My Golden Days a Melancholic Remembrance of Youth
Acclaimed director Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days sees Mathieu Amalric returning to the role of Paul Dédalus, a character he first portrayed in 1996’s My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument. But where in that drama he was front and center, this time the award-winning actor is around more as storyteller and observer, this sequel/prequel going back in time to look at the character’s younger days coming of age in the 1980s. As such, the film is a time capsule, a look at first loves and the events happening both within and beyond one’s control that shapes who they ultimately become, a wistful Paul finally able to admit things about himself he long ago made the concrete decision to suppress.
Now a successful anthropologist living in Tajikistan, on a return trip to France Paul is stopped by customs due to a problem with his passport. While speaking with the officers in charge of his case, he begins to tell them about his life growing up in Roubaix as a teenager (Quentin Dolmaire), including the psychological scars left by his mentally-unbalanced mother (Cécile Garcia-Fogel) and his long relationship with the beautiful Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). He also speaks about a high school trip to Russia where he gave his identity to a young Jewish doppelganger, doing so for reasons not so much selfless as they were a vehicle for him to feel superior to those too timid to do the same.
The movie pretty much sticks with this younger version of Paul, watching as he returns to Roubaix, parties with his younger siblings Ivan (Raphäel Cohen) and Delphine (Lily Taieb), attempts to romance Esther, goes to college, learns about life and smokes a ton of cigarettes. He passes from 16 to 21 in a figurative blink of an eye, the older Paul still haunted about events that transpired during this period, specifically the woman who got away, allowing him to become the lonely womanizer he’s transformed into at the ripe age of 45. There are highs. There are lows. There are a number of personal revelations that set him on the path to becoming an anthropology professor currently working in Russia. It’s all pretty standard stuff, and anyone expecting anything different will likely walk away from the film disappointed.
Which would be a pity because, while not Desplechin at his best, I tend to lean in the direction of A Christmas Tale or Kings & Queen as far as that goes, My Golden Days is still a strong coming-of-age drama with numerous plusses to extol the virtues of, not the least of which is the wonderful performance of newcomer Dolmaire. More than that, the filmmaker has a delicate, delightfully unsentimental feel for the material, allowing his main character to recognize his failings and faults even as he is more often than not unable to overcome them. He never allows the narrative to become too overstuffed with material, and even when Paul is having an affair with an older woman, Gilberte (Mélodie Richard), or connecting with a college teacher, Professeur Behanzin (Eve Doe-Bruce), as if she were the mother he never had, the storytelling remains concise, level-headed and coherent throughout.
Frustratingly, Esther remains something of an enigma, and unlike My Sex Life it’s never entirely clear what she sees in Paul and why, in turn, he is so infatuated with her. While Roy-Lecollinet is beautiful, there’s honestly not a great deal of depth to her performance, her chemistry with Dolmaire never setting the screen ablaze. She does have one terrific scene, however, near the end, where her emotional imbalances take shape in ways that are intimate, close to primal, the correlation between her and her lover’s own mother obvious but not in a manner that could be construed as contrived or coincidental.
Reminiscent in some ways of Milos Forman’s The Loves of a Blonde and François Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses, Desplechin’s latest still finds a way to chart a clear, crisp path that is decidedly its own. Not so much a sequel to My Sex Life as it is a look at Paul Dédalus’ life and times from a more evolved perspective, there is a melancholic urgency to this recollective melodrama that is undeniable. My Golden Days isn’t perfect, but much like memories of our own youth, I’m not entirely certain it is meant to be, and as such the film becomes a far more emotionally powerful endeavor because of this.
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)