My Golden Days

MyGoldenDaysPosterThe ability to compare your girlfriend to an Italian work of landscape art from the Renaissance, to carry out a long distance relationship of casual sex, or to have an affair with your housemate’s girlfriend without consequence, is all decidedly French. Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days” follows a romance and coming-of-age story very specific to a Parisian lifestyle in the ‘80s, so frivolous and carefree that watching it feels erratic.

Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric) confesses in casual pillow talk with his current lover overseas that he feels no nostalgia for his country. That romantic tone gets quickly replaced with a flashback to Paul’s childhood, a melodramatic scene of violent domestic abuse. During his pre-teen years, Paul’s mother kills herself and his father checks out altogether.

Back in modern times, Paul becomes detained by a customs official who says a duplicate Paul Dedalus turned up dead several years earlier. In explanation, Paul reflects back on a high school trip to Minsk in the Soviet era when he smuggled in goods and gave his passport to an Israeli refugee. Suddenly the film’s tone assumes that of a tense thriller. Across these different chapters and plays on genre, Paul gets beaten and abused, once by his father, once by his own hand, and once by a jealous boyfriend. And each time Paul describes the situation by saying, “I felt nothing.”

Paul (played by Quentin Dolmaire as a teenager) desperately needs to feel something. The remainder of the film concerns his young-adult relationship with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), and as Paul’s life becomes consumed with this relationship, Desplechin strives to show how Paul will learn to feel something after all.

Of course, he’ll only learn to feel in a way that matches Desplechin’s (“A Christmas Tale,” “Kings and Queen”) own personal experience in France. “My Golden Days” draws plenty of inspiration from the French New Wave, and even closes with a cheeky freeze frame that feels lifted from “The 400 Blows.” So the revelations and discoveries about life will all be marred in stories of cool young people having sex, arguing with their stuffy, oppressive parents, lying around smoking and dabbling in just a touch of grad-school existentialism. Paul’s character and his experiences are so specific to this culture that it’s hard to truly relate or feel connected to his brand of anguish and grief.

Paul and Esther are both layabouts. He attends grad school but is a lazy student (openly admitting that every class of geniuses needs someone to remind them how brilliant they all are), and she may or may not have settled into a dull, unhappy job after high school, but finds plenty of time to sleep around with Paul’s friends. They’re cavalier about their infidelity and emotionally run hot and cold in the way that teenagers tend to do with first loves.

And “My Golden Days” mimics that frenetic feeling in its style. The early chapters of the movie experiment with tone and framing, with the beginning of Esther’s chapter even briefly employing split-screen wipes that look like something out of an old TV show. Desplechin also uses strange iris close-ups more commonly found in silent film. It’s a way of calling attention to Paul’s more carefree past, and yet nothing on screen feels particularly nostalgic or dreamlike.

It makes for an interesting viewing experience regardless, but like the characters at the center of “My Golden Days,” the film inwardly looks only at itself. Recapping the big moments of his life for Esther, Paul says “I have no idea what else to talk about.” “My Golden Days” isn’t about politics or bigger ideas of the world at large but about these particular people and how they meander through their lives. At the end of the day they might even be interesting, but they still don’t seem to have much to say.

2 1/2 stars

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3 Comments

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  1. you’re a hard man, brian–though la spouse tends to agree with you here, and sad to say, because usually i like desplechin’s movies so much (both of the ones you cited are very near masterpieces) i mainly have to agree with you too * some writers (well, at least one that i know of) have dubbed this the best movie of last year, though from my–or maybe i should say “our”?–point of view it’s one of the filmmaker’s weaker efforts

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    • I’m horribly behind on my Desplechin and I still have to play catch-up. Had I seen some of those others I may have been able to grapple with what he’s doing here a little better. I’ve seen Kings and Queen but it was probably over 5 years ago and I have no recollection of it.

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  2. from my point of view, the desplechins that shouldn’t be missed are MY SEX LIFE …, KINGS AND QUEEN, and A CHRISTMAS TALE, with ESTHER KAHN (featuring summer phoenix in the sofia coppola role, the theatrical/cinematic naif surrounded by ferociously competent actors: will she survive the encounter? can anyone?) occupying a special category all its own (i’m very sympathetic to this kind of experiment, by the way) * but o, the wonders of KINGS AND QUEEN!: one of the “great” movie performances of the new millennium from emmanuelle devos, who’s to contemporary acting what japanese butoh is to modern dance * at least when she’s working for desplechin, since the unique (and admittedly very strange) qualities i profess to value so highly in her “best” work–that the words coming froming her mouth register separately from the expressions on her face, that she manages to perform with accuracy and precision while walking around in a half-glazed state (“is this woman on drugs?”: no, but it’s an ability that’s very rare–others have tried it, mostly in her wake, on her own prior example, but without nearly the same results)–tend to disappear in her collaborations with other filmmakers: she’s still an invested performer, but with desplechin she’s something special * even in her CHRISTMAS TALE cameo, the screen comes “alive” (if that’s the word) all of a sudden in a way it hadn’t before her dinnertime visitation * not surprising that NONE of this stuff might show up in inferior states of reproduction (i’m assuming you saw the movie on DVD, brian), all those frantic eye movements, side to side, while the rest of the face remains placid, even frozen, zoned out, congealed, would be utterly lost

    i think later desplechin has suffered, though not for want of trying something different and fresh * but MY GOLDEN YEARS is the first movie of his that seems thoroughly conventional at heart (i know i know, there’s the central asian interlude, but central asian cineastes have been doing well enough on their own, thank you), if especially well made and observant for all that (the young actress heroine even resembles devos somewhat, in her sloe-eyed expressions, etc) * it’s all competent enough, even masterly in some of the blocking and color (i did, after all, rate it in my top 30 for last year), but good desplechin has always been better than that

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