The last time we saw Paul Dedalus and Esther, Arnaud Desplechin’s long-term lovers, was twenty years ago in My Sex Life…or How I Got into an Argument, and if Mathieu Amalric has his wish, the next time will be in another 30 years. “We’d be old and so mean. And we’d really hate each other…and it would be good, but just we’d be eighty, not before that,” said Amalric in a story that Desplechin shared after a screening of his newest film, My Golden Days, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Honey-tinged with nostalgia that an adult Paul claims not to have, My Golden Days is essentially a three part coming-of-age story held together by what Desplechin described as his “Russian song.” “It’s a period film. The main one, with Esther, is happening during the fall of the wall,” he explained. “I knew on a musical level, it would make sense to me to have this Russian song going all the way through the whole film, driving my character.”
Desplechin’s Russian song also makes a material appearance in the form of a Stravinsky recording, Two Sacred Songs. “It’s a piece that I love of Stravinsky, and it’s influenced by Hugo Wolf,” he said, “and I love to think in the audience there was Herrmann and Stravinsky in Los Angeles, both of them listening to Hugo Wolf, and one of them composed the score of Vertigo and the other one composed The Two Sacred Songs.” In this way, Desplechin’s nod to Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score in My Golden Days becomes obliquely tied to Stravinsky as well, though Desplechin’s love of Herrmann goes far beyond Stravinsky.
“It’s a complaint that I have from the composer [Gregoire Hetzel],” Desplechin said of his affection for Bernard Herrmann. “We did a few films together, and on each new film he says, ‘will you go on harassing me with Bernard Herrmann?,” said Desplechin before continuing, “And I think…I won’t stop.”
As in Vertigo, the score for My Golden Days utilizes the concept of the leitmotif to signal Esther’s presence. “When Esther appears the during the party they have at home, you have the slow motion picture on her crossing the corridor,” he explained, “and you have this motif, you know, coming from Vertigo, and it’s as if she was appearing as a ghost or spirit.” Even without the motif, however, Esther’s presence would make itself known—through letters, through direct addresses to the camera, through force of adolescent will.
Esther’s declaration of self, her toughness, and even her arrogance are what draw Paul to her in the first place. “I love the first appearance of Esther, sitting on this rock. And she’s like a statue, and she’s impenetrable,” said Desplechin. “Nothing can hurt her. She’s the woman with three husbands. She’s the queen.” But it’s Esther’s emotional development that sustains the narrative. She becomes vulnerable: “She was like a statue, and she’s becoming human. She’s becoming a woman at the end of the film.” This is a foil to Paul, whose maturity and rationality at the beginning of the film clash with the enraged, childish man that we find at the end. “It’s as if he was waiting for his late 40s to become an adolescent at last.”
While we watch Paul and Esther change, their constant pull toward each other remains the same. Throughout the film, in homage to Truffaut, Esther and Paul read and write to each other. The letters allow for the characters to be present despite physical separation. Similarly, the books that the couple share traverse space to bind them to each other. In one of the final scenes, the pages of a book that they once read together fly through the air and surround Paul, bringing Esther and her memory to him once again. The reason, as Desplechin succinctly put it before the screening: “It’s a romance…It’s a romance.”
My Golden Days opens this Friday (3/18). The Film Society of Lincoln Center will host a Q&A with the director on Friday (3/18) at 6:30 PM and on Saturday (3/19) at 1:30 PM.