling is much more interesting. I know that a lot of directors consider the choice between digital and 35mm as the main issue of today, but as a film buff I see great films on 35m or 70mm and great digital movies. The format doesn’t affect my perception of these films.

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Quentin Dolmaire, Theo Fernandez, Yassine Douighi, Raphael Cohen, Pierre Andrau in My Golden Days

MM: Tell me about working with the young actors and how you managed to elicit such passionate performances from them. Their powerful relationship carries emotions that seem older than the characters are.

AD: All of the young actors were great, but the two main actors were wonderful. Like I said, I was scared I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the younger generation. My main fear was not being able to find actors who would accept me. I knew that I’d accept them, but I needed to find actors who wouldn’t have a specific way of acting. Lou and Quentin were so fresh because they didn’t have the experience of working on a professional movie. One was in theater school and the other one was younger but had done some theater in school, so they were able to deliver the lines, even if they were tricky. My question when we met was, “Am I a bore or am I helpful?” and they said, “You are the director. The lines are OK. We can manage.” I discovered that I was able to help them give a better performance. I knew that I could work with professional and experienced actors, but I didn’t know that I would be able to work with inexperienced actors as well.

MM: Can you tell me about your relationship with Mathieu Amalric, who is an actor that has been in several of your films and whom you know very well?

AD: He is only in the film briefly, but to me he is the heart of the film. He is a great artist. I remember when we finished the film I arranged a screening for Quentin, Lou and Mathieu. Afterward, Mathieu went to Quentin and said, “I can’t believe it, you delivered the lines the same way I do and we’ve never even met before. How did you do that?” and Quentin said, “I was just imitating Arnaud.” Mathieu looked at me and I said, “When I’m acting I’m imitating you.” At this point we don’t know who is imitating the other. I guess that’s the definition of friendship; we don’t know what belongs to Mathieu and we don’t know what belongs to me anymore. It’s a sort of fusion.

MM: That’s sort of what Esther tells Paul in the movie. She has forgotten what qualities are hers and what qualities she acquired from him. It’s now a blend.

AD: Yes, it’s in the film. Paul feels quite uncomfortable and says, “No, I don’t like that. I want you to be you and I want me to be me.” He is quite cautious with that ,and for her, that’s the definition of love.

MM: In terms of the musical selection, why did you decide to use mostly English songs rather than French songs from the time?

AD: That’s an issue for me because I’m French. There are lots of English songs, not only American but in English. I was born in a country where the songs are really bad, and I’m sorry to say that about French popular culture, but I don’t have a great love for French songs. They are not part of my own memories. I never listened to French music. It was a common thing back then. We were not listening to French music at all; we would listen to English and American music. Also, I love not understanding the words perfectly, as my English isn’t perfect. With French songs I understand the words and they annoy me. It’s much more exotic for me to have an American or an English song.

MM: How close is My Golden Days to your own youth? Are these two worlds, that of the film and that of your life, close or related at all?

AD: In one word: nothing. Look, I’m old and my mother is still alive. She is quite a sensible woman, so I didn’t have to experience being an orphan. Luckily for me, it was great. Also, I never took a trip to the Eastern European countries, which was a common thing to do in the ’70s. My brother did it, but I never did it. I was curious to discover that world, which I discovered while shooting. Instead of being a scholar, I worked in the film industry since I was 17. So I knew nothing about culture; I was raised on films and that was my life. I could say that I share nothing with Paul, but I could also say that I share everything. I’ve been through all the feelings that the characters are going through. I guess I’m trying to give you the feeling that I’m dealing with personal issues through the film, and that this story is true and autobiographical in a way, but on the other hand I’m just trying to be novelistic because my life is a bore. I’m just a cinephile, and that’s it. MM

My Golden Days premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015. Images courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

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