My Golden Days
MY GOLDEN DAYS, drama, rated R, in French with subtitles, The Screen, 3 chiles
“I felt nothing,” Paul says on several occasions in this chapter-book memoir of youth. The things he doesn’t feel are physical abuse — being knocked about by his father, or beaten up by a romantic rival, or running headfirst into a wall. The emotional stuff of his life plays on a more sensitive nerve.
Paul Dédalus is the stand-in for the film’s director and co-writer, Arnaud Desplechin, as he explores remembrances of his past, zeroing in on three memories, and framing them from the perspective of the present day. We meet today’s Paul (Mathieu Amalric, who first played Desplechin’s alter ego 20 years ago in My Sex Life, or ... How I Got Into an Argument )in Tajikistan in bed with a complaisant blonde whom he is leaving to return, after many years abroad, to Paris to take a government job.
“I remember,” he says, and the first memory, titled “Childhood,” is of nightmarish scenes with his deranged mother and his distraught, abusive father. He runs away from home, and takes shelter with his lesbian aunt Rose (Françoise Lebrun, who played the first title character in The Mother and the Whore, the 1973 classic by Jean Eustache). The childhood Paul is played by young Antoine Bui, who could credibly grow up to be Amalric.
More memories are triggered when Paul runs into problems with passport control upon entering France, and is gently interrogated by an agent (the veteran André Dussollier). The authorities are curious about a “twin,” now deceased, with a passport showing the same name and date and place of birth as that of Paul. This takes us back to a chapter set in Paul’s adolescence, and a class trip to the Soviet Union that involves some youthful cloak-and-daggery, and a gesture of naive idealism.
These chapters take up about the first quarter of the two-hour film. By the time we reach the finish, they will seem like a couple of footnotes — entertaining, illuminating even, but ancillary to the main event. Said main event is Paul’s romance with Esther (the enchanting Lou Roy-Lecollinet, making her film debut), the love of Paul’s life, for whom the third chapter is named.
The adolescent Paul and the young man he becomes are played by a newcomer, Quentin Dolmaire, a tousle-haired, fine-featured chap who doesn’t look much like Amalric, but could be the 21st-century incarnation of Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Antoine Doinel. The main difference between Dolmaire and the earlier model (who was the onscreen alter ego of Francois Truffaut) is that Dolmaire’s Paul has a sense of playfulness, and a ready smile. He meets Esther when he returns to his home town of Roubaix from his university studies in Paris to see his younger siblings, Delphine and Ivan (Lily Taieb and Raphaël Cohen), who are still in school.
It’s eyes across the playground. Paul waits (in split screen, one of several cinematic devices Desplechin uses) until the other kids have cleared out, and then makes his way across to the round bench where Esther is regally perched. She’s only sixteen, but she has a fully formed sexual aura that makes a persuasive argument for reincarnation.
Paul claims to be tongue-tied, but his opening line belies that mask. “My eyes devour you,” he tells Esther.
“I always do that to guys,” she responds coolly. “I have that effect because I’m exceptional. You can’t forget me, you never will.”
Sixteen? I would have killed for that dialogue at sixteen.
In fact, in some ways they’re both too damned sophisticated for their own good. They fall passionately in love, but distance and circumstance often keep them apart. They each take on a string of lovers — the advantage in numbers, by Paul’s count, goes to Esther — and there is not much effort made to hide these dalliances. We see more of Paul’s involvements, including a charming scene in which a woman he’s boarding with drops her skirt in invitation to him while her husband is out. We also see Paul’s deepening involvement in his anthropology studies, and his deepening attachment (nonsexual) to his wonderful professor/advisor (Eve Doe-Bruce).
Paul and Esther fill the distance between them with endless letters, sometimes delivered directly to the camera. Their sang-froid gives way to a desperate romantic insecurity, and their destinies, as we know from the outset they must, drift apart.
The film circles back at the end to the present-day Paul, and gives Amalric a remarkable scene of fierce intensity that knocks the film clear out of its tracks, in a positive way. We are made, Desplechin seems to be saying, of all the experiences, good and bad, that we have accumulated along the way. Those passions and ecstasies and heartbreaks may be carried deep, but they’re in there, and they may burst forth when least expected. — Jonathan Richards
Belles lettres: Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet