The Ghosts of Youth Haunt Arnaud Desplechin’s Passionate ‘My Golden Days’

The conceit of Arnaud Desplechin’s brilliant My Golden Days will be familiar to anyone who has seen Tarkovsky’s Mirror or Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, to name just two of the most celebrated examples of the film where an aging (or dying) man reflects back on his life. But the truest touchstone for Desplechin is neither of these; instead it’s Alain Resnais’ Providence, a superior (and far funnier) work about a dying novelist and patriarch who remembers his family into a new fiction.

It was impossible not to think of Saint Resnais while watching My Golden Days, not only because Resnais was the greatest artist of memory since Proust (just ask Gilles Deleuze), but also because he revered Desplechin, whose film language he once celebrated as proof that cinema can’t die (unless humans do).

Still, the real reason I couldn’t shake Resnais was because My Golden Days and Providence ask the same questions about the place of memory in storytelling, and the role of storytelling in our fates. They both wonder aloud whether our self-told narratives ever fade, or whether they endow our afterlives with their most precious material. The surtitle of My Golden Days is, after all, “Our Arcadias.” And the title of Providence is Providence.

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After a visceral scene of childhood playacting — a vintage bit that recalls the children’s play in A Christmas TaleMy Golden Days opens with Desplechin fixture Mathieu Amalric, who reprises the role of Paul Dédalus, the sensitive but strong-willed romantic who is both a proxy for the director and a standalone creation. In this respect, the film is a faux-prequel to Desplechin’s formative, talkative My Sex Life (1996), which launched the careers of a handful of now-famous French actors and actresses. (It even featured a young Marion Cotillard.) My Golden Days is destined to do the same for its young cast. But first.

This Paul is not exactly the Paul of My Sex Life or A Christmas Tale. Desplechin’s films crisscross names, fates, love affairs, anecdotes, objects, home addresses, personal histories, gestures, mannerisms, literary and philosophical references — they form a shifting web of memory and allusion that anchors them in a paradoxically independent but invented reality. It’s because of this, not to mention the tremendous energy with which they are told, that watching them can feel more spirited and even more bitter than life itself.

Now that he is returning from several years of academic study abroad, the middle-aged Paul plans to work for the Foreign Affairs office in Paris. At the airport, he is detained and questioned by French police, who reveal that he has a double — another Paul Dédalus, who died in Melbourne — born in the same place on the same day. This revelation sparks the film’s first chapter, a surprising and even strange flashback that shows a teenaged Paul (played by the handsome, soon-to-be ubiquitous Quentin Dolmaire) in Minsk giving up his passport to refuseniks who would flee from Russia to France or Israel.

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When asked why he would risk prison for these dissenters, not being Jewish himself, the young Paul responds that he believes in “self-determination” — upon hearing this, my mind flashed to the allusions to Emerson and Nietzsche in A Christmas Tale and the self-analyzing and self-medicating tragicomedy of Kings and Queen. (In Desplechin’s world, anything captured on camera can become a Proustian device.) Still, whenever the film reaches for the ekstasis of memory, Paul gets his ass kicked — this time by Soviet police. And his response — “I couldn’t feel anything” — is one of the film’s telling refrains. For a work that braves the big ideas of art and philosophy, it’s one that is likewise guided by feeling. Like all of Desplechin’s work, it rejects the distinction outright.

The memory of events moves seamlessly from the first to the second chapter, which takes place in 1980s Roubaix (a city you might remember as the setting of A Christmas Tale). At home visiting his siblings and despondent father (a pathetic man who is mourning the death of his wife), Paul soon runs into a crush, Esther, who is played with preternatural range by the 19-year-old Lou Roy-Lecollinet, in a role that is by turns brazen and sexy, aloof and anguished. That this character is itself a reprisal of Emmanuel Devos’ Esther in My Sex Life is not lost on Roy-Lecollinet, who manages to echo her every trait, from her ways of dancing to the tenor of her voice.

Paul and Esther, after a beguiling courtship worthy of the best pickups in French cinema, soon begin dating. The youthful pain, sex, and romance of this relationship forms much of the film’s center. So does the partying and antics of Paul’s friends and siblings. Paul’s younger brother Ivan (Raphaël Cohen) is a negative theologist who dreams of holding up a gas station. His sister Delphine (Lily Taieb) is coming of age emotionally and sexually. There is (as ever) no shortage of dancing, drugs, and music. The only thing missing is Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away.”

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The vicissitudes of youth and torrential passion are on full display over the film’s remainder. Paul returns to Paris, where, penniless, he sleeps in youth hostels and takes up an informal education in anthropology (with a brilliant teacher, a maternal replacement who devastates him by dying). He sleeps with other women; Esther sleeps with other men, including their friend Jean-Pierre. The couple talk mostly via letter; Desplechin, alongside Pedro Costa, is the greatest letter writer in contemporary cinema. The spirit-smothering nature of this relationship, coupled with their brutal honesty, discomfits and enlivens the film. It also drives Paul to an act of self-determination.

The question of whether we can survive our memories (or our stories about them) emerges in My Golden Days‘ devastating epilogue, which returns to Amalric’s Paul. The ghost of the other Paul — of all of the other Pauls — hangs over him, as does the memory of Esther.  So, too, does the ghost of Alain Resnais hang over Desplechin, a memorist who has crafted characters who remember each other across films, who proliferate and expand, who self-determine. The pain of memory drives them to freedom, but it is never far away.

My Golden Days is in theaters now, in limited release.