Paul and Esther are young and in love—or at least in love with the idea of love. They’re in an art museum, contemplating a painting. Something about the image stirs Paul to an especially heated appreciation of his beloved, and he begins singing her praises, culminating in the words, “Your features contain the meaning of the world.” This is the way people should speak in real life, but too rarely do. Thankfully, we have French movies to fill in the gaps.
My Golden Days is a typically ardent example of the French coming-of-age film—maybe too typical at times, although it has surprises in store. Director Arnaud Desplechin arranges the picture as three remembrances of youth, recalled by middle-aged anthropologist Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric). One episode is relatively brief, a childhood vignette in which young Paul’s mother dies and he learns how not to feel pain. The next section is the most unexpected—basically a mini-spy movie, in which Paul (played in youth by Quentin Dolmaire) goes on a high-school trip to the Soviet Union, and agrees to secretly carry cash to a group of oppressed Jews in Moscow.
“We’re in the middle of a midst of a myth and I don’t know what myth it is.”
– Henri (Mathieu Amalric)
In the opening of Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Conte De Noel (A Christmas Tale), a wily and knotty and unendingly inventive drama of family dysfunction stirred up over a Christmas gathering, the story of the long-ago death of the family first born to leukemia is dramatized as shadow puppet theater. It’s tender and lovely and quite delicate, an evocative way to suggest the theatricality of memory and the blurring of detail over time.
Two and a half hours later, as eldest sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) sits at her desk putting her thoughts of family and fears and sins she can’t forgive into a diary in the final shots of the film, a photo of the that very shadow theater can be seen on her desk. It’s the final shot of the film and it echoes the opening images in a whisper. It doesn’t explain everything, and it may not explain anything, but it’s the kind of detail that connects imagery and meaning, memory and emotion, past and present, life and death.
The shadow of that death hovers over the film: in the cancer that family matron Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has been diagnosed with, in the fragility of her teenage grandson Paul (Emile Berling), and in the volatile sibling dynamics that drove eldest Elizabeth to, in effect, legally separate herself from her brother Henri (Mathieu Amalric, in a mesmerizingly manic-depressive performance).
“Henri is the disease,” Elizabeth tells us in one of the film’s direct address monologues, but perhaps the disease is in the blood â€“ the same blood that killed Joseph at age six, the same that will eventually kill her mother (even with a bone marrow transplant, which will only give her a few more years â€“ they have the mathematical formula to prove it!), and maybe the same that haunts her son, Paul. For whatever reasons, Paul seeks out his outcast Uncle Henri and invites him to the family Christmas from which he’s been banished for five years. It helps stir up quite a holiday nog, complete with a brutal little brawl and a bit of adultery that may come some way to smoothing over a few emotional rough patches.