Last year’s Cannes Film Festival favorite My Golden Days, directed by the extraordinary and accomplished Arnaud Desplechin, finally gets its stateside spotlight for all to marvel at. Tumultuous, energetic and fiercely acted, My Golden Days behaves as a reflective origin story of Paul Dédalus, the character first brought to life by actor Mathieu Amalric ten years earlier in Desplechin’s My Sex Life…Or How I Got into an Argument. Amalric reprises his character here, a little wiser but more willing to defend his past and justify his emotions now that his life carried him to a place of sad complacency. This coming-of-age retrospective does occasionally veer towards the overly self-indulgent – and you will find it’s more difficult to unearth a redeemable character here than it was for Christopher Columbus to discover America – but its loudness and intensity wraps you, traps you and refuses to let your attention wander. Commanding a majority of the running time are two rising stars destined to become international sensations, Quentin Dolmaire who plays the young version of Paul and Lou Roy-Lecollinet as Esther, Paul’s entrancing yet emotionally volatile love interest who dominates every aspect of his thoughts once he meets her.
The film starts in the heat of transit – Paul is about to leave Tajikistan after conducting some anthropological business when he’s seized by authorities following a falsified passport mix-up at the airport. Paul uses his brief time in the interrogation room to not only clarify the passport fiasco, but also mentally revisit his formative years when he was at the height of individual expression. The audience is then transported back to the hip and hoppin’ late 1980s, a period when the wild West of the world birthed a new French revolution with teenagers leading the charge. Angst, depression, mood swings that could lap a pendulum countless times over, total disregard for parental authority and uninhibited sexual conquests ruled the era for these youngsters. Navigating both his value in the world and his place in one girl’s tempestuous heart, Paul’s epic life between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one proves to be anything but forgettable.
An unstable home environment that leaves Paul motherless at an early age sparks a fire that propels Paul to venture outside his French village and become something of humanistic worth. It’s just as he turns sixteen that he undertakes one of the most daring and brave tasks anyone could commit to: releasing one’s identity to someone in desperate need of freedom. Paul does exactly this when traveling to the USSR after befriending a Russian Jewish boy and his family back in his home country. Upon arrival, Paul assists a native Russian boy by securing his escape via identity relinquishment. This perilous undertaking makes Paul immune to the tangible dangers of the world – he’s seemingly all but invincible unless it comes to matters of the heart. Where that’s concerned, it’s difficult just to keep afloat.
Despite an emotionally absent father, Paul’s home life provides solidarity and comfort until Esther storms into his world. Sensitive, erratic, manipulative and unconcerned about the literal and figurative home invasion she causes, Esther tragically allows herself to fall into the web of the male gaze. Desplechin uses her as a symbol of enslaved femininity, her identity tied to the effect she has on her lovers. Devoid of agency and individual purpose, Esther often moves about the world as though she’s stuck in purgatory, never drifting far from her imprisonment of objectification. With the recent collective movement of writing strong, assertive female characters in film, I find it both troubling and maybe even a tad bold for someone like Esther to exist in today’s cinema. Used to critique male hegemony, Esther is perhaps one of the best examples a writer could create. However, if she’s merely viewed as a muse who thwarts the true happiness of our male protagonist, then I find her to be an utterly pitiful character.
My Golden Days employs classic French cinema techniques to varying effect. Breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly establishes intimacy however uncomfortable, ensuring your involuntary support of the two lovebirds even when your tolerance of their behavior has long dried up. The soap operatic dialogue is overwrought but not uncommon in French cinema, fittingly utilized in My Golden Days as a realistic portrayal of teens who view even the smallest of difficulties as the end of civilization. Unusually fascinating yet exhausting all the same, My Golden Days is a fitting time capsule of the era but an even better exhibition of the echoes and pangs of young love. Desplechin has once again added another dynamic and timely film to his repertoire that deserves as wide an audience as possible. Magnolia Pictures is releasing the Cannes critical darling this weekend in New York and Los Angeles at the West LA Landmark theater beginning Friday, March 18th. The film will have a national rollout to follow. Check out the trailer below!