Golden Days

Fans of nostalgia will find much to appreciate in Arnaud Desplechin’s latest film, My Golden Days, but it may also be a film that does its job a little too well. For nostalgia is not the same as escapism and despite the title, My Golden Days doesn’t always sugar coat the past. Like life, it has its ups and downs which makes for a bit of an uneven viewing experience.

The film is structured in three parts as the older version of the main character Paul Dédalus (played as an adult by French star Mathieu Amalric) reflects on his youth growing up in France as he prepares to return after a ten year absence. The first section focuses on his early childhood living with a manic mother and a cold, shattered father. The second, and perhaps best, section plays almost like a spy thriller as a high-school aged Paul (now played by Quentin Dolmaire), on a class trip to Soviet-era Russia, sneaks away to give his passport and identity to a group of Israelis trying to escape. The third section is all about Paul’s tumultuous on again-off again relationship with his first love, Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet).The problem with this structure is that the first two sections take up only a small portion of the film as a whole, moving at a faster pace that comes to a screeching halt as the third section starts to drag on. That early rhythm leaves viewers expecting a fourth section that never comes.

The third section is not without merit but it is here in which the film’s realism comes almost at a price. Desplechin and the cast do a masterful job of capturing those intense feelings of youth, and so both Paul and Esther can be maddening at times, as surely any teenagers in love actually are. As if teenage love alone isn’t stormy enough, Paul and Esther’s is a long-distance affair and that distance begins to eat away at them. Part of the film’s beauty is that it is able to remember those days fondly without shying away from the turbulence. There is no goal here other than to show how it was. This is not often found in American films, which would force their relationship into a question of will they or won’t they. It makes for a well-rounded experience but not always an enjoyable one. But perhaps that is the point- that it should feel long so that viewers too feel the exhaustion. Should a film be faulted for being so realistic? Hard to say.

While the film can be frustrating, it is in the small moments that the film shines – from the spark of attraction that comes from just a look, to lazy days spent in bed – anyone who has been there will recognize the all-consuming nature of first true love. It also brilliantly captures that other duality of youth: being care-free owners of the moment, feeling like it will never end, while also knowing that it will and facing an uncertain future.

Ultimately, this film is probably meant to be experienced rather than analyzed which is to say there may be no point in looking for a point. Maybe it’s enough to let it wrap you up in the haze of the past and feel that time again. Though it stands on its own, it may be worth mentioning that My Golden Days is a companion piece of sorts to Desplechin’s My Sex Life…Or How I Got into an Argument which first introduced and is about Almaric’s adult version of the character Paul. There’s something to be said for knowing what you’re getting, so perhaps viewers of that film will find this a more satisfying experience. If not, it’s still a beautifully crafted film that can be admired for its determination to dig into something deeper about who we are and how we got here. That is, after all, why the adult Paul finds himself looking back at his golden days.