Nostalgia and longing in ‘My Golden Days’

Catherine Ellsberg ’16
Staff Writer

I was initially excited to see Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days” (translated from “Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse”), released in France last year, where it received acclaim at Cannes and picked up numerous awards at the Césars. To be perfectly honest, I had never seen a film by Desplechin, who is well-known for “Kings and Queen” and “A Christmas Tale,” among others. “My Golden Days” is apparently a continuation — at once a sequel and a prequel — of the 1996 “My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument. “

As many of my French friends have informed me, I couldn’t possibly understand the nuances of Desplechin’s film without seeing his other works. I’ve also heard that I simply “don’t get it” because I’m American.

This might all be true, but it won’t stop me from arguing that if this film is the exemplar of French cinema today, then French cinema has devolved into a sorry state.

Though the film has all the glossy look and texture of art-house cinema, accompanied throughout by a weepy, lush score, “My Golden Days” lacks substance. As Richard Brody wrote in his scathing New Yorker critique, the film “gratifies a craving for Frenchitude.”

I see his point. The film offers up a romanticized version of Paris (“Oh, look, the Eiffel Tower!”) and French culture, where young lovers switch up partners as they might a pair of socks, all without repercussion. Add in Desplechin’s frequent use of split-screens, or actors speaking directly to the camera, and you can just wait for French New Wave comparisons.

Desplechin favorite Mathieu Amalric, most recognized in the States for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “Quantum of Solace,” stars as Paul Dédalus, a middle-aged anthropologist. The film starts with a short prologue of Paul in Tajikistan, as depicted in the film, merely a pretty backdrop, where he tells his sometime-girlfriend, “I remember….”

Desplechin then takes us back to Paul’s unhappy childhood, when he and his two siblings dealt with their mentally disturbed mother and melancholic father. This chapter gives way to a teenage Paul, played throughout the rest of the film by a charming Quentin Dolmaire. In what seems like an impossibly rushed segment, Desplechin includes a detour of Paul travelling to the USSR, where he lends his identity card to a Jewish refusenik.

The rest of the film focuses on teenage Paul and his relationship with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), a 16-year-old always seen with an attractive pout, cigarette dangling in hand. The couple deals with “normal” ups-and-downs, including multiple partners and one-night-stands, all heightened by the urgency of adolescence.

Esther frequently falls apart, breaking down in tears whenever Paul leaves her to return to school, and Roy-Lecollinet does a fine job of portraying the fragile, unraveling young woman. But several scenes, such as when Paul compares Esther to a painting, or asks her “Have you ever been loved more than life itself? That’s how I’ll love you,” struck me as the French Vogue version of romance.

Not until the epilogue, when an aging Mathieu Amalric reveals a lingering and bitter longing for this lost love, does the film offers a glimpse of some of the manic, obsessive energy simmering beneath the surface. It occurs to me that everything I could not stand in the film — the four-hanky coda, the picture-perfect and exotic landscape, the sentimental professions of love — makes sense as one long, idealized memory.

Maybe my French friends were right, after all: I don’t get it.

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