Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
French cinema has a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to coming-of-age cinema. Though I grew up on John Hughes films and Judy Blume books, it was Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS and his further tales of Antoine Doinel that first introduced me to how the French view the genre. Acclaimed filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin goes back to the well, giving us a prequel to MY SEX LIFE…OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT with MY GOLDEN YEARS (TROIS SOUVENIERS DE MA JEUNESSE). While he doesn’t necessarily show us anything we haven’t seen before, Desplechin’s haunting and heartbreaking rumination on the growing pains of growing up adds up to a story with strong connective tissue that’s well worth seeing.
Anthropology professor Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric) is traveling from Tajikistan, returning to his home country of France for a job as a Minister of Foreign Affairs, when he’s stopped by customs agent seeking clarity about his passport. You see, his name and passport information bear a strinking resemblance to a dead man’s. The ensuing story Paul weaves to the agent recounts three distinct situations in his youth that affected his psyche in numerous ways. The first is from his childhood, as her assumes the role of protector to his younger sister Delphine and brother Ivan. The second tale deals with friendship, loyalty and the altruistic reason why there’s another person with the same name. The third experience – and most consuming one – is about Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet, making her feature film debut), who is quite possibly the love of his life.
MY GOLDEN YEARS effectively captures the thrills, naiveté and warmth of youth, subtly commenting on how decisions made in our formative years greatly impact our adulthood. Though it’s Paul (played in adolescence by Quentin Dolmaire) that’s the driving force of this narrative, Desplechin doesn’t totally forget about his siblings. Delphine’s singleton status struggle is addressed, as is her stepping into the mom role vacated by their suicidal mother (Cécile Garcia-Fogel), wearing her pearls, caring for her brothers when distraught disciplinarian Dad (Olivier Rabourdin) doesn’t care. Esther’s chapter usurps much of the film’s run time, at times dragging and losing itself in brooding ennui. The first part, setting up Paul’s mommy issues and that he’s essentially chosen a woman just like his mom to romance, isn’t given much time to get its point across. It’s not until later that the ramifications deepen. C’est la vie!
As this is their second film together, Amalric and Desplechin display a notable bond, knowing how to function as a team. Nowhere is this more evident than in Amalric’s precise reaction to the death certificate of the man he helped. Within milliseconds, and better than any speaking line could do, it captures the character’s vulnerability and pathos, demonstrating the close relationship between actor and director. Desplechin also adds visual interest to the film in the way he closes and opens the camera’s iris. Utilizing split screen techniques adds to the film’s vibrant, youthful energy – specifically during the scenes before and when Paul and Esther meet each other for the first time. We feel like we’re there shooting the shit with these characters, falling in love with them, smoking and hanging out. We remember our carefree late teens.
However, this can’t all be effusive praise. Maybe it’s just me and a case of face-blindness but the actor playing teen Robert (Théo Fernandez) looks more like Amalric than the teen actor playing Paul. They aren’t terrible actors by any means, but their looks can get a little confusing. It’s almost as if Desplechin hit the fast-forward button in Paul’s youth as those chapters whiz by too fast and don’t gel. There’s also a rather bothersome double standard: When Paul sleeps around, it’s okay, but when Esther does, she’s called a whore. I also didn’t engage much with the relationship between Paul and his college professor (Eve Doe-Bruce). Yes, it informs his career choice but too much time is paid to it. Music choices, while good, tend to be a bit on the nose; from De La Soul’s “Jennifa,” to Marine Girls’ “He Got The Girl,” to English Beat’s “Save It For Later,” to The Jam’s “Carnation,” their lyrics permeate and parallel the narrative.
Does this answer burning the questions you’ve had since 1996 about why Paul is the way he is? Sure. But the bigger question is why does it matter if there’s added context? Couldn’t you just have accepted the original as a closed narrative? MY GOLDEN YEARS will provide that perspective art-house audiences craved, but new ones may think “What’s the point?” Whatever the case, a fascinating dichotomy arises as viewers who’ve seen Paul’s latter years play out first will gain a further understanding of his mid-life male malaise, but younger viewers might feel almost complete having just watched the prequel.
3.5 out of 5
MY GOLDEN DAYS is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. To find it playing near you, go here.
Photo credit: Mathieu Amalric in MY GOLDEN DAYS, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.