We can run from the past, hide from the past, or forget the past, but we can’t help but be defined by the past. Our histories inevitably shape us into the people we become, and often in ways we can’t predict. A noble gesture made in a moment of youthful impulse might land us in hot water when we’ve grown up and turned more cautious and insular. The echoes of a passionate teenage romance might carry on as we step into our adult identities, leaving us with tender and delicate wounds that might be reopened at even the slightest provocation. The worst part is that we can never tell how the actions we take as children can impact us down the years, or when.
That’s the stuff of Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days, a film that’s as scattered and sprawling as a life lived from boyhood to unintact manhood. Twenty years ago, Desplechin released his third film, My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument, a coming-of-age drama of sorts where coming of age is deferred for its protagonist, Paul Dédalus. My Golden Days is a prequel to that picture, though if you are unacquainted with mid-’90s French cinema, fear not: My Golden Days plays even if you don’t know Paul from Adam. It’s tempting to chalk up the film’s comprehensibility to Desplechin’s skill as a storyteller, but really, we’re starting at square one here, so context isn’t a necessary cost of admission.
More necessary is the quality of patience, to say nothing of undivided attention. My Golden Days is a deliberate movie spun from caprice. The story goes where Desplechin wants it to without much regard for things like structure. We leap from the present to the past, back to the present, and then to another point in the past further along from where we last left it. But Desplechin’s film isn’t reckless, even if it is inconstant. The fickle ways in which he transitions between the formative periods of Paul’s young life feel oddly appropriate for a narrative about forcible recollection. Paul’s stroll down memory lane isn’t an indulgence he makes of his own volition. He is instead made to remember thanks to a passport snafu that crops up on a return trip to Paris following years spent living in Tajikistan.
Desplechin breaks My Golden Days into chapters (which, in fairness, does give the film something like a framework). In the prologue, we see adult Paul (played by Mathieu Amalric, reprising his role from My Sex Life…) pulled aside by agents of the French government, who naturally have figured out there are two people named Paul Dédalus roaming across the planet. In chapter two, we learn that teenage Paul (played by Quentin Dolmaire) gave up his passport to a young Russian man as part of a surreptitious plan to aid Soviet Jews— “refuseniks”—in leaving the U.S.S.R. and immigrating to Israel. (Aside: You don’t have to crack open your old history textbooks as homework for watching the film, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt. Desplechin isn’t your tutor.) We return only occasionally to Paul and his kindly inquisitor (André Dussollier). Mostly, My Golden Days concerns itself with Paul’s upbringing, and then it remains focused foremost on his relationship with Esther, the impetuous, beautiful, aloof love of his life.
In My Sex Life…, Esther is played as an adult by Emmanuelle Devos. In My Golden Days, she is played in her high school and college years by Lou Roy-Lecollinet. She and Paul take up the bulk of our interest, supplying the film with its most prominent focal point—and two absolutely incredible performances. To a degree, this strikes as odd in light of how Desplechin gets his plot rolling. We’re programmed to expect My Golden Days to revolve more around Paul and his Russian doppelganger. We anticipate that, sooner or later, the film will come full circle and revisit their invisible brotherhood. That it doesn’t may set some viewers off-kilter. In fact, only casual reference is made to Paul’s unofficial twin throughout the rest of the movie, and then only toward the end. You’d think that a bit of clandestine identity shenanigans bears more weight than tempestuous courtship.
But My Golden Days is all about the connections, big or small, between yesterday and today. It’s a film where Paul’s adolescent travails as a student, as a lover, and as the oldest child of an unstable home link back to his current situation as a man adrift in his own life. (It’s also a film that gets to be a spy thriller, a grim family drama, and a teen rom-com.) If the leap from Russia to Esther feels arbitrary, that may be part of the point: Reflecting on life inevitably leads a person down twisting, unforeseeable paths. Desplechin captures that sensation with deft, chaotic skill. His film may be fundamentally messy, but there’s real beauty in his contemplative clutter.
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Writers: Arnaud Desplechin, Julie Peyr
Starring: Quentin Dolmaire, Mathieu Amalric, Loy Roy-Lecollinet
Release Date: March 18, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.