“I am not Ulysses. No nostalgia for my country,” says the anthropologist Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric) to a lover in Greece. With a title like My Golden Days, you might be forgiven to think this is indeed a nostalgia piece, but this is a film by Arnaud Desplechin, a French filmmaker who understands how to pick apart sentiment to its raw core. He understands that memories are fragments within shards of moments that wipe each other away and are never true records of the past. Time is a moment that as soon as it is considered has been altered from that moment. Desplechin is keenly aware of this, using cinematic devices like iris shots to transition between scenes that speak to the tunnel vision of memory and the filter of time. With My Golden Days, he focuses on first love and how it can haunt and form our beings as told in retrospect by Paul, who sometimes has trouble remembering things.
It’s a convenient character flaw that also speaks to the general truth that memory is never reliable. Paul, a character we first met in Desplechin’s third film, My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument (1996), has a troubled past. His memories bring forth a childhood with an abusive father and a demented mother he never liked, thus his childhood self takes the news of her suicide with a disturbing sense of callousness. As teenage love enters through this sieve of experience, Paul lingers on his adolescent years. Desplechin, who co-wrote the script with Julie Peyr, is telling a story hooked on nostalgia, despite having a main character with an aversion for it.
The pleasure of this film is not dependent on whether you have seen My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument. This new film’s connection to the first should not deter viewers who might fear having missed some bit of insight into the character of Paul Dédalus. My Golden Days stands on its own as a cinematic experience. Staying true to the idea that as memories change with time so do people, there is inconsistency of the character between the two films, referred to as Desplechin’s most personal works, similar to Truffaut’s series of movies about Antoine Doinel, who was played by Jean-Pierre Léaud through the years.
Paul’s recollection lingers on his teenage self (Quentin Dolmaire), who not only falls for the complex and intriguing Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet) but also plays a hero on a school trip to Soviet Russia, a move that comes back to haunt him in these later years and partly triggers a need for recollection. But the presence of Esther in his memories overshadows anything else in his memories. Almost immediately she stands out as a strong, self-assured woman, aware of the power of her good looks. But she has met her match in Paul, and she bounces between seductive, sleepy-eyed confidence to falling into tearful insecurity in order to cling to Paul. Roy-Lecollinet gives a beautifully poignant performance. You can almost sense her heart blossoming to the point of fracture. But the film is so much more than melodrama. There’s a mature psychology in exploring what Paul carries from youth into adulthood, and the weight of memory is fierce. As the luster of mystery wears thin with Esther, she becomes clingy and tells Paul, “I’ll die if you leave.” In a way, Esther’s declaration of her demise with Paul’s abandonment is more accurate in retrospect than it was in that moment of passion in the past. As time has worn away at Paul, there is nothing like a love lost and the regret that comes with it.
The weight of the past is discreetly carried by Amalric in a supporting performance that stands out as the film’s strongest, only next to Roy-Lecollinet. At first, the elder Paul seems to be a mere story-telling device, who utters lines like, “I remember” or “I don’t remember” so the film may transition to these earlier teen dreams that make up the majority of the film. Amalric, whose breakout acting performance arrived via his first role as Paul in the 1996 film is actually the film’s secret weapon, which is finally unleashed during the film’s epilogue. By this time you have spent so much time with the younger Paul, you wonder if the elder version can transmit the complexity of the heartache he has endured, but out it comes. It’s a gut-wrenching climax that crystallizes the film’s chapter breaks and speaks to Desplechin’s refined skill as a storyteller, not to mention the development of Amalric as an actor in between his two performances as Paul Dédalus, who seems to finally unleash a passion that had been coiled tight within his character, allowing him to transcend what at first seems to be a supporting role in this story about the power of memory.
SOUTH FLORIDA SCREENING UPDATE: My Golden Days starts a run at the Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale Friday, May 13. For screening times, visit this link.
My Golden Days runs 123 minutes, is in French, Russian and Hebrew with English subtitles and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area on Friday, April 1, at the Bill Cosford Cinema and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For showtimes and locations in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. This writer was granted a preview of this movie last October ahead of the film’s screening at Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival’s GEMS 2015 event for the purpose of a capsule review in the Miami New Times, of which this review expands upon. Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, who also provided an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review.