French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days is both a prequel and a sequel to his 1996 film My Sex Life … Or How I Got Into an Argument. Though there are elements of the two films that don’t exactly line up, both concern the romantic follies and foibles of a character named Paul Dedalus.
Well known in art-house/festival circles if not a household name in the U.S., Desplechin looms large in the landscape of contemporary French cinema. His singular films bristle with a restless energy as they juggle moments of intense drama with lighter comedic flashes, touches of absurdism and a flirtatious sensuality, all bound by a wry sensibility and a free-ranging formal style. My Golden Days casually throws together references to the ancient Greeks and the poetry of Yeats alongside post-punk and hip-hop music. In short, Desplechin makes films that brim over, feel alive.
The new film also continues the collaboration between Desplechin and actor Mathieu Amalric (familiar to stateside audiences from his roles in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Quantum of Solace). The deeply emotional My Golden Days was nominated for 11 prizes at France’s Cesar awards last month, winning director honors for Desplechin.
But don’t be mistaken that the character Paul is some sort of veiled stand-in for Desplechin himself.
“I’m afraid that my life is much more boring than my characters’ lives,” Desplechin, 55, said during a recent phone call from his home in Paris. “I’m quite a bore in real life.”
Though the film’s French title translates as Three Memories of My Youth, the film is actually four stories in one. There is Paul as a young boy, protecting his younger brother and sister from their mentally unstable mother. There is Paul as a teenager, on a school trip to Russia and providing clandestine aid to dissidents and giving his passport to a young man who will assume his identity in the world. The bulk of the film follows a college-age Paul in the 1980s and the beginning of his years-long relationship with a woman named Esther (a relationship that was first explored in My Sex Life).
There is also a contemporary framing story with Amalric’s adult Paul, first in Tajikistan and then back in Paris, where he is still haunted, all these years later, by memories of Esther.
Desplechin was initially inspired by Wes Anderson’s use of young performers in Moonrise Kingdom, and set about finding a story he could cast likewise. In working on the script, co-written with Julie Peyr, he recalled a bit of narration from My Sex Life, which declared that the couple had been together for 10 years and also not getting along for 10 years.
“I thought, ‘That’s so mysterious — what kind of couple is it that could be a perfect match and a total disaster at the same time?’” Desplechin said. “I thought I would be so curious to see the birth of their love affair. How does it happen, is there something magic in their meeting? I thought it was the perfect situation, the couple became the project. But my hope is you don’t need to see My Sex Life to see My Golden Days.”
He cast actor Quentin Dolmaire as teen Paul and actress Lou Roy-Lecollinet as Esther, both making their screen debuts in the film. Desplechin specifically instructed Dolmaire and Roy-Lecollinet not to watch My Sex Life, as he did not want them attempting to mimic Amalric or Emmanuelle Devos, who played Esther in the earlier film. He also did not have Amalric and Dolmaire meet prior to film.
“After the first screening of the movie, Mathieu was stunned,” said Desplechin. “They did so many things the same, the same way of speaking. And Quentin’s answer was, ‘It was easy, I was just imitating Arnaud.’”
Desplechin typically prefers not to rehearse with the actors prior to shooting. Mindful that his two young stars had never been in front of a camera before, Desplechin read through the script with them, looking for lines they stumbled over or references they might not fully understand. Then Desplechin had them work on scenes with similar emotional contours from other films such as Bird or All the Real Girls — “All the scenes I was stealing,” he said — but without working on their actual lines.
“So we rehearsed, but we didn’t work on the lines from the script,” he said. “They could be prepared without experiencing the lines. I wanted them to discover the lines on set.”
The emotional openness of the young performers is only one aspect of the incredible sense of freedom the film has about it. In style and structure and storytelling, it is as if anything could happen, whether the sudden appearance partway through of a narrator — voiced by Desplechin himself — or the use of a varying grab-bag of techniques.
“What I am asking of the actors is to be free on the set,” Desplechin said. “When I’m writing the script I don’t predict the way I will shoot it. So on the set I’m trying to surprise myself, I’m trying to surprise the crew and the actors.
“That’s why I’m using all these tools, the iris, the split-screen, tracking, to try to find the right way to express the feelings I want to share with the audience,” he added. “I could say that being free is sort of a duty for the director.”
Amalric has also appeared in a number of Desplechin’s other films, including 2004’s Kings & Queen, 2008’s A Christmas Tale and 2013’s Jimmy P. Amalric was (and is) a director in his own right before he began acting. Though Amalric has gone on to be an accomplished actor — he has won three Cesars and appeared in such films as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Venus in Fur and Munich — he never considered acting seriously until Desplechin cast him in My Sex Life.
“It’s like an old couple,” said Amalric, in a separate call from Paris, of his ongoing collaboration with Desplechin. “Now you have to work even harder to surprise the other person. You have to learn how to seduce again, how not to do all the same things together and not repeat ourselves.”
As for the fact that Amalric has often publicly and playfully blamed the filmmaker for making him into an actor, Desplechin said with a laugh, “Guilty. And proud.”
And the pair are likely not finished. They both seem eager to work together again, even if for now they are setting aside the tales of Paul Dedalus.
Recalled Desplechin, “After a screening, Mathieu told me, OK, we’re done with Paul Dedalus, but — there is a but — when we are very, very old, after we’re 75, just as Bergman made Saraband as a last movie, we will make another.”