“Life is strange,” Paul Dedalus declares more than once in Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days” — and it’s also rich and intensely personal, as we experience firsthand in this marvelously vivid origin story for the hopelessly romantic French academic played by Mathieu Amalric in 1996’s three-hour Gallic gabfest “My Sex Life, or … How I Got Into an Argument.” Amalric mostly hovers around the periphery of this feature-length flashback, taking a backseat to young leads Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet (both making a superb screen debut) in a roving, restless tale of unhappy childhood, amateur espionage and agonizing first love. If the result offers less of the manic volubility of “My Sex Life” or the dazzling cinematic experimentation of the director’s more recent work, it’s nonetheless ushered along by some of the most fluid, emotionally resonant filmmaking of Desplechin’s career, and should be warmly embraced by his followers in local and international arthouse play.
Much has already been noted of the fact that Desplechin — one of France’s most prodigious filmmaking talents and a five-time Cannes competition veteran (most recently with 2013’s idiosyncratic English-language drama “Jimmy P.”) — was passed over for a sixth shot at the Palme d’Or with “My Golden Days,” which is instead screening in the parallel Directors’ Fortnight program (a week ahead of its May 20 French release). As is often the case with programming politics, the film’s ostensible rejection turns out to have very little to do with its quality, though it’s possible festival organizers were less enamored of the story’s coming-of-age trappings and beguilingly modest touch, at least compared with the more aggressive visual/musical syntax and emotional extremity of works like “Kings and Queen” and “A Christmas Tale.”
Still, in its intellectual curiosity and narrative sprawl, the result is a Desplechin movie through and through, and it all but pulses with life over the course of two fast-moving hours. During that time, the film (scripted by Desplechin and Julie Peyr) freely drops allusions to 18th-century French painting and Greek mythology (not limited to the protagonist’s surname), mixes classical pieces with George Clinton on the soundtrack, and juggles split-screen frames and iris shots — the latter a subtle yet oft-used device that aptly conveys the sense of someone peering into, and carefully reframing, the past.
After years spent working in Tajikstan, professor-anthropologist Paul Dedalus (Amalric) is preparing to return to Paris, triggering a series of chapter-like memories, not all of which turn out to be quite as golden as the film’s English title would suggest. It wouldn’t be a Desplechin movie without its fair share of dangerously fractious family dynamics, and the very first flashback treats us to the frightening specter of our hero’s neurotic, overbearing mother, Jeanne (Cecile Garcia Fogel), whom we see 11-year-old Paul threatening to stab with a knife if she doesn’t leave him alone. Not long after Paul impulsively moves in with his loving great-aunt (Francoise Lebrun), his mother kills herself, sending his father (Olivier Rabourdin) into a permanent depression and leaving him ill equipped to take care of Paul or his younger siblings, Delphine and Ivan.
While audiences may well recall Paul’s mother as being a holy terror from a brief childhood flashback in “My Sex Life,” there’s so little direct narrative overlap between the two films that “My Golden Days” could easily represent a standalone work, and indeed requires little familiarity with its predecessor to be enjoyed. Given the playfulness of Desplechin’s sensibility and the many different characters Amalric has played for the director over the course of their career-long collaboration (going all the way back to 1992’s “La Sentinelle”), it’s hard not to wonder if the life we’re seeing here might belong to another Paul Dedalus entirely.
In perhaps winking acknowledgment of this charming possibility, the film next finds Amalric’s Paul returning to France and being questioned by the authorities, who have reason to suspect him of being a Russian spy. This curious misunderstanding is explained by a flashback to Paul’s high-school years, during which he (now played by Dolmaire) and his friend Marc (Elyot Milshtein) willingly smuggled money and documents (including Paul’s passport) to Russian Jews during a high-school trip to Minsk. Desplechin has some fun making use of spy-thriller devices in the way he frames this suspenseful and mischievous episode (complete with a deadpan Andre Dussollier peering out of the shadows as Paul’s present-day interrogator), but what mainly comes through is Paul’s openness, loyalty and honest desire to look after and help others in need.
These are qualities that will serve him well during his teenage years and beyond, which are recounted in the film’s third, longest and most free-flowing chapter, which Paul mostly spends bouncing between his family house in Roubaix and his studies in Paris. At home, he maintains close ties with Delphine (Lily Taeib) and Ivan (Raphael Cohen), and forms a gradual yet increasingly intense attachment to Delphine’s beautiful schoolmate Esther (Roy-Lecollinet). In Paris, he pursues a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, staying at hostels and subsisting on the hospitality of others; meanwhile, the Berlin Wall comes down, the U.S.S.R. dissolves and Boris Yeltsin is elected, as seen in contextualizing snippets of news footage that mark the possible end of Paul’s childhood — though it could certainly be argued that this is a kid who, for better and for worse, had to grow up far too soon.
Rightly described at one point as having an “angel face,” Dolmaire’s Paul is a soulful charmer, a smooth operator who also happens to be entirely sincere (or at least damn good at convincing you of his sincerity). It’s this gift — a silver tongue and a heart of gold — that enables him to ingratiate himself with an in-demand professor (Eve Doe-Bruce) who becomes more of a mentor figure than either of his parents; to gently talk his brother Ivan (who prays piously to God when he’s not planning to rob banks) out of a sticky situation involving some local roughs; and to fall into a torrid affair with Gilberte (Melodie Richard), the girlfriend of the young man who occasionally tutors him and offers him a couch to sleep on.
These various episodes cohere beautifully despite the picture’s shaggy, digressive narrative structure, woven together by the spry rhythms of Laurence Briaud’s editing and a gently melancholy score composed by Gregoire Hetzel. As ever, the sheer richness and variety of Desplechin’s human circus is such that even a stray episode involving Paul’s younger cousin Bob (Theo Fernandez) and his stormy confrontation with his own overbearing mother (Anne Benoit) feels utterly of a piece with everything else. But what ultimately unifies the proceedings, dramatically and emotionally, is Paul’s six-year, stop-and-go relationship with Esther, wonderfully played by charismatic newcomer Roy-Lecollinet (leading with her pout, but slowly revealing much more) as a young woman whose awareness of her effect on the men in her midst has made her sullen, independent-minded and boldly indifferent to the thoughts and feelings of others.
Yet Esther also proves needy and fragile, especially when Paul’s studies and anthropology work take him far from home, and she repeatedly leans on both Bob and another friend, Jean-Pierre (Pierre Andrau), for romantic attention. On one level, the open nature of Paul and Esther’s relationship — during which he racks up seven other lovers to her 15 — may seem a quintessentially French social convention, and the looseness of their commitment is as crucial to their sustained connection as the tenderness of their lovemaking (lensed with frank sensuality by d.p. Irina Lubtchansky).
Yet Desplechin perfectly times the moment when drollery ends and anguish begins, and it’s that sense of vulnerability that lends the film an unexpected emotional force as it moves toward its return-home epilogue. While Amalric isn’t the star here, he gets to set off a few dramatic fireworks as Paul gradually realizes the extent to which his first and still most important relationship affected him, transforming what could have been an aimless nostalgia trip into a piercing, elegiac rumination on how the past, even as it slips through our fingers, never quite abandons the present.