The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Stephen Rey recently called Arnaud Desplechin, “the greatest contemporary French filmmaker no one has ever heard of.” With the critically acclaimed My Golden Days reaching DVD and Digital HD, the writer/director took some time to discuss his career and latest work.
FOG!: You created the character of Paul Dedalus almost twenty years ago for your film My Sex Life…Or How I Got Into An Argument with Mathieu Amalric portraying the role. The character and his family appeared in 2008’s A Christmas Tale, this time played by Emile Berling. With My Golden Days, Dedalus returns, once again with Amalric in the role, but sharing the part with Quentin Dolmaire. Are all of these Paul Dedalus’ the same character and do you consider it to be your cinematic alter ego?
Arnaud Desplechin: I don’t think that the character in A Christmas Tale is really the same Paul Dedalus. This melancholic character played by Emile Berling is going through this nervous breakdown, which is a thing that belongs to Paul Dedalus, but I thought it was – let’s say a nice family joke – a sort of a way of sharing it with the spectators who saw my previous work.
But definitely, I think that My Golden Days is the prequel of My Sex Life. So, yes, it is the same character. Even if there are some changes here and there, I think he has the same shyness and the same problem with women, and he’s embarrassed by girls, he’s clumsy and has this difficulty with his mother, which is a thing I call “Paul Dedalus” which means that he’s not able to love his mother.”
My Golden Days is a coming of age film. In the press you mentioned that you were greatly influenced by American coming of age films and cited The Outsiders, Dazed and Confused, Almost Famous, Super Bad and Moonrise Kingdom. French cinema has a long history of coming of age cinema. What drew you to these specific American films?
Why? Because I am French, which means that I am in love with American cinema. I know that this is a paradox, but it’s my definition of France. In France we have these intellectuals who love the popular American cinema. When do I feel French? When I am speaking about American movies, like when François Truffaut or Jean Luc Godard used to speak about American movies.
What was your approach writing the film? How do you prevent the narrative from becoming self-indulgent nostalgia?
I think that the film writing was brutal. It’s about the thing, which is far from nostalgia – the fact that Esther and Paul are not at all a perfect match. Their relationship is a disaster, but they love each other. And they love each other even if it’s the contrary of a perfect match. Everything opposes these two characters, you know, the girl and the boy. And though they love each other and they invent themselves through the other one, I thought that this motive was far from nostalgia and much more urgent.
I guess that the film was not painted as a period piece, because I was working with these actors who were so young – Louis was 17 years old and Quentin was 19 years old. They were so young that they were speaking for their own generation and they were depicting their own worries, not my worries. I guess it gave a flavor which is absolutely contemporary to the audience.”
What films or directors had the strongest influence on you and what drives your passion for cinema?
The list is so long and I could mention so many American directors, because I think America has a very vivid generation of filmmakers today. But, I would love to mention two directors who are not American: Jia Zhangke, who to me is one of the best directors alive on earth, and newcomer László Nemes, the director of Son of Saul. They both have films that really changed my life. If I’m thinking about A Touch of Sin and Son of Saul, I know they are two films that really changed my life.
My passion for film is the fact that I think real life is an overrated value. When I look at life, I always think it’s dull and boring, then suddenly reality is shot and screened and then it starts to mean things. Life fills a screen and has significance. You don’t always know exactly what it means, but you know that everything means something – it is full of knowledge and mystery. And I am always stupefied by the way you can catch reality with a camera and you screen it and suddenly reality starts to glow. I am in love with that glow.
Do you have plans to revisit Paul Dedalus again?
Never! Never (while laughing)! You know it’s a question that Mathieu Amalric asked me when he saw the first editing of My Golden Days and he said, “Do you think that we will revisit Paul Dedalus again?” And my answer was “Never, I am done with it. I did these two long films about him and we have said everything we have to say about him.”
And Mathieu said, “Yes, but think about one thing: if you are lucky and if you grow very old, around 75 or 80 years old, perhaps with Emmanuelle Devos and myself, you can make a very bitter, cruel film about this old couple still arguing again and again and again. It could be the perfect final film.”
But I should be more than 75 years old to do such a film, so before my 75th birthday I will say “never” and after… Well, I can’t promise anything.”