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MY GOLDEN DAYS (2015) review

March 27, 2016

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written by: Arnaud Desplechin and Julie Peyr
produced by: Oury Milshtein and Tatiana Bouchain
directed by: Arnaud Desplechin
rated: R (for some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and language)
runtime: 120 min.
U.S. release date: October 17, 2015 (Chicago International Film Festival), March 18, 2016 and March 25, 2016 (limited)

 

Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days” is a mesmerizing and profoundly endearing look at the unforgettable memories we hold. We all have them. There are childhood occurrences, eye-opening moments during the teen years and that first love – all of which linger and rise to the surface of our minds, throughout years of life experiences. I’ve watched many coming-of-age films over the years, but none of them found me reflecting on my own memories so clearly as this resonating French film has done.

“My Golden Days” opens with anthropology professor, Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric), about to return to Paris after spending years working in Tajikistan. There’s something about his tone and his expression though as he thinks about returning to the place he was raised – maybe he’s uncertain of some place, someone or maybe he knows how much he’s changed. Nevertheless, memories inevitably come and as they do three moments in particular from his life rise to the surface, told to us in flashback and not all of them turn out to be as whelming as the title suggests. These flashbacks resemble the memories that are filed away on the bookshelf of our life’s story and as we page through a specific time the pages come to life. That’s what happens here as Desplechin takes us into Paul’s reflections – “fragments” as he calls them and proclaims, “I remember…I remember…”

First, we spend time with 11-year-old Paul and his brother and sister in their Roubaix (the hometown of Desplechin in northern France) home with their unstable and overbearing mother Jeanne (Cécile Garcia-Fogel ) and their short-tempered and despondent father, Abel (Olivier Rabourdin). Frustrated with the volatile home environment, young Paul moves in with his loving great-aunt, Rose (Françoise Lebrun), after his mother abruptly commits suicide, leaving his father depressed and useless. This chapter in his life gives us a foundation and an idea of where he comes from and indicates where his independence and distance from his family stems.

 

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Before we get to the next chapter, we follow an adult Paul as he is detained in modern-day France, due to an apparent issue with his passport upon his arrival. He is questioned by the authorities in a mysterious manner and it’s at this time we begin to wonder who Paul Dédalus really is. They suspect him to be a Russian spy, but Paul explains such a misunderstanding as he recalls a certain period during his teenage years.

While on a field trip to Minsk, Paul (now played by Quentin Dolmaire) and his Jewish friend, Marc (Elyot Milshtein), stray from their class in order to assist some Russian Jews (or Refuseniks) by delivering the money and documents they’ve smuggled, along with Paul’s passport. Although they show their gratitude, Paul’s help is baffling to these Russian Jews and he simply states his desire to help those in need as his reasoning, but one gets the idea that he also has a need to feel needed and appreciated as well, especially with the fractured parental figures in his life. The Russian chapter resolves the adult Paul’s hold-up upon his return to France, but it also spawns a pivotal series of memories that began not long after his brief turn as in amateur espionage.

We then turn to his third and longest memory, a period of time in the 80s while still in his teens and beyond, that will take up the rest of the film and play an enormous impact in Paul’s life. We follow 19-year-old Paul as he hangs with his curiously pious brother, Ivan (Raphael Cohen), his insecure sister, Pénélope (Clémence Le Gall), their younger cousin, Bob (Théo Fernandez) and their friends, Delphine (Lily Taeib) and Jean-Pierre (Pierre Andrau), as Paul closes out high school and begins to pursue his bachelor’s degree in Paris. Before that starts though, he approaches 17-year-old, Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), a ravishingly beautiful girl (the kind you’re afraid to approach) he’s noticed from afar. Through his clever persistence and her coy acceptance, the two eventually form a bond and not long after a romance blossoms into what is clearly Paul’s first true love.

 

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Esther seems mature beyond her age, knowing full well the effect she has on men, which is even more of a draw for Paul and it doesn’t take him long to profess his unconditional love to her. As their time together increases, Paul discovers both a brazen and rude side to Esther as well as a needy and fragile side, finding her more and more dependent on him as she has a visibly difficult time with his traveling back and forth to his studies with his mentor, the in-demand Professor Béhanzin (Ève Doé-Bruce), a time when the Berlin Wall falls and Boris Yeltsin is elected. In the time that takes Paul away from Esther due to his studies, the two admit to seeing others, such as when Paul hooks up with his tutor’s girlfriend, Gilberte (Mélodie Richard), but it’s purely physical. Still, the six-year stop-and-go (and eventually stop) relationship nevertheless leaves a lasting impact on Paul, obviously causing him to reflect on Esther well into his adult years.

The concluding chapter finds Paul bumping into Jean-Pierre and his wife at an opera house in Paris. At first, it is a cordial reunion over drinks and then Esther comes up in conversation as does resentment Paul has toward Jean-Pierre (played as an adult by Éric Ruf) for dating her back when they were teens. It’s an open wound for Paul and provides a cathartic moment to let his former friend have a piece of his mind, still  really only revealing a certain sensitivity and longing he has for the tender romance he had with Esther.

The best choice director Desplechin, who co-wrote “My Golden Days” with Julie Peyr, makes is not having the adult Paul track down or reunite with an adult Esther. Like in real life, that ship has sailed – he can wonder what happened to her (even Google her) as we so often do – but there’s no going back. All he can do is fondly recall the time he had with Esther and that’s exactly what the director and his cinematographer, Irina Lubtchansky do as they tenderly capture the connection these the young couple had, assisting by the deftly-handled editing from Laurence Briaud. I also found myself taking notice of the music used in the film – not just The Specials or George Clinton, but the gentle and reflective score by Grégoire Hetzel (who also composed the score for Desplechin’s “The Christmas Tale” from 2008).

 

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Inarguably, the standout of the film is the first-time actors who play Paul and Esther. Both Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lxcollinet have an undeniable naturalness and openness that is simply impressive. Roy-Lecollinet is wonderful as Esther, who affectively portrays the complicated, independent character who gets more complex the closer she gets to Paul. She reminded me of the Léa Seydoux and the first time I came across Chloe Moretz Grace. Watching Dolmaire, I couldn’t help but think of Dustin Hoffman’s work in “The Graduate”, both of whom play characters who try to come across as something more than they are to others and eventually have to just be themselves – which may sound like a typical coming-of-age trope, but Dolmaire has a grasp on Paul that is relatable, giving viewers the opportunity to connect with him.

The relationship between Paul and Esther really resonated with me and had me thinking about my own first love when I was a sophomore in high school. The ache and pain of young love was definitely palpable and something any viewer can connect with. One of the lines Paul uses in his narration, “What good is friendship, if passion is intact?”, speaks truth of those relationships that are propelled by something more than just friendship – there’s no turning back to “just friends” status after you’ve experienced such powerful firsts.

The original title of “My Golden Days” is “Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse”, meaning “Three Memories of My Youth”, which seems more accurate, but the simplicity of the final title feels more appropriate in that, despite the rough times we have in the past, certain memories remain golden. The film is a a sort of prequel to the director’s “My Sex Life….Or How I Got Into An Argument” from 1996, which I have not yet seen and therefore will prove to be an interesting sequel for me.

Despite a variety of distinctive choices, such as: split screen, dissolving iris shots and on-screen character narration directed at the audience, Desplechin never gets in the way of the story he’s telling. In fact, I found each of those choices as approaches that surprisingly enriched the storytelling process. If we take anything away the film, anything from Paul’s memories, it’s that they are his, just as the ones we own are our own and they are ours to tell.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2016 8:34 am

    Terrific review. I too loved this movie. Your last paragraph is spot on; Desplechin may use an eclectic grab-bag of stylistic choices throughout the film (some of which he’ll only use once and then never again) but it’s always in service of the content. It’s a bold, “whatever works for this particular moment” approach and there’s nobody else like him.

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