If I had to select the contemporary filmmaker who’s most attuned to the relationship between thought and action — more specifically, the contemporary filmmaker who can best articulate the gap between these modes through cinema’s tools of expression — Arnaud Desplechin might be my strongest answer. Deeply empathetic toward its wounded characters, formally energized to the point of a viewer’s (appreciated) exhaustion, and often marked by a wicked sense of humor, they’re so alive because a writer and director of total ingenuity is branding them with his sensibilities.
His newest picture, My Golden Days — a prequel to 1996’s My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument, which you should see in the first place but don’t have to see in order to understand this effort, because such is the nature of prequels — jumps between decades, countries, and states of mind via protagonist Paul Dedalus, played by both the returning Mathieu Amalric and newcomer Quentin Dolmaire. Given the shades of autobiography that come with the character, sitting down with Desplechin for an interview at last year’s New York Film Festival offered a particularly strong opportunity to inquire about the why and how of his extensive process, as well as, among other things, a nice discussion of his biggest literary influence. Rarely do interview subjects prove just as intelligent and affable as the work they produce, but it would hardly be like Desplechin to adhere to tradition.
A special thanks must be extended to Ellen Sowchek, who assisted Desplechin with certain translations and clarifications.
The Film Stage: I found myself thinking this during the movie and your Q & A: one of the things I like most about your films is, put simply, that they seem to be excavated from very complex, personal modes of thought, simultaneously flowing at the rhythm of both memory and everyday living. So is it strange to talk about them, answer questions about how and why you do something, and have to explain what the meaning of an artistic choice might be? Are you comfortable with this?
Arnaud Desplechin: It’s always strange to speak. There are different sides, you know. We were speaking about the fact that I was so nervous this morning; [Speaking to translator] you were saying that I was nervous during the press conference this morning. Strangely enough, I wasn’t. I was doing some interviews and I was still jetlagged, but I didn’t realize. When you love life, you go onstage; you want to be an actor, a stage actor. When you think that life is a little bit overrated and that you would prefer to be protected from life, you go to a cinema theater, because it’s dark. You have the screen, which is so shiny. Because you are so shy. You are not in the yard of your school. You are not a big mouth. It’s a different way of being, and I always thought that I preferred that group of people, who prefer the darkened theater instead of the stage theater. Strangely enough.
So that’s why I wanted, so much, to work in films, and it was a commitment for me since — and I don’t remember why — it was a decision that I took so early in my life. I remember, I was nine, in school, and the teacher asked me, “What do you want to do later, when you’re an adult?” My answer was the name of the French cinema school, which was called IDHEC. I had no idea about what it was to be, to make a film, but I knew that I wanted to be protected from life, and that’s why I wanted to be in films. Films are nice, because they’re protecting us from the real life. After that, you are directing a film, which is so great because you are behind the camera. You are not in front of the camera and you can do all your work.
Ultimately, I realized, when I did my first French film — which was called Le vie des morts, or The Life of the Death — it was shown in Cannes, but I was shooting my next one, so I was not in Cannes. I was still protected; I was doing my job. The film was in Cannes, and, actually, the film was shown here, at the New York Film Festival — La sentinelle — and I realized that I had to be onstage. And I thought, strangely enough, “I’m 30 years old now, and I managed, all my life, to be protected and never appear on the stage.” At the end of the process, you are making a film, and now people are asking you questions! And it makes you think where I’ve been wrong, because I’ve been wrong somewhere. Actually, normally, it should be an actor answering the question instead of me. It’s something I started quite a while, twenty years ago, and I start the habit, to have that kind of performance and to meet you. Even if, when I was younger, I managed to be protected from that sort of thing. So, yes, it’s still odd.
Do you find that having to change your way of living — stepping outside the theater, that is — changes the kinds of films you make, or even their content? Perhaps this question is appropriate, since we’re talking about the follow-up to a film that’s twenty years old by now.
I don’t think that it’s the fact of having to confront myself to an audience — and to questions, and to journalists and to film critics, which obviously changed me in a hidden way — but I can realize that there are some shifts in my involvement in films and filmmaking. But it wouldn’t be based on that experience of showing films. It’s small, secret ways. I can go further, if you want. It’s a strange thing, to make a film, because a film is changing you; a new film is teaching you. Sometimes, you make a film which is a success; sometimes, you make a film which is a failure. But you have to cherish all of them. They are teaching you, but in a very different way. I’ll take a path, which is a little story.
Very recently — and I promised all my life that I would never do that — I did my first stage production in France, and it opened ten days ago. And, you know, I never saw my own films, because I can’t fix them any longer; I can’t improve them any longer. So what would be the point to be in the theater? I can change the mix, the color grading, etc. I’m there. But when the film is done, I’m the only spectator on earth who can’t be the spectator of what I did, so what would be the point? But I was working for the stage — it was in the big theater; in the National Theater in France — and I had to stay, because the actors asked me to stay, because I have to give them notes after the show. I still can change it; I still can improve the play. And I was terrified about that. I told the actors, “You know, I never did that when I’m making a film.” I escape. I’m just outside of the theater, smoking like an idiot, and that’s what I’m doing.
What I mean by that is that obviously I learned a lot being in the theater and listening to the audience’s response to what I proposed them in the theater — and it was violent. But the way my films are teaching me and changing me and affecting me is more secret because I’m not in the theater. But, in a way, meeting you — meeting other guys, girls, spectators later in my life — they say, “Actually, you did the film nine years ago which changed my life.” It’s changing me, but in a more secret way than a theater, stage work would change me. So it’s very mysterious. Still mysterious to me.
In previous interviews, you’ve talked about the decision to revisit My Sex Life…’s Paul Dedalus. But what I want to know is if that’s a mental process you’ve gone through with other films? Over the years, do you wonder what’s happened to Esther Kahn, the family from A Christmas Tale, or the characters of Kings & Queen?
Haunted me that way?
“Haunted,” or even just envisioning a scenario of what that character could be doing in the years that have spanned between a film’s release and today.
No, I think it’s specific to Paul Dedalus. I love this Truffaut saying: “You make a film against the previous one.” He was saying this expression about a lot of steps in the film’s creative process. I remember, I love the line — which has nothing to do with your question — which is, “You are shooting the film against your writing and you are editing against your shooting.” You have to fight with your own material, you know? So when I finish a film, I am trying to reinvent myself and find the track that will take me forward. I’m never trying to be faithful to me; I’m trying to betray myself. I’m trying to discover something unpredictable. Something like that.
Strangely enough, this character of Paul Dedalus haunted me in a very odd way, and Esther. [A note of clarification: this is in reference to the Esther of My Sex Life… and My Golden Days.] The face of Esther is a strange way of being on earth, and this character — Esther, which is not just in My Sex Life… — was a pure block of existence. The fact that a young woman can exist more than a shallow man. This quality of Esther, of being like an animal — like a little bull. I love this line in Esther Kahn, when they say, “You have cow’s eyes.” Because she’s just like a cow: she has beautiful eyes, like in the Greek poems. It’s a beautiful expression. This way of being on earth fascinates me. Between Paul and Esther, I wondered what will happen to them or what did happen before they met. But I couldn’t say the same about the other characters. It really belongs to Paul Dedalus and his history.
The edits in your films reveal so much. In the movie’s third segment, for instance, you have split-screens that create the sense of being in multiple places at once — like a memory, one might say. How do you find the expression that works in sync with what you’ve written and shot?
I will answer about the split-screen, which is an answer about the whole thing — I think. You will tell me if I’m not answering the question. I used some split-screen, just very tiny ones, on two films I made previously. The editor I’m working with, Laurence Briaud, knows me and knows that I like that, that I was quite proud of the split-screen we used in Kings & Queen, which was quite funny, and the thing we did in A Christmas Tale — when the guy was visiting at the hospital and I have these two images. It’s about editing against your shooting… it’s not “against.” It’s to try to understand what you shot. It’s to try to understand it, but in a different way. So I needed to have the visual shock to start this new part — which is the whole film, because Esther is the whole film. This third part is My Golden Days.
So I needed to have this visual shock to get rid of the first two segments, and so the split-screen was a good, nice way. But I was looking at all the small scenes I shot outside the schoolyard — all these little portraits, all these little vignettes — and I realized that, in the third and main segment, it’s not just Paul’s point of view. Because, sometimes, you are with the sister and the father, and Paul is not there; he’s not witnessing. Sometimes, you are with Paul’s brother when he’s visiting the priest, and Paul is not in the room; he’s not a witness. So I could say it’s something I realized on the editing table, that the third part is about Paul’s world. It’s not Paul’s point of view; it’s Paul’s world. And so the fact of using that split-screen, this different point of view on the same image, it was a nice way to say, “Okay, Arnaud, this is what you did: you start to follow Paul’s point of view, and you certainly had these small portraits and small vignettes, so you have to do it visually now. Now you can assemble the film and add this meaning.” Does that answer the question?
Certainly. I took immediate note of when it started to note feel like it was from Paul’s point of view, and there’s this pocket of the movie dominated by Esther — where she’s speaking directly to the camera.
Yeah, yeah. And Paul is not witnessing.
Exactly. It has me asking, “So whose place are we seeing this from?” The way it can grow out of that, I find very fascinating. Do you plan this visual character as you’re writing or discover it during the film’s assembly? You said something about how the actress’ performance consumed the film.
[Pause] It was planned. But the way of understanding it while you are writing and shooting is totally different. Do you see what I mean? It was planned because, in the writing, I was following Paul, and suddenly I had this letter from Esther, and I didn’t need the scene of Paul opening the letter any longer. It was just Esther; it was about her loneliness. Her letters were longer and longer, and I could see that what I was writing was how a woman — a young woman, a young girl — is taking the power on Paul’s history, on Paul’s adventures, and is becoming the main thing. As I was saying, “Taking all the room.”
“A woman who takes up the bed” were your words to the room.
But, after that, when you are experiencing it… writing it is a thing, and it’s a great thing. It’s a thing that I love — to write as a woman. It’s my favorite thing on earth. Sorry, I’m just shifting from one thing to another. I’m not able to write those kinds of lines for a boy. When you have Paul’s letter, when he’s writing this one letter to Esther, I didn’t film it. I’m not able to do that. I love narrators in film, I love voiceovers, but I’m not able to say, “My name is Paul Dedalus.” I’m not able to do that. What I can write as a voiceover is, “This guy is called Paul Dedalus. This guy wants to go to Africa and to write,” and so on.
When I’m describing a female character, then I’m able to write using the first person. I’m able to write, like in Kings & Queen, “My name is Nora Cotterelle. I’m 31 years old.” And I love to impersonate a female character; that’s my thing. So writing the lines of Esther, the last letters, was an experience. But, after that, the experience is totally different when I’m with the actress and trying to think about the proper way to film her — a way which will be comfortable for her performance and good, visually. It’s another way to understand her and the fact that she’s becoming the film.
What you say about writing from the female perspective brings me, I suppose, to the matter of your love of Philip Roth, who you’ve quoted and referenced in coded ways many times prior. For instance, the brief, Russia-set segment made me think of Operation Shylock.
Operation Shylock, with the double. Yeah.
And I also thought of The Counterlife, specifically the chapter where Zuckerman is detained on the airplane.
Yeah, The Counterlife. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
So I’m not crazy for noticing those.
No, you’re not. The doppelgänger is one of the great Philip Roth motifs, where suddenly you discover a guy who is a caricature of yourself, and it’s bizarre — it’s strange. Yeah, as I told you: today, I’m nervous. I don’t know why. Because, I told you, I’m not protected when I’m to perform. But I will be proud of this very Philip Roth kind of thing: I improvised on the set, because we shot the scene with the Russian guys in the sweatshop when the guy is bringing the money and passport, and the performance is perfect. I was working with this young Russian guy who was playing the part of Nathan, and he looked stupid, hugging him. Paul is embarrassed. “It’s this guy that I gave my passport? It’s silly. What am I doing? It’s so silly: I wanted to be a hero and I’m a dumb guy. I’m just stupid.”
And I thought, “Yeah, but there’s something beautiful in that.” And I improvised this shot where you can see a zoom on the face of this Russian guy, Nathan, who he gave his papers when he’s speaking with André Dussollier, and you have this sky, a grey sky behind him, and this zoom of this guy smiling as an enigma, a pure enigma. And I thought, “I’m not that bad.” Because, you know, this idea was not in the script; I improvised it, and I like it, visually. It’s a powerful image, and you can remember that smile as the doppelgänger saying, “Goodbye. I will end you for the rest of your days.” And I thought it was quite a Philip Roth kind of thing.
So does the influence come subconsciously, or are you often conscious of the commonalities?
You know, these days, I’m trying to write, which is the worst part of the job, and I formed this character. It’s about this character, and I was thinking about Vertigo. It’s a melancholy… it’s not melancholy. It’s quite a tragic character… no, it’s not a tragic character. It’s a strange character. It’s a strange woman. She disappeared for 20 years, and she’s back, and I started to write some good scenes with this material, this woman who’s back from the dead. She was supposed to be dead and she’s back. The guy is surprised. I’m calling him Ismael right now. Just right now; I will change it later. Right now I’m calling him Ismael, and I realized that this woman is coming from Sabbath’s Theater.
Because Mickey Sabbath, his first wife disappeared when he was a famous puppeteer in New York. He was dating this woman, she was in his life, and suddenly she disappeared. And so he called all his friends, saying, “Okay, you are dating my girlfriend. Tell me where she is.” And the friends say, “No. We have no idea where she is.” I realized that what I was writing would be sort of a chapter which has been unwritten by Philip Roth in Sabbath’s Theater, which is one of my favorites; one of his best works. My Life as a Man is a masterpiece, but Sabbath’s Theater is so incredibly powerful. I realized that this chapter, in the middle of the book, had such a big influence on me that I had to dream about what did happen to this woman. I was thinking of American Pastoral: this woman, this daughter who disappeared, belonging to the Weathermen and reappearing in the life of her father decades later.
You know, you have few encounters in your life — not that much — which make you the man you are. This morning, a woman was asking which films I like. An absurd question. I like thousands of them. But I remember when I saw Fanny and Alexander, the Bergman movie, and, before that, I was still a technician — a “technician” in the wide sense of the word. I was still a writer, editor, DP, etc. When I saw the movie, coming out of the theater, I was a director. Perhaps a terrible director, but still a director. This film branded me. And when I read the first Philip Roth book, he was the man I had to meet, with his books. He was the one who changed my life. I know, at my age, there will not be thousands of writers who brand me that way. His books don’t belong to me, but I belong to his books — as if I was one of his characters.
I only have a couple of minutes left, so I have to ask this while we’re on the topic: there have long been rumors that you’re considering or planning an adaptation of The Counterlife.
[Waves hand] Never The Counterlife.
No. It’s a mistake. I read that somewhere. No. I have a dream —
If I could convince you to do it…
The Counterlife? The Counterlife! How can… the first chapters of The Counterlife — it belongs to literature. It’s impossible to put that on the screen. There is a book which is underrated, to my mind, a book that I love: Deception, which is just dialogues. And it would be tremendous material for a film or a stage play. I think so. But there is a difficulty in the book that has to do with My Golden Days: the book is about the fall of the wall and this passion between the eastern and western world in Europe. Because you have all these characters of refugees coming from Czechoslovakia or East Germany or etc. — this woman that the main character is meeting. Which means that, if I was adapting such a book, I would have to make a period piece, which would be too expensive. I don’t know how to fix it. Perhaps it’s a book that I will never be able to adapt for the screen, and I know I will regret it for the rest of my days. It wouldn’t be one of the major books of Philip Roth. It would be Deception, which are just dialogues. But so perfect.
My Golden Days will begin a limited release on Friday, March 18.
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