There are some filmmakers whose new pictures I will always watch, without even bothering to read reviews, because I’ve grown very fond of their particular styles and artistic visions. One of these is French director Arnaud Desplechin, whose diverse creations over the years include Esther Kahn, Kings & Queen, and A Christmas Tale, all movies that I fell in love with at in the last two decades. Now there’s a new one called My Golden Days, and it displays some of this director’s best qualities: a fine sense for the real experience of emotions (as opposed to their dramatic stereotypes), a certain tenderness towards our human fallibility and even aspects of ourselves we’re ashamed of, and finally, a respect for the life of the mind.
My Golden Days opens with Mathieu Almaric playing Paul Dedalus, an anthropologist leaving Tajikstan after a long stay, to go home and take an embassy job in Paris. An incident at French customs triggers the memories of his youth that constitute the bulk of the picture. Flashbacks show us scenes from his troubled childhood with a mentally ill mother and abusive father. Then there’s an exciting adventure in his adolescence—a Jewish friend recruits him to help bring some covert aid to some Soviet Jews during a high school visit to Russia, an episode that has a poignant effect on his future. Finally the film settles into its main storyline—the long and intense love affair between the now college-age Paul and beautiful, headstrong, 16-year-old Esther, whom every boy in town wants to be with, but is attracted to Paul’s seemingly effortless self-confidence.
The young Paul and Esther are played by newcomers, Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet, but you would never guess this was their first film, so expert is Desplechin at inspiring the best in his performers. They bring strength and intelligence to their parts, which are nevertheless as variable and inexperienced as young people are at their age. And the burden of regret falls mostly on our protagonist Paul, whose ambitions take him around the world and away from Esther for long periods, even though he knows the separation causes her too much pain.
Golden days are not at all ones of perfect bliss, but also of emotional turmoil and the pain of coming to terms with oneself. The film portrays all this with camera movement that is consistently smooth and meditative. We are in the 1980s, with the music and clothes all evoking the particular feeling of that era, and Desplechin carefully builds an edifice of first love with all its unexpected perils—this is a picture about youth that is frank and honest. Paul has a habit of saying “I feel nothing” whenever there is some conflict or difficulty. This is charming, and eventually a little disturbing, because it is, of course, not true. My Golden Days is all about feeling, deeply and intensely.