You have to be very young, or very French, to pitch such grandiloquent woo as “your features contain the meaning of the world.” Luckily, Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days ticks both boxes – it’s about teenage first love in an industrial town in northern France.
François Truffaut made it easy for audiences by inventing an alter ego, Antoine Doinel, and linearly following him through his various stages of life. Desplechin, countryman and spiritual successor to Truffaut, is more oblique: His character Paul Dédalus first appeared in 1996’s twentysomething relationship comedy My Sex Life … Or How I Got Into an Argument, but the same name popped up 12 years later in the exquisite A Christmas Tale, attached to an unrelated character. Then again, everything is related in Desplechin’s cinematic universe, which recycles names like Paul, Esther, Ivan, the surname Vuillard; also, industrial Roubaix, where Desplechin grew up; and themes of mental illness and institutionalization, the damage parents do unto children, even a guy stealing his cousin’s girl. Everything isn’t just related, it’s relative, in that family – as a source of succor, occasionally, but mostly trauma – is essential to Desplechin’s work.
Set in the late Eighties, My Golden Days is ostensibly a prequel to My Sex Life, but more so, it’s in conversation with all of Desplechin’s films. That’s what gives this film an extra emotional heft and the fizzy disorientation of “I remember this rabbit hole.” Still, prior knowledge of My Sex Life isn’t required. (Actually, it might be a distraction, trying to square this vision of youth with what comes after.)
“I remember, I remember ….” That’s how the now fully adult Paul (played by Mathieu Amalric, as in My Sex Life) introduces the film’s three backward-glancing chapters, set during his childhood and teenage years. An anthropologist, Paul is returning to Paris after years abroad, a move which revives his memories – of a turbulent relationship with his mother; of an escapade in Minsk, as a teenage secret agent; and of his pursuit – as a gawky, lovestruck 19-year-old – of Esther, all sleepy-lidded, kissable-mouth gorgeous, and way out of his league. The teenage Paul and Esther are played by Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet – first-time actors, improbably. You can’t tear your eyes off them.
These “Golden Days” are from Paul’s perspective – his framing device, his defining events, his narration explaining how he goes to Paris to study while the still-provincial Esther is left home to pine. That power shift is ruinous. Early in their courtship, when he’s still chasing her, he asks-slash-pledges, “Have you ever been loved more than life? It’s how I’ll love you.” For Esther – convinced her worth lies in her beauty – the violence of his love is her undoing. Middle-aged Paul, still inflamed with the memory of Esther, gets an epilogue, but she does not. Still, the youthful Esther gets the final frame. Naked and relaxed, having just translated Greek for her lover – she was always smarter than he gave her credit for – she stares the screen down, chin up, like a dare. Maybe a dare to Desplechin, in fact: Next time, more Esther, less Paul. She’s still got stories to be told.
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