Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 02, 2015 4:06 pm 
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A first love, in its elaborate setting

Though he has reported being energized in making this new film by the idea that it might be considered a "prequel" to his most notable early one, My Sex Life. . . or How I Got into an Argument (1997), it turns out he only keeps a few characters and makes up the rest. The main one is still Paul Dédalus, now an anthropologist, still played, now as a middle aged man, by Matthieu Amalric, who appears relatively briefly as the subject of the frame sequences and narration. Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse (given the saccharine new title My Golden Days in English) doesn't strictly adhere otherwise to its "source." Desplechin is telling a typically elaborate story here with plenty of characters and three stages of Paul's early life: as a young boy, in early adolescence, and as a lycée student (Quentin Dolmaire) pursuing a long-lived if fruitless affair (it goes on for years, well beyond the lycée into Paul's time at university) with the love of his life, Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet). (Esther appears in My Sex Life... embodied by Emmanuelle Devos; neither of the older actors particularly resembles their younger versions.) It's that third (and surely most important?) "souvenir" that we care about. The rest seems elaborate filler. Trois souvenirs, then, goes from complicated and unsatisfying early segments to the simpler and more successful last part -- the latter a classic, if nicely detailed, story of young love.

But we begin with the middle-aged Paul (Amalric), a world-traveller returning to work in France after years abroad, called in for questioning by a venerable French government official (André Dussollier), just as he is about to take up a post at the Quay d'Orsay (the French foreign ministry). There's a problem: that Paul appears to have loaned his identity to someone living in another hemisphere. He has also lived in several far-flung, almost unknown, hence vaguely suspicious places (though they turn out to be explained by his researches as an anthropologist).

The double identity turns out to go back to Paul's early teen years, and an elaborate deal arranged by his father for a brief school trip to Russia, to help Jewish "refuseniks" wanting to get out of the country. I'm not convinced it was worthwhile to enact this episode in so much loving detail.

In a press interview Desplechin describes Ether as "eating up" the film once she arrives on the scene. As a character (and perhaps this is true of the 17-year-old actress, who plays her, Lou Roy-Lecollinet) she is an intriguing combination of timid on the one hand and theatrical and egocentric on the other. She strikes poses, looks into space, showing off her big eyes and pouty lips. (Roy-Lecollinet is striking looking, but Quentin Dolomaire as young Paul, with his porcelain skin and his cheekbones, is prettier.) The best part of the film is the way the Esther-Paul relationship is handled, through its various stages. Once they meet, it is so clear that they are going to be a couple (despite the fact that all the boys desire her and Paul is a lousy "dragueur," date-maker) that it doesn't matter what either of them says or does. And yet for that very reason, what they say an do can be unconventional.

This is early enough in time so that no one has a phone and there is no email. This may not be Desplechin's life, but it's the time when he was this age. They communicate, constantly, by letter, and at one dramatic point Esther, who's several years younger, sends Paul a telegram. It's delivered to him while he's at a university lecture and everybody thinks it's bad news, but it's good news from Esther that she's passed her "bac" exam and gotten her lycée diploma.

It's true that the on and off love of Paul and Esther isn't treated condescendingly at all, and this seriousness and respect are partly French and partly Desplechin who, no mater how elaborately he handles his storytelling, generally manages to maintain a light touch too.

The subplots work well in the latter parts, notably Paul's relation to a African woman Sorbonne professor of Benin culture (Eve Doe-Bruce), whom he charms into taking him on by saying the other students need a dumb guy like him to feel smart. Esther is wildly unpredictable. Desplechin engagingly depicts their years together, D'Angelo puts it, "as a series of gorgeous fragments, employing his usual arsenal of meta-cinematic gimmicks (split screen, silent-era irises, characters reciting letters directly to the camera) to convey the sense that everything shown is being freshly remembered." She betrays him more than once but it is he who leaves her. I end watching this somewhat over-complex but frequently engaging film wishing somehow it had been framed in a less distracting and irrelevant-seeming way. It's nonetheless a worthy and not untypical panel in the director's oeuvre. His repetition of the Paul character naturally invites comparison with Truffaut, and Amalric/Bonaire with Jean-Pierre Léaud. A typical French review ends by saying "a new Desplechin film is always an event."

My Golden Days/Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse, 123 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2015 in the Directors Fortnight section, it opened theatrically in France to enthusiastic reviews 20 May (AlloCiné 4.1); included in eight other international film festivals. Screened for this review as part of the 2015 New York Film Festival (2 Oct.). US theatrical release: 18 Mar. 2016, NYC (Lincoln Center. It entered SF Bay Areas 8 April.


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