In Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument, intimate relations with Marion Cotillard lead one character to a spiritual awakening. Later, protagonist Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric) declaims on what he considers “the one pleasure” that will never go away in life: “the surprise when I stick my hand in the panties of a girl I don’t know.” For a bravura 90-second take (background music: Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away”), Desplechin locks in on Paul with a long lens as Amalric slides side to side, back and forth, dodging people in a shoulder-to-shoulder room so he can deliver his furious sermon without interruption.
In his new My Golden Days, Desplechin finds this same Paul Dédalus (still Amalric) 20 years later but in characteristic form, quipping “I love organized women” to his latest lover as she helps him prep for his return trip to France. But the bulk of the movie takes place in flashback, imagining the earlier years of the teenage Paul (played by Quentin Dolmaire) and the first stages of his life-altering, round-and-round love affair with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). Desplechin’s perspective on this younger Paul is more tender, less critical than it was in My Sex Life: Here, the camera moves not with amped-up restlessness but with slow, concentrated pans and the overall smoothness of a still pond.
My Golden Days still abounds in Desplechin hallmarks: An episode of Cold War–era political rebellion leads to the elder Paul’s being accosted and interrogated by a mysterious official in an depressing room, as Emmanuel Salinger is in The Sentinel; an episode of sudden paranoia has the teenage Paul belting himself in the face, as Summer Phoenix does in Esther Kahn; and, as in My Sex Life, friends swap lovers with a nonchalance that inevitably leads to jilted feelings, grim arguments and periods of great sorrow. Paul has a habit of declaring “I feel nothing” when met with physical and emotional hardship — which might seem charming once, when he says it after getting into a fight on Esther’s behalf, but gradually takes on disturbing edges.
Despite these unsettling moments — which include a scary memory of parental violence set in a stairway in the middle of the night — the general impression of My Golden Days is of infectious warmth. The bracing recollections of youthful political action; the fond memories of idle afternoons spent on carpets reading and listening to records; and the sweet evocations of first love as it grows from chit-chat on the grounds outside school to long strolls the morning after a house party: Desplechin views all of this with a touching, complex nostalgia. There is serious pain in this movie — pain that endures throughout the years — but also a sincere love for life lived, and life remembered.