Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Desplechin’s My Golden Years

With that name of his, you would expect Paul Dédalus, he must be a Joycian figure. He most certainly had a difficult childhood and if you have seen his first appearance in My Sex Life, or . . . How I Got Into an Argument, you know he definitely appreciates women. Dédalus takes stock of his life as well as the great love of his life in Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Dédalus is about to transfer from his diplomatic post in Tajikistan to a cushy job back home in the French Foreign Ministry. Unfortunately, he will have to leave a perfectly good lover. It will not be his first affair to have a bittersweet ending, but it still has him feeling sentimental. As Dédalus returns to a more conventional life, he revisits memories of his formative years. His trip down memory lane very intentionally evokes the vibe of Truffaut’s Antione Doinel films, but Dédalus’s extremes were even more extreme.

Young Dédalus and his siblings grew up terrorized by their mentally ill mother Jeanne and neglected by their emotionally distant father, Abel. Dédalus was the one of always stood up to the unbalanced woman, but one day he reached his breaking point and ran off to live with his beloved great aunt and her understanding lesbian lover. As a teen, Dédalus is still a protective figure to his siblings, but he also develops an interest in politics and girls. By far, the best sequences in the film chronicle Dédalus’s school trip to Minsk, where he has secretly arranged to smuggle money and supplies to Jewish Refuseniks. However, the rather noble episode will have unexpected consequences years later, as the audience shall learn in due time.

The preponderance of the film in some way addresses his complicated relationship with Esther, beginning in their school days and continuing rather awkwardly into his early professional adulthood years. She was pretty in high school and she knew it, but somehow Dédalus managed to charm her with his combination chutzpah and self-deprecating humor. For a while, they seem truly happy together. However, it slowly starts to unravel when his advanced studies force them into a long-distance relationship in the pre-skype era. Yet, it is Esther who becomes the needy, desperately clingy one, compulsively writing Dédalus at least one letter each day.

It all seems sadly inevitable, but Dédalus will have the final word on the matter when he chances into an old acquaintance in the film’s brilliant capstone scene that just might become emblematic of the careers of Desplechin and his frequent leading man, Mathieu Almaric.

Indeed, Golden Days is a film rife with telling exchanges, but its inconsistency makes it more of a masterwork than the masterpiece some have suggested. Frankly, there is more teen angst than you will find in an entire season of the CW television network. Yet, amidst all the high school stuff, Desplechin springs quietly powerful moments on viewers, as when Abel Dédalus suddenly decides to act like a father and tries to console his insecure daughter.

Despite returning to a familiar role, Mathieu Almaric is wonderfully unpredictable as the world-weary Dédalus. He can be cavalier one minute and burst into an eruption of nervous energy seconds later. However, the sad-eyed Quentin Dolmaire and the pouty Lou Roy-Lecollinet carry the dramatic load, developing relatively convincing chemistry as the young and naïve Dédalus and Esther, respectively. It seems like every French film released this year features André Dussolier, but that is not such a bad policy. True to form, he is rather elegantly sinister in his brief appearance as an intelligence service interrogator.

In terms of form, Golden Days is a Proustian memory play, but aesthetically, it is a big, rangy film that practically throws in the proverbial kitchen sink. It has its excesses and its pacing issues, but when it works, it devastates. Overall, it is a potently nostalgic film that amply rewards viewers who wrestle with it. Recommended for patrons of French cinema, My Golden Days opens this Friday (3/18) in New York, at the IFC Center downtown and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center uptown.