Over the course of 10 feature films (plus one documentary), Arnaud Desplechin has constructed a self-sustaining mythology of characters and scenarios that are in constant communication with one another, so that each new entry in the director’s oeuvre looks as much into the past as at the present moment. That’s certainly the case with My Golden Days, as Paul Dédalus (here played by both Quentin Dolmaire and Mathieu Amalric), the lead character from Desplechin’s 1996 film My Sex Life…or, How I Got Into an Argument, has been resurrected for a prequel of sorts. The film largely concerns Paul’s initial encounters with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), whom Paul obsessed over in My Sex Life…, where she was played by Desplechin regular Emmanuelle Devos. In fact, Desplechin said in a recent interview that his latest film is constructed around Devos’s absence, and that “she had to be absent so that the film could exist.”
Thus, a certain ghostliness pervades My Golden Days, and not least because present-day Paul achingly longs to return to an irretrievable past where he could feel Esther’s warmth. But Desplechin’s cinema itself isn’t quite so bleak, what with its fast pace and use of vibrant colors, split-screens, and iris effects always drawing very vivid attention to its own construction. His cinema, too, is one of intertextuality. Attentive cinephiles may remember a character named Paul Dédalus in A Christmas Tale, but there he was a 16-year-old with seemingly no attachment to the Paul of the other two films. Is Paul an alter ego for Desplechin, much like Stephen Dedalus was for James Joyce or Antoine Doinel for François Truffaut? A counter question seems appropriate to that inquiry, namely: Would it matter?
Desplechin has said that audiences don’t need to see My Sex Life… in order to understand My Golden Days, but, well, of course they do, since the pleasure of Desplechin’s films comes, in part, from his interweaving of texts to find common threads. In my talk with the filmmaker, he spoke about such commonalities, the potential complementarity of slapstick and film noir, and why Martin Scorsese is so good with dialogue.
There’s a recurring motif in your films of characters falling down or talking about falling. In My Sex Life…, Paul tells his friends in an early scene that he wants to be “the master of his own fall.” And all of My Golden Days seems to be about Paul’s fear of potentially falling into the past, of being stuck there. And, of course, in A Christmas Tale, Amalric’s character quite literally falls face-first onto the sidewalk like a toppled domino. Is there greater significance to this metaphor for you?
Your question reminds me of a small story, and I will try to be brief. When I met Quentin [Dolmaire] and Lou [Roy-Lecollinet], the two of them were shy and they asked me in a very cautious way, “By the way, do we have to see My Sex Life…?” And I really begged them when I said, “Please, don’t look at the film. I want you to invent something new. I want you to speak for your own generation and not to speak for an old cinephile like me.” So they promised they wouldn’t do it. After that, I arrive on the set early in the morning to do the blocking alone without the actors. We have this scene where Paul is learning that his professor just died and that he lost her. And so, it was written in a very sparse way with just a few notes for the actors. So, when Quentin arrived I proposed to him, “At this point, you fall down on the floor. You faint.” Then, he looked at me with a smile and said, “By the way, I was wondering when my character would fall.” [laughs] And I said, “So I guess you saw My Sex Life…” And he said, “Yes, I lied. I saw it.” That’s one thing that interests me, when I can see a character falling—when he stops to be noble and suddenly he’s ridiculous. When he’s losing control of his own body, it’s like your discovering the character in his weakness. The fear of falling is quite interesting for me, just like in a slapstick movie, to see Charlie Chaplin falling on the ground, because when you’re more vulnerable, your body expresses a lot about yourself.
It’s interesting, too, because in the film you see the falling of the Berlin Wall on television, so that falling also attains a kind of historical significance.
Yeah, yeah, it’s also that. It’s a visual motif. You can see endlessly the wall falling, falling, falling, and the character will fall with the death of the teacher.
You mentioned falling with relation to slapstick, but the older Paul seems more like a classical male figure from film noir who is, in Paul’s own words, “tormented by the fear that I was never good enough for [Esther].” Do you see Paul this way, as being doomed by a past self?
I see it in an ambiguous way, because I think that, as you say, the character is doomed by his past, but I also think that the past is saving him. It’s something that we do in our own lives, and it’s that we’re losing our past. The memory disappears, and so we lose bits and pieces of our past and we’re not faithful to the young boys and girls we used to be. This is something that was terrifying but interesting to us. You have this brief scene where you can see Mathieu writing in his apartment and the voiceover says, “Now the boy is in Paris, he has a job, he’s happy, and everything is fine.” And I can see such loneliness in his character, and I think that his life is so dry. He paid the price to save his past. In that sense, just like the loneliness of the character coming from a film noir. What I admire about him is that he’s paying the price in order to save a few memories of Esther. And I think he’s brave to do that. I don’t know if I would be that brave. I think there’s something noble in that.
That speaks to a core tension in the film, which seems to be Paul’s desire to be around others, but also the need to retreat and either be alone, or be surrounded by something completely new. In some ways, that also seems like an artist’s dilemma as well—whether to follow the pack or branch off.
I don’t know if I have a good memory about my own life, but I know that the films are a great step for me to try to save the past. It’s moving also, because a common experience you have as a filmmaker is that some actors you work with die, you know, a few years after you’ve worked together. You miss them, but in a way you save something of them, an image or something like that. It’s part of how cinema works: seeing ghosts on the screen. The beauty of it is that you’re saving something from the past.