Sunday, March 20, 2016

Review: My Golden Days

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Some 20 years after his sophomore film, "My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument," French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin has returned to the character of Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric), who is planning to return to his home country for the first time in eight years to take a government job following a stint in Tajikistan.

But he is stopped in the airport and questioned after it is discovered that another man on the other side of the world not only shares his name, but also his exact birth date and other similar details. However, "My Golden Days" is not an espionage thriller or anything of the sort. Rather, it's a series of reminiscences by Dedalus on three specific phases of his life, one of which explains why this other man shares his name and birth details.

The film's first sequence, which focuses on Dedalus' childhood with an insane mother, occasionally physically abusive father and two siblings, is fairly brief and merely sets the stage for the second two phases. The second sequence surrounds the circumstances of his being stopped in the airport. As a teen, Paul and a friend took a trip to Russia, where Paul gave up his passport so that another man could flee that country and live a free life in Tel Aviv.

But the majority of Desplechin's picture surrounds Paul's (Quentin Dolmaire) love affair with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), a heartbreaker whose dalliances with Paul's friends can't even dissuade him from attempting to romance her.

"My Golden Days" works so well because of how true to life it feels. There have been countless films about amour fou and heartbreak, but Desplechin's is so effective due to the fact that not only is Paul such a well-drawn character, but so is Esther. Often, films looking back on a summer of love often relegate the female character to being the - as it's often called - object of the male gaze. But in Desplechin's film, Roy-Lecollinet does just as much - if not more so - of the heavy lifting as Dolmaire.

And while both characters are flawed - although Esther clearly loves Paul, she's far from being true to him and Paul can occasionally be a cad, both to his paramour and his pals - there's an obvious amount of sympathy and love for them from the filmmaker on display.

One of France's most highly lauded filmmakers, Desplechin came along during the same era as Olivier Assayas and, similar to that great director, his work is varied in terms of content and he frequently tells stories that don't go from point A to point B narratively. Although often fragmented, his films never feel as if they've left anything vital out. We know enough about his characters to fill in the holes.

My personal favorite of his films is 2005's wild "Kings and Queen," although the puzzling and creepy "La Sentinelle" is also strongly recommended by me. "My Golden Days," also among his better films, is a clear eyed look at youth and faded romance that never feels overly sentimental or viewed through rose-colored lenses. And it features a powerful coda, of sorts, that shows how we never quite let go of the past.

"My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument" is not the easiest movie to track down. The good news is that "My Golden Days" works as a stand-alone feature and you don't need to have seen the original picture to appreciate this one - which, if you give it a chance, I think you just might.

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