Movie’s that have retrospections on a character’s life are a dime a dozen these days. Whether they have a “trick” to them (Slumdog Millionaire) or are about a genuinely interesting life (Forrest Gump), there’s no denying that the cinema space is chock full of movies that reflect on a particular character’s life. It makes sense why it’s done though. We as humans relate and empathize most with someone growing up, seeing where they came from, and how it made them into the person they are today (or in their moment in film). It’s such a universal trait that it can transcend through all cultures seamlessly. Which is why, despite being French, My Golden Days touched me at a very personal level. But despite all I’ve been saying about how movies like these are made all the time, this is by far the most human and grounded movies out of all of them. What director Arnaud Desplechin is nothing short of amazing.
We follow the life of Paul Daedalus, a frenchman who is moving from Tajikistan back to Paris to continue his career in academia. This encourages him, and us as the audience, to look back upon his life and see how he got here. The movie is broken up into several “chapters” each of which represent a significant time or event in Paul’s life. Starting from his childhood and ending up all the way to his beginnings in Tajikistan. What I like about these chapters is the length and significance of each one. The childhood chapter consists, obviously, of many years of his life, yet it starts at the moment Paul realizes he resented his manic mother. It also is the shortest in length of all the chapters. Another chapter is dedicated to this one time when he helped a couple of communists in Russia escape with his identity. This one slightly surpassed the length of his childhood in screen time. The final chapter was on his love, Esther, which took place for the majority of the film. What’s significant to me about this, is this is how we remember our lives. We can’t really remember our childhood up until a certain point, and even then it can be a blur to us. We place a great deal of cognitive importance on more significant events in our lives, like Paul’s Russian adventure, making it more vivid in our heads than other memories. But it is our love and the falling in love where we remember every single second. It’s the most euphoric, and the most significant time in our lives, selfishly I might add. I just think that sort of subtle presentation is brilliant.
The content of the film is just so human. I don’t mean like it’s “brutally honest” or that “it tells us truisms we don’t wish to hear,” I mean it’s set up in a way that is unconventional to most narratives. Paul can be a little polarizing at times. His decisions can be rash, and you’ll sometimes be wondering “why is he doing that?” The character of Ester can also be puzzling as well on the surface. She has this facade of “I can and have had any boy I like” and has this very intimidating front, but once Paul woos her, she becomes clingy, neurotic, and spontaneous in a bad way. Some may be confused as to why her character changes so drastically, but to me I see it as we’re seeing everything from Paul’s point of view. So when you first meet the girl you love, she’s automatically intimidating and you always put her on a pedestal in your head. To you, she’s a cut above everyone else, when in reality that may not always be the case. Once you get to know her, and you get past the “honeymoon phase,” you start to encounter the issues many couples find themselves with: dissenting opinions, over-protection, and exhausting communication. And when you look back at those times in your mind, your significant other always seems more spastic and neurotic in your head only because you don’t like what you see or hear. You always frame yourself in a position where you’re not wrong in situations that can be marked off as minor squabbles. This theory is supported when Paul lashed out at his best friend at the end of the film inquiring about Esther, claiming that this friend went above and beyond to sabotage their relationship. The truth was this friend didn’t put that much weight into it, and it made Paul seem a bit unstable. And the most real aspect of this film is that he doesn’t end up with Esther at the end of the film. And that’s not to say that hasn’t been done before in a film. But what’s unique to me is how things are left between Paul, Esther, and the audience. Paul isn’t over her, he hasn’t moved on and he hasn’t found peace. What’s more is none of the movie focuses on his life after Esther. This to me emphasizes the idea that Paul has had no life after Esther, at least not significantly. It’s not a Shakespearean tragedy, it’s just reality. How they split and where Paul is at the end of the film is so real.
I like the other little touches this film has on being human. For one Paul is studying anthropology, the study of humans. His last name is Daedalus, who was a skilled craftsman and artist in Greek mythology, but most notably the father of Icarus. I think it’s safe to say Paul flew a little too close to the sun when it came to love. His little sister is named Delphine, which comes from the Greek city of Delphi, which was believed to be the heart of the Earth. She was Paul’s heart at times, pushing him forward, and confiding in him, but also it serves to show that we as humans are the heart of the Earth as well.
The direction of this film is amongst some of the best out there. Paul’s relationship with Esther makes sense because we saw how he grew up. He had issues with females in his life as his mother, who committed suicide, was basically loathed by him and takes refuge under the wing of his Grandmother, and later on an elderly Anthropology professor both of whom he likens to a mother figure. He’s unstable and blunt with his actions towards Esther because of this. I also love how the passage of time within the flashbacks are never explicitly stated, but observed through the change in hairstyles of the characters. Desplechin does a great job with my favorite style of directing, “Show don’t tell.”The tone of this movie is spectacular. It doesn’t deviate in the slightest, everything is straight forward from start to end. Dramatic moments in Paul’s life aren’t dramatized more for the sake of the movie. It puts a bit of a perspective on life, when you believe moments should feel more dramatic and weighty, when in fact they are not, and time keeps moving forward. The cinematography is also top notch here. Every so often the screen will close in on a certain point and only show the actron through a door hole-like circle. It’s almost voyeuristic in a way, and it kind of epitomizes how we are merely observing life through a small viewing point (which in turn is a smaller scale for life, as Paul does not represent everyone or life itself). The acting is superb as well. Sometimes it can be hard to judge the performance of an actor in a foreign film, but here you can tell everyone gave very genuine and strong performances.
That’s not to say this movie didn’t have issues. Firstly there were some actions and decisions made by the main characters that I couldn’t tell if they were weird, or just a part of French culture. We know that both Paul and Esther made some erratic actions, but there were times, like how they both slept around with other people while they were away from each other, where I couldn’t tell if they were tolerating it because it was part of the culture or if it was because they were in love. There was clearly a line crossed when Esther slept with his best friend, but still it’s a little perplexing, and Europe is known to be a little more liberal when it comes to “sexual traditions.” I also wish we got a bit more of Paul’s current life situation. There would occasionally be cut backs to his present, but not enough to contextualize his current life, or what kind of life he wishes to have. They’re only minor nitpicks but it did stick out with me a little.
Overall, My Golden Days was an absolute treat to view. Even though I’m not quite as old as Paul is in his very last flashback, so much of this movie resonated within me very clearly. I felt like I was watching a perfectly sculpted realistic psyche of an individual, and I don’t think that’s ever been perfected on film. Is this movie for everyone? Yes and no. It can resonate with everyone, but it will only appeal to those who are willing to look back on their life and embrace it in order to compare it with this film. Some people can bottle up their memories and adamantly try and live in the present, so I think this movie will not strike a chord with them as much. For me, however, I felt like I was spoken to in a way. It’s hard to explain, but what Desplechin has made me feel is a normalized sense of myself. That doesn’t strip me of any unique qualities, but there were definitely moments in my life where I thought “this is only happening to me.” Sure enough I saw moments extremely similar unfold before me on screen. I can not recommend this movie enough, especially to those who wish to look back on their lives, or wish to understand what it means to be human. This is one of those special movies I will be revisiting at times in my life where I want to reflect and reminisce. 9.5/10