“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.”