by Matt Levine
My Golden Days ends with a freeze-frame even more powerful than the one that closes François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959): youth interrupted at the peak of its hopefulness, as though the characters happened to look life in its eyes and were stopped in their tracks. French artworks have a long history of bottling the bittersweet brevity of youth, from writers such as Marcel Proust and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to filmmakers like Truffaut and Louis Malle. It’s a difficult balance, evoking both the joy and the sadness of being young, its sense of infinite expectancy and lurking fatalism. At its best, this focus on youth seems to convey, in a few short hours or several hundred pages, the electricity of being alive.
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Producer: Pascal Caucheteux
Writers: Arnaud Desplechin, Julie Peyr
Cinematographer: Irina Lubtschansky
Editor: Laurence Briaud
Music: Grégoire Hetzel, Mike Kourtzer
Cast: Quentin Dolmaire, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, Mathieu Amalric, Dinara Drukarova, Cécile Garcia-Fogel, Françoise Lebrun, Irina Vavilova, Olivier Rabourdin, Elyot Milshtein, Pierre Andrau, Lily Taieb, Raphaël Cohen
Premiere: May 15, 2015 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 18, 2016
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
With My Golden Days, the great French director Arnaud Desplechin adds his name to the list of artists who’ve made definitive portraits of the young and reckless. Emboldened (he says) by the candor of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Desplechin has made a film that instills, unforgettably, how passions and heartbreaks from our youth may continue to shape our lives over the ensuing decades. This is especially striking since Desplechin’s films often seem adult in tone and perspective. Aside from his early La Sentinelle (1992), many of his works address how the passage of time has picked at relationships, hopes and dreams like exposed scabs. Nowhere is this more affecting than in Kings and Queen (2004), Desplechin’s masterpiece to date, which burns with the rueful melancholy of someone reflecting on a turbulent life.
Not coincidentally, My Golden Days serves as a pseudo-sequel to Desplechin’s most overt analysis of what it means to be an “adult.” In 1996, My Sex Life…Or How I Got Into an Argument ushered Desplechin onto the international film scene. My Sex Life established many of Desplechin’s traits as a director: an eclectic interest in film, music, visual art, live theatre, history, and other fields; philosophical themes and ruminative dialogue sharing space with a breakneck pace (despite its three hour running time) and a sometimes madcap style; erratic, inscrutable behavior prodding at the mysteries of human nature; and a lustful energy that reveals how much sex and insecurity dictate our actions. Its protagonist, Paul Dédalus (a young Mathieu Amalric), may have barely entered adulthood—he’s a graduate student in anthropology who’s been working on his thesis for years—but he constantly indulges in romantic affairs and in-depth dialogues seemingly as proof of his wisdom and maturity. In other words, My Sex Life is precisely about the rift between youth and adulthood, and how those two epochs might not be as easily separable as we assume.
Conversely, My Golden Days reintroduces us to Paul Dédalus many years later as he wistfully reflects on his younger days. After having traveled the world on a number of anthropological studies—Tajikistan most recently—Dédalus (again played by Amalric) is detained at a French airport. (When we first meet him, he’s saying melancholy farewells to a half-clothed Russian woman; apparently his capricious flings and wandering eye have not abated with age.) It turns out there’s another Paul Dédalus in the world, a former refugee from the Communist USSR whom Paul supplied with his own passport when he visited Russia as an idealistic high school student. The “real” Paul’s testimony in a drab holding cell while he’s questioned by a French agent (played by Alain Resnais’ frequent collaborator André Dussollier) provides an oddly unromantic context for this heartfelt story, but it also draws a sad and subtle link between Paul’s worldly travels—fraught with historical and political intrigue—and his romantic “explorations.”
Most of the story, though, belongs not to this present-day Paul Dédalus but to his 1980s counterpart: a curly-haired teenager with deep dark eyes and even more prominent dimples, played by Quentin Dolmaire in a performance that will almost surely bring him to prominence in the manner of Amalric before him. After being introduced to his depressed father and mentally unstable mother (a subplot further fleshed out in My Sex Life, though for the most part it’s unnecessary to see that predecessor before My Golden Days), we come to know Paul as an adventurous teenager aware of how limitless and exciting the world appears to be.
After his excursion to the Soviet Union, an even more heated exploit awaits Paul back in his hometown of Roubaix (also Desplechin’s hometown). He first spots Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet) in a high-school courtyard, swarmed by adolescent boys equally perturbed by her blonde hair, short skirt, and saucer-sized blue eyes. She knows she’s desired just as much as Paul knows he is; in their embrace of their rampaging hormones and sense of invincibility, they share something in common, a belief in the flexibility of desire that quickly becomes an unbreakable bond. They go through affairs, the pain of long distance as Paul studies anthropology in Paris and abroad, the near-inevitability that they will grow tired of each other and find solace elsewhere—but, like the greatest and most devastating loves, each hardship only reveals how they’re fated for each other.
As with Desplechin’s greatest films (Kings and Queen as well as A Christmas Tale), the power lies not in the narratives but in the brief moments that convey complex identities. Esther dances, stoned and drunk, to records spun by Paul’s brother; later, she wakes up in Paul’s bed, only to realize that his father has stumbled in, unaware of his son’s companion. Paul begs to be in the class of the anthropology professor he idolizes, learning Latin to ingratiate himself to her; many years later, he calls Esther from a phone at a train depot in the Middle East, devastatingly bored by something perfect. These are the moments that flood your heart with sadness and make you shiver with excitement and sympathy; rehashing a plot synopsis means very little when it comes to a movie like My Golden Days.
Desplechin’s visual style is not flashy—there are few long takes or acrobatic camera moves, nothing resembling the dreaminess of Claire Denis or the provocations of Michael Haneke or Catherine Breillat—but it would be wrong to call him uncinematic. His close-ups (achieved with cinematographer Irina Lubtschansky) are hypnotic to watch, obviously aided by the marvelous performances; and they arrive with an overpowering precision, thanks to flawless editing by Laurence Briaud. The aesthetic mostly serves the story and especially the characters, allowing their tempestuous youth and shattered dreams to take precedence—though that doesn’t limit the power of a shot in which, for example, a door is closed on the audience in the middle of a heated argument, the camera sauntering away as if respectful of these people’s sad fury. Desplechin is a humanist first and a stylist second, wedding the boldness of his French New Wave inspirations to the more “invisible” style of classical Hollywood or French cinema.
Esther is (perhaps unfortunately) a secondary character to Paul, but both Dolmaire and Roy-Lecollinet offer performances that are sad, sexy, joyous, and unselfconscious. She is the younger version of Emmanuelle Devos’ character in My Sex Life, but they really are different characters, as disparate in demeanor and worldview as the Dédaluses of My Sex Life and My Golden Days. Desplechin has always been able to maintain a balance between his own unique voice and the excellence of his actors; My Golden Days might be his most actor-oriented film, clearly enamored with the young performers. In many long scenes, he is willing to allow Dolmaire and Roy-Lecollinet to simply play off of each other in close-up, and the majesty of these scenes remind the audience how powerful such simple cinematic vocabulary can be and how rarely modern directors take advantage of movies’ ability to simply observe and empathize.
As for Paul Dédalus, looking back on his golden days with the melancholy of someone who knows they’re gone—what are we to make of him? He remains immature, unable to sustain a relationship, excusing his flippant attitude towards the women in his life with an “adventurous” spirit that he believes makes up for his fear of commitment. Or maybe he’s never healed from his love for Esther, the way he lost her through his maverick indifference and pretended not to care. Is his namesake closer to the Greek myth of Daedelus, who aspired to greatness but flew too close to the sun? Or are we meant to think of Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce’s surrogate in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (and supporting character in Ulysses), a mess of conflicting interests and passions, pains and joys?
The answer is both, of course, denoting Desplechin’s eclectic interests, equally indebted to history, myth, film, and literature. Paul Dédalus is a profoundly complex character, resistant to any simplistic interpretations. Like Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s early movies—or, more importantly, like a truly existing person who’s been alive for decades—Paul Dédalus is informed by the movies he’s watched, the family he fights with, the loves he’s had and lost. His golden days, in a sad irony that feels true to life, become in his memory the most painful days of all.