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A Conversation With Arnaud Desplechin (MY GOLDEN DAYS)

I met with Arnuad Desplechin during his visit to the 2015 New York Film Festival, where he was promoting the festival’s screening of his latest film My Golden Days. We discussed the film, a prequel of sorts to Desplechin’s My Sex Life… or How I Got Into An Argument (known as Comment je me suis disputé in France). You may wish to see both films before reading on, as our conversation primarily focuses on the relationship between the two films. Magnolia Pictures opens My Golden Days today, March 18th, in select cities. Needless to say, it is an essential film of 2016. — Tom Hall

Hammer To Nail: You have mentioned to me before of your interest in adapting Philip Roth’s work, we discussed The Counterlife as being a possibility. In terms of the structure of this film, was there an influence from Roth?

Arnaud Desplechin: Actually, that book… I’m dreaming to adapt it. It’s the book that matters to me infinitely. There is something where Philip Roth influences me is this idea of going back on your tracks and trying to invent a new method for the story; The Counterlife features the same characters as Deception— the English mistress, etc. So there is a relationship between the two books, and that always fascinates me.

HtN: And in The Counterlife itself, the five chapters, each spinning off into a different reality set within the same story…

AD: Yes, I love the idea. When I started writing My Golden Days, I started discussing with the Producer at Cannes and I knew quickly that I did not want this film to be structured like a novel. I wanted to build it around three distinct pieces, each one a different length and belonging to three separate genres, with three unique perspectives on the hero, and dealing with different film references. It’d funny to me; each time I create a film, I am aware I am creating a corpus of films that I want to use. This time it was The Outsiders, Loves Of a Blonde— all of these films that influence me. But at some point during the writing, my co-writer Julie Peyr told me “Actually, we could have La Vie Des Morts for the first part, La Sentinelle for the second part, and we could use Comment je me suis disputé with Esther. So, now you’re old enough to use your own films as the corpus.” And I said “Sorry, I’m not that pretentious!” (laughs). I want to forget these films, I want to present something new, but it’s true that I was covering my tracks like Roth, going back on myself to find a new method.

HtN: Both movies begin with a confession from Paul, a therapeutic discussion, back to his childhood, etc. But the structures diverge from there… you mentioned three sections and divergent styles for this film, can you talk about how you decided on structure.

AD: It was different. The structure of Comment je me suis disputé was so elaborate, it was gutsy, but the idea here was not to copy it. I was thinking deeply of Bill Douglas’ film My Childhood. At the start of this film, it’s not a novel, it’s not a short story, it’s a poem that opens the story. You mentioned the confession with the shrink, the main question you must answer is “Who are you?”; in the second part, that means the Stevenson-like adventure on the other side of the world, in Russia. My main idea then is that it is the third part, the meeting with Esther, that becomes the whole film. I wanted Esther and the actress who plays her, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, to cannibalize the whole movie. All the other things that make up the first two sections— family, politics— suddenly Esther comes along and she says “No, no. I’m your story, Paul. I am the whole film.” And so, the stories become nested like Russian dolls, inside of her.

HtN: But you also invented a new Paul and a new Esther. The films stands almost as a separate reality to Comment je me suis disputé in a lot of ways. We even have Mathieu in this film as a sort of “third” Paul. How did you decide on this relationship between these versions of these characters?

AD: Yeah. We started this movie with the desire to answer a problem, stated by the narrator in Comment je me suis disputé, which states “Paul and Esther have been together eleven years, and they haven’t gotten along for eleven years.” So, how do they meet? You can see in Comment je me suis disputé that Esther is not a Parisian; the other students are more bourgeoisie, Parisian, doing special things. Esther comes from nothing, she’s humble, she comes from Roubaix and that’s it. And you can see that Paul is already Parisian. What fascinated me was the mystery of the birth of this love, and in that sense, My Golden Days provides a faithful answer to the questions asked by the other film. How is it possible to be a perfect match, in the sense that Esther is the deepest truth of Paul’s life, and to be a disaster as a couple at the same time? It seems to me the film shines a light on that.

HtN: In the previous film, Paul states that he worries he must “think” his friends at all times to keep them safe, but perhaps that’s just his ego? I’m wondering, as the author of this film, do you share Paul’s position as it relates to these characters?

AD: Oh, yeah. Certainly. That’s absolutely my relationship to my characters, the same as Paul to his friends. I really love, in Quentin Dolmaire’s performance, the love he is experiencing with Marc as the pair travel to Russia. Paul loves him as an elder, as someone with knowledge. I love when they are in the back room of the synagogue and the guy says to him “Why would you do this?” and Paul says “Because Marc is my friend!” It’s an absolute answer, one that develops into his relationship with Nathan in Comment je me suis disputé, and it is a friendship that he loves. And when Marc leaves and the films says “They stopped seeing each other,” you can see there is a deep wound here. And later, we can see the friends he develops in the third part of the film are not that close.

HtN: Later we have another Nathan and Paul, here another doubling of characters and names; in this case Nathan later dies. Can you talk about this doubling of characters? In Comment je me suis disputé, you call Nathan Paul’s “mirror,” a reflection or double of Paul.

AD: Oh, but this is another Nathan, not a friend, a doppleganger—

HtN: You could have picked another name… he’s Nathan for a reason. (laughs)

AD: Yes, but… (a long, contemplative pause). Actually, my son is named Nathan, so I guess it’s coming from there? I love this story, it’s (E.T.A) Hoffmann style, I guess? You have a double and you know that somewhere in the world, there is another version of you. I think it happens to Paul because he’s a skeptic; he never knows if he’s awake or dreaming, alive or just waiting, a kind of shadow character who needs others, like Esther, to feel he is alive. And that’s why I love the scene where Mathieu looks at the photo on the passport and said “Am I alive or am I dead?” You were dead, now you’re alive, it’s your double who died. The real answer to the problem comes when Esther kisses him and says “I assure you, you are you.” And Paul needs this to become himself.

I experience this every day. I don’t know if I’m alive or asleep. I’m that kind of guy. I’m shallow. That’s why it’s not difficult for me to use these doubles and this uncertainty about identity in my films, I experience this profound doubt about existence as a part of my life.

HtN: Does filmmaking reassure you in some way?

AD: Yes, because I am not alone when I am doing it. The actors are the answer to all these questions. When I am working with actors and they are playing the parts, all of these questions about myself vanish because I am in tune with what they are doing. My effort to make them better on screen, its a physical thing. I am exhausted at the end of the day and I can sleep, I am exhausted from working with them and figuring out how I can place them, to make things work. Cinema is an answer for me because I stop focusing on myself.

HtN: Let’s talk about Esther, and her confidence and doubt. She has this awareness of her power and yet, is filled with self doubt. Can you talk about building this character with the two actresses over these two films?

AD: I have two paths to answer this. On the one hand, she is invulnerable. She is doubtless, she is a block of pure existence. But love has never happened for her before and suddenly arrives in her life through Paul. And she discovers herself though this and it’s a tragedy, it’s awful. And I think she wanted that. And that’s the second path of this answer; she wanted to become a hero. And there is something that is heartbreaking for me, in that she becomes the novelist of her own life through her letters. She wants to be exceptional, and I love that as an expression of her strength. For me, being exceptional means doing a good job with the actors, but Esther doesn’t have a reason. She just wants to be a heroine. And it reminds me so much of Tess; I love the book, and the film. Tess’ father one day finds this little spoon proving that she’s a member of the D’Urbervilles, and suddenly Tess wants to have more than just a life, she wants a destiny. You have this pride in a humble character, and this mixture of humility and pride is something I find so fascinating; it explains Esther’s move from being doubtless to being full of doubt. When she decides to be the inventor of herself, she doesn’t know that it has a price, and that price is vulnerability. But it’s too late now, she’s caught in the trap of love and discovers herself to be human when she had imagined herself a goddess. And it’s terrible; did she lose something or gain something? It’s a question that has to stay open.

HtN: Coming from Roubaix to Paris, did you experience something similar to Esther’s transformation?

AD: Coming to Paris, I experienced it like Paul, like an exile. But I wanted so much to flee Roubaix, a town that I hate and yet, always come back to. Do I hate it or love it? I don’t know. If I had stayed one more year in Roubaix, I would have died; it was not possible for me. I was and am still experiencing Paris as a foreign country. It’s for rich people, educated people, people with manners. When I’m in Roubaix, I’m at home. Paris? I remain an exile.

– Tom Hall (@BRM)

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Tom Hall is the Artistic Director of the Sarasota Film Festival (2005- present) in Sarasota, FL and Programming Director at FILMnewport in Newport, RI (2009-present). Formerly, Hall was Programmer for The Nantucket Film Festival in Nantucket, MA (2002-2005) as well as a former Director of New Media for Bravo/The Independent Film Channel (1997-2000). He has also worked in the Industry and Guest Services Offices at The Hamptons International Film Festival (2002-2003). In January of 2010, Tom was named one of Spring Board Media’s 20 under 40 in Film. Tom has directed short films for Bob Mould's Carnival of Light and Sound Tour and is a member of the indieWIRE blogging community with his blog The Back Row Manifesto. A graduate of the University of Michigan (’94), Hall resides in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and son.

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