Oddly enough, I was about to walk into another film, that shall remain nameless, when I saw a coworker of mine outside of this film who said it was supposed to be good. As fate would have it, he was absolutely correct, and I’m incredibly happy that I got the chance to see this film. Apparently, My Golden Years is a prequel of sorts to Desplechin’s 1996 film My Sex Life, Or How I Got Into An Argument…I say ‘apparently’ because, it being a coming-of-age film for the protagonist, the other film does not seem critical at all to a comprehension of this one. The structure of the film itself is such that its protagonist’s early life is divided into three portions: a segment on his early childhood and his mother’s fits of madness, another, critical section on a trip he took to Russia to help a Jewish family, and what is by far the longest section, detailing a long-distance, open relationship with the love of his life, Esther. Stylistically, I noticed a lot of callbacks to framing, freeze-frames, dialogue and other devices that were so key to the French New Wave movement. The film itself is visually striking, and I’d very much like to re-watch it because I believe there’s much more to uncover about it through careful analysis of this.
The main thematic through line of this film is, as a coming of age film, identity, but it sets itself up to be a bit more unique in its middle section. The framing portion for this section is that Paul has been pulled aside by customs, thought to be a communist spy, because there is another Paul Daedulus with the exact same birth date and city that now lives in Australia. From here, it is uncovered that, during a trip to Minsk, Paul decided to leave his passport in the USSR so another teenage boy might have the chance to escape. Interestingly, though this is one of three important memories that craft the portrait of Paul, it is only brought up in passing once during the next section, and then during the finale as the protagonist wonders about being the ‘real Paul.’ This is really only a small thread, but its quite a wonderful addition to the film as it also begs the question of how identity is constructed; to this end, one of the film’s greatest achievement is the way that it posits identity as just that, an artificial construct. Both this small thread, the narration that continuously draws the spectator out of the diegesis, and the selective memory make us aware that what we see on the screen is artifice. Furthermore, in another brilliant device, the letters sent from Esther are always accompanied by beautiful, but exaggerated romantic imagery that further serve as to remind us that these memories are being constructed by Paul, hence the lack of realism (and the utopianism) in what he imagines but does not experience.
If you might not be able to tell at this point, there’s a lot more to talk about in terms of what this film mediates on thematically, as it is an incredibly unique look at identity, immature self-obsession, and more. Whenever this comes out on home video, I’d like to perhaps revisit it in a longer post as I believe its a very great film to discuss. I would like to, however, end on the section that the film devotes the majority of its time to: Esther. This is an interesting choice as what is sacrificed is both the spy-esque action plot of Paul’s trip to the USSR as well as Paul’s childhood experience. One gets the sense that his childhood experiences are actually far more important to Paul than the film would let on, as his dead mother is continuously brought up both abruptly in dialogue and through set pieces, which further points towards this idea of artifice in identity and storytelling (perhaps we don’t always see the most important moments). What is gained, instead, is a rather well written, and realistic depiction of Paul and Esther’s open relationship. Of course, many portions of this are severely melodramatic, but Paul is 19 and Esther is 16 so things at this stage of life always are drenched in heavy importance. This, in and of itself, made the final portion so very brilliant to me; Desplechin tantalizes us with the action and intrigue of two short sections but moves on to portray what often seems so key while coming-of-age: the trivial. it’s a very unique stance on the genre, as many films of this sort prefer to focus on highly cinematic and important (realistic or not) events that happen to the protagonist. My Golden Days dwells in the moments that we, as spectators, aren’t accustomed to seeing or finding important because, when crafting identity, those are the important moments in our lives. Beyond this, I appreciated this section for its realism on a narrative level; seeing Paul be completely fine with the multitude of sexual partners, some married, he had during their long-distance, open relationship, yet posing Esther as a sort of antagonist at points (and calling her a whore) for doing the exact same didn’t feel exactly fair, but is extremely emotionally realistic. Their saccharine love letters, also, were just too on point for relationships at this age.
In summation, as a piece of realism, as well as thematically, I really did get a lot out of My Golden Days. I look forward to seeing it again so I can do a more intense analysis of what’s going on stylistically to aid the construct.