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Love affairs are pretty much all-consuming when you’re an adolescent, and if French cinema is any indication, madly-in-love Gallic youngsters rarely grow up. My Golden Days (Trois Souvenirs De Ma Jeunesse) from one of the Frenchest of French directors, Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale, Kings and Queen), is a prequel to his 1996 title My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument, and that film’s lead, Mathieu Amalric, is glimpsed here a few times, reprising his role as the older Paul Dédalus. However, the film belongs to hypnotic newcomer Quentin Dolmaire, who plays Paul in the long flashbacks to his occasionally ? even literally ? golden-hued youth.
As the English-language title and the French subtitle Our Arcadias suggests, this is a film about adolescence seen with the benefit of a kind of melancholy hindsight, even if no knowledge of Desplechin’s Sex Life is necessary to enjoy his latest. And though it doesn’t skimp at all on rhapsodizing and philosophizing about love, politics and identity in that endearingly earnest way that only teenagers (and French adults, at least in the movies) are capable of, Days is also one of the director’s most heartfelt and accessible titles in, well, years. This can only be good news for an art house feature from an august director that, besides those few scenes featuring Amalric, features great newcomers but otherwise no marquee names. The film will be released in France on May 20.
The French title, which roughly translates to “Three Memories from My Youth,” hints at the film’s three-part structure, though the first two parts, the brief “Childhood” and slightly longer “Russia,” feel somewhat detached from the 90-minute third segment simply titled “Esther.” The older Paul (Amalric) recalls his youth as he’s returning from long years abroad to take up a desk job for the French government in Paris. “I don’t know who I am,” sighs Paul, and he’s not just referring to the fact that, after a long period of careful planning, he once “lost” his passport to a Jewish boy while on a school trip to the USSR. This memory is revealed in “Russia,” an interlude that plays like an exciting Cold War-era story with Bond-like touches that reveals an event that’ll echo throughout Paul’s life and introduces the idea of double or potential paths not taken.
The adult Dedalus will, in fact, become an anthropologist obsessed with the East — the film opens in Tajikistan — and with the areas where universal human behavior and cultural specifics intersect and diverge. Throughout, young Dolmaire, Desplechin and co-writer Julie Peyr (Jimmy P.), infuse Paul with a welcome immediacy and openness that gives him, for example, the courage as a teenager to walk up to the pretty Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet) and try to flirt with her, while simultaneously talking about the fact he doesn’t know how to flirt. Using his own insecurities to make her laugh and make her understand he’s something of an open book, he manages to charm her, and the two will finally start a relationship that becomes one of the defining elements of his emotional life (those who have seen My Sex Life will recognize this film’s Esther as the younger version of the character earlier played by Emmanuelle Devos).
Esther is mighty pretty, but she isn’t an easy girl. And other boys are interested in her, too, which complicates things when Paul moves away from provincial Roubaix to study in Paris. From then on, their relationship is conducted mainly by phone and passionate letters, forcing the youngsters to constantly try and put into words what they feel. The flashback structure suggests not only Paul’s nostalgia for his own past, but simultaneously reveals Desplechin’s yearning for the romantic realities of the pre-Internet age, when long periods of absence of a loved one made the heart ache.
Though the characters watch the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV — one of the characters perceptively suggests it’s a symbol of the end of their childhood — My Golden Days more often privileges emotional truths over historical veracity. This helps not only to make the past dilemmas of the protagonists feel more immediate and real, but also suggests how, looking back, we see our lives as a succession of emotional experiences, not dry historical facts. This is an entirely welcome development in the evolving oeuvre of an auteur whose filmography includes some films where the head was made to work much harder than the heart.
All the actors ? from Amalric, here in his sixth collaboration with Desplechin ? to the entire cast of youngsters, most with next to no film experience, inhabit their roles fully. Even the walk-on cameo of French veteran actor André Dussollier, who plays a high-placed French government official, is highly suggestive and fully inhabited. But there’s no doubt that Roy-Lecollinet ? and particularly Dolmaire ? are the true stars of the film. Without their combustible rapport, the narrative would lack any tension, but thankfully their exchanges crackle with the excitement and callowness of youth and the naivety and certainty of inexperience, all perceived through the lens of someone who fondly looks back on his formative years. In this regard, Dolmaire’s work is especially impressive, subtlety incorporating some of Amalric’s speech patterns and mannerisms without ever simply aping the actor, leaving some room for Paul to develop and grow in the intervening years that separate him from his older self.
Beyond the occasionally literally golden light of Irina Lubtchansky’s cinematography, the idea of nostalgia is further reinforced by employing old school stylistic flourishes such as iris shots and having the actors recite their letters directly to the camera.
Production companies: Why Not Productions, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Quentin Dolmaire, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, Mathieu Amalric, Dinara Droukarova, Cecile Garcia Fogel, Francoise Lebrun, Irina Vavilova, Olivier Rabourdin, Elyot Milshtein, Pierre Andrau, Lily Taieb, André Dussolier
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Screenplay: Arnaud Desplechin, Julie Peyr
Producer: Pascal Caucheteux
Director of photography: Irina Lubtchansky
Production designer: Toma Baqueni
Costume designer: Nathalie Raoul
Editor: Laurence Briaud
Music: Gregoire Hetzel
Casting: Alexandre Nazarian
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 124 minutes
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