‘My Golden Days’ Is a Stumbling Trip Down Memory Lane

Quentin Dolmaire (left) and Lou Roy-Lecollinet shine in an otherwise dull narrative.

“My Golden Days” embraces its personal ties to director Arnaud Desplechin (who co-wrote the screenplay with Julie Peyr), but the resulting film is one that meanders, navel-gazes, and holds its viewers at arm’s length. If Desplechin hoped to imbue his film with some sort of universal truth— whether about the nature of memory and nostalgia or the vicissitudes of youth— that message is lost amid the confusing and off-putting mix of themes, styles, and cinematic techniques.

After a brief tryst in a bright, airy bedroom, “My Golden Days” picks up with a middle-aged Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric, from the heartbreaking gem “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) getting stopped by security at the airport on his way to Paris— some kind of passport issue. What begins as a routine interrogation ends up with Paul flashing back to distinct memories, though it is unclear why he decides to indulge this unsmiling security officer with his life story. He had told the woman from the opening scene that he harbors “no nostalgia” for his time in Paris, but that statement evidently couldn’t be further from the truth: Paul simply cannot let the past go. He jogs down memory lane and makes three stops, broken down by the film’s title cards: “Childhood,” a brief sequence depicting Paul’s astonishingly vivid (and ostensibly baseless) hatred for his parents; “Russia,” in which young Paul (Quentin Dolmaire) and a friend embark on a mini spy mission to free refuseniks from Minsk; and “Esther,” the tale of Paul’s teenage relationship with a bold and brash high school student (played by the fabulously talented first-time actress Lou Roy-Lecollinet), which dominates the remainder of the film, past and present.

As a portrait of the fragmentation of memory, “My Golden Days” is accurate to a fault. The film seems to discourage interpretation by emptying characters and cinematic techniques of any larger meaning. The jumble of French music, American pop music and an original score leaves the viewer with no sense of a unified tone. Visually, the pinhole camera effect alerts us to the initiation of a memory sequence, but other artistic quirks feel oddly out of place: a split screen towards the beginning of the Esther sequence is gimmicky and never replicated, and a mugshot of Paul against a pitch-black background addressing the camera through a haze of fire is just plain baffling. The latter instance is not the only fourth-wall breakage— the film’s disconcerting final shot comes to mind— but it is implemented with little rhyme or reason. Voiceover can be a powerful and effective cinematic tool— used memorably in films as disparate as “Annie Hall,” “Shawshank Redemption” and “Mean Girls”— but the clunky shift from first to second to third person unsettles the film’s flow. Not that the film has any sense of pacing, anyway. We get it, memories are disjointed, tainted, and don’t necessarily mean more than the sum of their parts. But “My Golden Days” refuses even to try making sense of it all. “Life is strange,” Paul murmurs at multiple points in the film. Desplechin seems content to leave it at that.

“My Golden Days” calls to mind “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” with its non-linear flashbacks, agonized brooding, and philosophizing between lovers mediated by the camera (in this case communicated onscreen via dictated letters). But “My Golden Days” lacks the moral urgency and grand, historical importance of the war that foregrounds Resnais’s New Wave classic. Instead, Desplechin focuses a lens on his own personal history, setting much of the film in his own hometown of Roubaix and bestowing his protagonist with the surname of “Dedalus,” recognizable as James Joyce’s literary alter ego. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Stephen Dedalus says in “Ulysses.” In “My Golden Days”— a title that sours ironically over the course of the film— Paul Dedalus embodies a similar longing.

The film rambles aimlessly, forcing us to sit through a disproportionately long party scene, introducing us to a religious-minded brother who inexplicably buys a gun, and throwing in a whole host of other tidbits that lack any central coherence and don’t pay off later in the film. However, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, the actress who plays Esther, is a notable bright spot: her character is rude, egotistical, and shockingly unlikable, but Roy-Lecollinet infuses her with a vulnerability and unpredictability that makes her feel achingly human. Later on, the adult Paul mulls over their relationship, wondering if he was too good for her or not good enough, and if he was attracted to her because she was dangerous or because she was reassuring. The paradoxes could be illuminating, but with no discernible theme or character development, they fizzle. Paul thinks about his past while taking in an opera, and perhaps we are supposed to wonder about our own pasts while viewing Desplechin’s film. Unfortunately, it all falls flat. As young Paul was fond of saying throughout the film: “I felt nothing.”

‘Midnight Special’: The Indie Sci-Fi Gem That Outshines Them All

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It’s special, alright.

In a 2007 TED Talk, director J. J. Abrams revealed the inspiration for his creative vision: a “mystery box” from a midtown Manhattan magic store that has remained unopened since he purchased it as a child. “What are stories, but mystery boxes?” Abrams explained. “What’s a bigger mystery box than a movie theater? You go to the theater, you’re just so excited to see anything— the moment the lights go down is often the best part.”

So it is with “Midnight Special,” a small-time, supernatural drama from writer-director Jeff Nichols that blends the Abrams approach to storytelling with the intimacy of a Spielberg classic. In the current Hollywood climate, storms of viral marketing and near-pathological media attention ensure that moviegoers are so well informed on upcoming epics (think: “Batman v. Superman” and “Captain America: Civil War”) that actually going to see the movies feels like a rote formality. By contrast, “Midnight Special” opened in limited release with relatively little preceding fanfair, making that tantalizing moment when the lights go down feel all the more exhilarating. “Midnight Special” thrives on the mystery box formula (much like Abrams’s recently released, hush-hush production, “10 Cloverfield Lane”) by holding its secrets close to its chest. But it also flourishes as a profound exploration of familial love and personal values, grounding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

“Midnight Special” marks Nichols’s first foray into the science fiction genre, after 2011 film festival darling “Take Shelter” and the McConaissance-initiating “Mud” in 2012, but it is his fifth collaboration with actor Michael Shannon. Shannon shines as Roy, father to Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a child born with supernatural powers who is worshipped by a religious sect with morally dubious leadership. A small group of superb supporting characters lends the film additional gravitas: Joel Edgerton (“Black Mass”) as Roy’s buddy Lucas, a former cop; Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother, Sarah, in a one-note but still effective performance; and Adam Driver, coming off of a very different role in a rather huger sci-fi epic, “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens,” as NSA codebreaker and “Alton Meyer expert” Paul Sevier.

“Midnight Special” picks up in medias res, chugging forward while delivering backstory in tiny, cinematic morsels: news bulletins, brief lines of dialogue, and significant glances serve to lay the scene and clarify the stakes. David Wingo’s captivating score shifts between a melodious piano theme and a pulse-pounding bass, setting the tone for the film’s interplay between the wonder of the supernatural and the suspense of an “on the run” thriller. Early on, as the whirlwind of mystery picks up, religious leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) turns to the FBI officers investigating Alton Meyer and muses, “You have no clue what you’re dealing with, do you?” At this point, neither do we— and it’s a scintillating feeling.

“Midnight Special” takes its time answering the little questions (Who is this kid? What can he do? What’s going on?) while steadily building up the insurmountable questions of “how” and “why.” Many elements of the story remain unanswered, and it is in this regard that “Midnight Special” truly sets itself apart. Due to a side-effect of Alton’s powers, much of the film takes place at night, with breathtaking sunrises and sunsets marking the rotation of night and day, and there’s a storytelling benefit in (literally and metaphorically) leaving the audience in the dark: it precludes narrative spoon-feeding while allowing for a more active partnership between the filmmaker and the viewer. This richly drawn film needs you, the moviegoer, to use both your brain and your heart.

“Midnight Special” is the rare film that infuses its characters with as much complexity as it does its mystery, ensuring that the humanity at its core does not get lost in supernatural splendor. Roy burns with a quiet but fierce love for his child; he is gentle and caring from the outset, and his steadfast belief in the boy is never questioned as he spirits Alton away from institutions that aim to use him for their own gain. When Roy tucks his son into bed, adorning his youthful face with aqua-colored goggles and bright orange headphones, his tenderness is palpable, as though Alton were just another kid with a strange malady. Roy and Alton’s relationship is the beating heart of this story, and it is to the credit of both the actors and Nichols himself that father and son exhibit such magnetizing emotion. Through little dialogue, Lieberher, resplendent and mature beyond his years, indicates that there is luminous depth to Alton, while every crinkle of Shannon’s eyes demonstrates the aching burdens of parenthood. “You don’t have to worry about me,” Alton assures him. “I’ll always worry about you, Alton,” Roy responds. “That’s the deal.” You’d smile if you weren’t too busy trying to hide your sniffling.

“Midnight Special” also touches on weightier themes without forcing them to sweat it out under the spotlight. How would people react to the appearance of the supernatural? Calvin Meyer’s reverent cult is already established before the opening credits, and the FBI’s briskly bureaucratic manhunt is well underway as the story begins. Rather, by delving into the psyches of the characters, the film is more subtly able to explore the limits and excesses of knowledge and power. In one ironic scene, Alton, reading a Superman comic by flashlight in the back of a darkened car, asks Roy about kryptonite, and Roy berates Lucas for giving Alton the comic book in the first place, insisting that Alton “needs to know what’s real.” But knowledge proves to be an elusive concept; instead, faith and belief take center stage. As Meyer puts it at the conclusion of a sermon: “To know the source of such things is to know our place in the world.” “Midnight Special” revels in this search for purpose, embracing an all-too-rare sense of awe and wonder.