My Golden Days
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin
Opens March 18

This month offers a striking double portrait of youth, from either side of the Atlantic, by two leading filmmakers. Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some drops us on a college campus, deep into the early 1980s, and practically embeds us with a fresh recruit on a randy baseball team. It’s unapologetic and touching in its depiction of what can only be called a simpler time of endless joshing, chasing after girls, and refried disco. This is what the director of one of the most highly acclaimed films, Boyhood, and perhaps one of the most French of American auteurs in his speculative on-screen conversations, chose to make as his next film—and the sincerity and affection and personal experience twinkles with every frame. Meanwhile, across the ocean, Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen) also revisits a youthful past with My Golden Days—a kind of sequel to the filmmaker’s hard-to-see My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument, much as Everybody Wants Some has been called a spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused.

My focus this issue is firmly on the Desplechin film, but I mention Linklater because the two directors share such a wholehearted embrace of the follies and the insights of youth, albeit with wildly different tonal palettes. Paul Dedalus of My Golden Days is its willful, mop-haired hero, his provincial youth relived in flashback, dwelling on adolescent ardors while also giving a glimpse of the anthropologist he’ll grow up to become. Its emotional center is Paul’s obsession with Esther, the seemingly unattainable teen beauty (Lou Roy-Lecollinet) who turns out to be as imperfect as the rest of us. As played by Quentin Dolmaire, Paul has a charming mischievous energy, making constant feints toward impudence, a zealous student who understandably grows up into Mathieu Amalric as adult Paul.

My Golden Days traverses coming-of-age territory that in any other hands might immediately seem over-familiar, but here retains the spark of surprise. Desplechin adds mythic dimensions—implicitly in the outsized melancholy of Paul’s travails with friends and lover, and fancifully with the strange Cold War-era episode of espionage during a school trip into the USSR. As in Kings and Queen and A Christmas Tale, Desplechin recognizes how family lore acquires its own historical heft, especially for a self-conscious, self-chronicling kid with a brother and sister and troubled mother and aloof father. The alert rhythms of the filmmaking and Irina Lubtchansky’s warm cinematography express the unpredictable dynamics of experience, even in reflection.

While technically broken up into three parts and benefitting from a surehanded cast, Desplechin’s film is dominated by the story of Paul and Esther, even as their relationship gets outpaced by the demands of growing up. My Golden Days is not just an adolescent romance, but rather gives the feeling of a romance with life, investing its ups and downs with all the passion and heedlessness of true love.

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