Wednesday, November 11, 2015

2015 Top Ten Films #7 My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse)

MY GOLDEN DAYS (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse)                  A-            
France  (120 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Arnaud Desplechin 

While not exactly a prequel, but a reimagining of an original story used in an earlier film, MY SEX LIFE…OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT (1996), which was a sprawling three-hour French relationship talkathon, while in this film Desplechin has resurrected the central character of Paul Dédalus, played nineteen years apart in both films by Mathieu Amalric, who opens the film as a present day character remembering events occurring in the late 80’s and early 90’s, where a more accurate French title translates to Three Remembrances of My Youth.  Winner of the SACD Prize (Best Screenplay) in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, the director (along with Julie Peyr) has written a memory play that explores the Proustian autobiographical memories of the Dédalus character from childhood through adolescence, told in three segments, where the first two, Childhood and Russia, preface a larger story entitled Esther that blends into the early periods of MY SEX LIFE, a film that falls within a great tradition of French coming-of age-films, having made some of the best, including Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) (1959), Téchiné’s Wild Reeds (Les Roseaux Sauvages) (1994), and Assayas’s Cold Water (L’eau Froide) (1994).  The brief opening sequences are actually the weakest in the entire film, as the viewer doesn’t have a handle yet on Paul Dédalus, or even a connection to the earlier film.  Instead he’s seen as a middle-aged man leaving his lover, returning to Paris for a government post in Foreign Affairs after spending a decade working as a scholar and anthropologist in Tajikistan.  It’s only at the airport where he’s stopped and questioned, interrogated by a French official, dutifully performed by Resnais regular André Dussollier, with questions about his passport, which shifts the film into a lengthy flashback sequence, often expressed through a round (iris) frame, a holdover technique from the Silent era, suggesting memories of long ago, recounting three seminal moments from his past.  Like Truffaut’s young ruffian alter-ego character Antoine Doinel, a petrified 11-year old Paul Dédalus (Antoine Bui) also ran away from his home in Roubaix escaping from his deranged mother, depicted in a panicked German Expressionist horror scene where he holds her off with a knife (shadows appearing on a staircase), warning her not to come any closer, before running away to his kindly great-aunt Rose, Françoise Lebrun, who played Veronika in The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973), looking better than ever, observed by a curious young Paul as the affectionate recipient of a sweet lesbian kiss.  While he’s sad to learn of his mother’s suicide shortly thereafter (claiming he never loved her), it has a permanent effect on his emotionally depressed father (Olivier Rabourdin), whose mind is elsewhere and is unable to look after his children, where Paul along with his sister and younger brother share their formative teenage years raising themselves. 

However, this does not account for why there is another Paul Dédalus living in Australia with a registered passport using the same birthdate and birthplace.  For that, the scene shifts to Russia, where Paul takes an eventful student high school trip to Minsk in the USSR as an idealistic 16-year old, now played by Quentin Dolmaire, turning into an amateur spy thriller when he along with his Jewish friend Marc (Elyot Milshtein) agree to help the Refuseniks (Refuseniks - Jewish Virtual Library), sneaking away from a student tour of the National Arts Museum to help a group of Russian Jews denied permission to leave the country, providing secret packages filled with money, while Paul goes so far as to offer his passport, allowing someone else to assume his identity.  To cover for his own lost passport, he gives himself a black eye and claims he was mugged and his passport stolen.  Filled with plenty of Cold War tension, including bribing a suspicious police officer that stops them with a pack of American cigarettes, the young boys actually pull it off, blending into his teenage years where he’s with his sister Delphine (Lily Taieb) and brother Ivan (Raphaël Cohen) watching television footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which Paul finds sad as “I can see my childhood ending.”  But most of all he remembers Esther, played by Lou Roy-Lecollinet, an absolute delight as the girl of his dreams, the beauty of his eye, and his soulmate, something he realizes from the moment he sets eyes on her, as she’s “the one,” a dazzling beauty who is mature beyond her years, amusingly aware of the effect she has on men, and couldn’t care less what others think of her, an earlier version of the same character played by Emmanuelle Devos in MY SEX LIFE.  Inviting her to come to a party at their father’s house (believing he is away), Desplechin perfectly frames her entrance, shifting to slow motion with her initial appearance, where celestial music honors her as the Goddess of Love and Beauty.  The same device is used several times, each time more amusing than the next, as this is exactly how high school boys envision their first love.  They’re not just “in love,” but the moon and the stars orbit around her very presence.  Paul has a clever way of showing his interest, especially when she shows up with somebody else, which is to ignore her while she dances with all the other guys, staring ponderously at her throughout, waiting until the guy she came with decides to leave, expecting to take her home, but she insists upon staying, rudely telling him to scram.  Thus begins the long journey of a tumultuous decade-long love affair, but that night, all he does is walk her home, romantically walking through the city streets just before daybreak, awkwardly trying to make clever conversation, confessing whatever comes out of his mouth, which she finds amusing, ending the night with the cinematic perfection of a gentle kiss, conveying in our eyes exactly how he feels and just what she means to him. 

These two, Roy-Lecollinet and Dolmaire, both first time actors, literally light up the screen, where their ecstatic combustible energy is something to savor, as Esther is viewed as royalty, where every male in the vicinity is attracted to her, so she quickly learns to fend them off and has become a master in the art of the put-down, showing an instant disdain for people that get on her nerves, believing life is too short for people to waste her time, but she has the whole world beckoning her, wanting to be with her.  Initially Paul appears to have little chance, spending his time traveling back and forth between Roubaix and Paris, where it turns out absence makes the heart grow fonder.  In an era before social media, where now kids routinely send hundreds of text messages every day, the preferred technique back in the day was writing letters, pouring out one’s heart and soul in confessional outpourings of love (which are read directly into the camera), where every spare moment is dedicated to an idyllic “her,” keeping her foremost on his mind even as he pursues his Parisian studies and a life as an academic, where their exchanges are electric, literally flowing with excitement and energy when they meet, exhibiting all the signs of a sweetness of youth, becoming passionate lovers before long, where they can’t live without each other.  The beauty of this film is really the playfulness of Desplechin’s cinematic presentation, the way he mixes it up, showing plenty of offbeat humor, tenderness, moments of despair, crude awakenings, and a world where nothing makes sense except each other, but where their journey together is anything but smooth as she fights to maintain her fiery independence, often shown facing straight into the camera with a cigarette in her hand, where she’s literally posing for the audience, becoming a snapshot in time.  On again, off again, she’s put off by the extent of his absences, and freely acknowledges she sleeps with other guys, where they go through a series of breakups and reconciliations, but Paul has a way of charming the pants off her (which happens literally with another woman in the film), where she loves the way he’ll poetically describe a work of art, like one of his favorite paintings, putting her somewhere in the center of its majestic beauty, a sacred, unreachable perfection, while he sees himself as some lonely figure off to the side, but perhaps the only thing in the frame alert enough to notice the power of her staggering presence.  It’s a fascinating free-wheeling style that matches the furious pace of his earlier film, literally painting a window into their damaged souls where they have such a special chemistry together that is rare in films today.  With a throbbing soundtrack that matches the elevated emotional reach of the film, there’s something bewitching and enchanting about it, where Desplechin’s masterful direction breathes life into an age-old Romeo and Juliet love story, becoming intensely personal, fiercely sincere, especially a scene late in the film, with tinges of sadness when looked back upon because it never lasted, but the thoughtfulness and thorough detail of the remembrances are a brilliant ode to youth, as illuminating as they are intoxicating.

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