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Film review: French drama 'My Golden Years' directed by Arnaud Desplechin

My Golden Years

Arnaud Desplechin first introduced his protagonists, the young Paul Dédalus and his girlfriend Esther, way back in 1996 in his highly successful “My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument.” Now he brings Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric) back again as an adult, just having returned from his work as an anthropologist in Tajikistan.

The film is divided into three segments, with an adult Paul reminiscing first about his childhood, chronicling an abusive father and depressed mother, who eventually commits suicide.

There’s not much to the first segment but the second proves to be the most interesting. After being detained by government security forces, Paul explains why another Paul Dedalus, with origins in Russia, has turned up with his passport.

Paul is subjected to an interrogation by a security agent which allows him to explain how he gave up his passport while on a high school trip to Russia so that a Jewish teenager could use it to escape to Israel during the time of anti-Semitic persecutions of Jews in the Soviet Union during the late 80s.

But My Golden Days turns from being a suspense thriller to a more conventional coming of age story when the young college student Paul (played convincingly by Quentin Dolmaire), falls for Esther, a high school student who is the same age as Paul’s sister, Delphine.

After having seen the film a few weeks ago, I had trouble recalling details about Paul and Esther’s romance– so I turned to a few critic’s reviews to refresh my memory. Short on plot description, some reviews are content to provide a few amorphous descriptions of the nature of the relationship.Kenneth Turan, writing in the L.A. Times, briefly explains, “We see them playing out the drama of attraction and insecurity, inexorably drawn to each other but having to face the problems different personalities invariably bring to relationships.”

Peter Travers in Rolling Stone feels there’s something quite deep about what happens between Paul and Esther: “Memory gives the movie a formal frame, but Desplechin laces the past with such raw emotion that nothing is hemmed in. Love hurts, that’s for sure. And Desplechin makes sure we feel it.”

Stephanie Zacharek writing in Time Magazine provides a few more details about Paul and Esther’s burgeoning romance: “It takes a long time, in this eternal nighttime, for Paul and Esther to connect. Their flirtations are stilted at first, especially since Paul feels threatened by her many suitors, and she doesn’t need to lie about their numbers: Young men cluster to her, as Marlene Dietrich sang, like moths around a flame. But ultimately, it’s Paul she chooses, and their liaison starts out sweet before wending its way into l’amour fou territory.”

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat writing in Spirituality & Practice believe Desplechin is on to something in what they see as a nuanced portrait of the protagonist’s motives: “He reveals the delights and the dangers in our idealisation of the beloved, our dizzying capacities of infatuation, the primal longings for each other, and the pain and pleasure which this state of romantic arousal engenders.

The Brussats perhaps provide the best summary of the third segment. They note that Paul puts Esther on a “pedestal” but still leaves her behind when he goes to Paris for school. There is a sub-plot emphasising Paul’s competence in his chosen field when he convinces a noted anthropology professor to accept him as a student.Later Paul and Esther share intimacies through a series of love letters but their separation leads to the deterioration of their relationship. As the Brussats put it, Esther “begins to fall apart emotionally and he is at a loss for what to do in response.” Finally Paul seeks solace with an older woman and never seems to get over Esther’s decision to go out with his best friend, Kovalki, with whom Paul meets up at film’s end, and is unable to contain his anger towards.

Ultimately Desplechin’s portrait of a failed adolescent relationship suffers from a lack of gravitas or high stakes. I would contrast this film with Bergman’s “Summer With Monika,” where a femme fatale destroys the relationship an earnest young man develops with a young woman who is not what she initially appears to be.

Esther, on the other hand, is simply a spoiled neurotic and Paul’s inability to shed all the misplaced anger from such an earlier time in his development marks Desplechin’s narrative as decidedly inconsequential despite all his “innovative” split-screens and entertaining 80s soundtrack.

Francophiles will undoubtedly dig all the “passion,” but this dyed-in-the-wool American views this more as a generic tale of adolescent loves lost.