In many ways, Arnaud Desplechin’s gorgeously spun and woven new film, My Golden Days, is difficult to watch. It’s not that Desplechin hasn’t made a movie that courses along on its own current with the comfortable precision that only a master filmmaker can produce. No, it’s that Paul, the protagonist, played by Mathieu Amalric as an adult and Quentin Dolmaire as a teenager, is so often a maddening figure, especially in his younger days. That’s simply because Desplechin, his cast and co-writer Julie Peyr have so effectively nailed the beautiful myopia of being young an intellectually curious but emotionally adolescent. To make a generalization, the types of people who grow up to enjoy Arnaud Desplechin movies will likely be able to relate.
We first meet adult Paul, an anthropologist, as he is preparing to return to his home country for France for the first time in decades. He recounts memories of early childhood to a friend before departing for the airport then, after being stopped at customs in Paris due to an issue with his passport, tells stories of his adolescent years to the officer who interrogates him. Later stories about his early years in university are described by an unseen narrator who subtly transitions into the role previously held by Amalric as the older man disappears from the story altogether before returning for a powerful, extended epilogue.
My Golden Days hops from genre to genre in the early going, each transition matched by shifts in the score by Grégoire Hetzel and Mike Kourtzer. There’s a psychological terror to the early scenes depicting a very young Paul and his mentally ill mother. The customs sequence and the lengthy flashback that accompanies it have the feel of a spy thriller. Then, the first encounters between teen Paul and his paramour-to-be, Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet, transcendent), plays like a teen sex comedy before the picture finally settles into a unique take on the coming-of-age movie.
This schizophrenic structure is not just Desplechin having fun, though he does appear to be. Paul himself spends much of the early part of the film casting about for an identity to grab onto, as so many teenagers do. In this case, though, the boy’s struggle is defined by a metaphorical action that takes place during the My Golden Days’ espionage chapter. On a field trip to Russia in the 1980s, Paul gives his passport away to be used by a young Jewish boy hoping to escape to Israel. Anything attached to Paul’s name before that point ceases to define him, or at least that’s how we would like to see it. Repeatedly insisting that he feels nothing, Paul has attempted to turn himself into an empty vessel that can be filled with whatever he chooses, especially if it is not the stuff of his provincial, middle-class, Western upbringing.
Desplechin tips the viewer off to the artificiality of Paul’s outward sense of self by presenting the flashbacks with touches of old-fashioned theatricality. Often, the frame is shrouded with vignetting. Transitions are marked by irises and wipes. Desplechin is not making fun of Paul, though. He is simply honoring the way he likes to think of himself.
There’s a deep sympathy for the main character on display. By the time we return to the older Paul, we’ve learned enough to deflate any romanticism that we may have felt for his globe-trotting lifestyle. In fact, the middle-aged man of the final act is not someone we’d be likely to think highly of if we met him at a bar. But Desplechin has shown us how he got that way. Where we may have felt irritation for this man, our hearts now break for him.