Those inclined to be turned off by the frat-boy antics of Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! might prefer to check out Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days, to which it can be seen as an artsier French cousin. Both films are about the exuberance of youth and self-discovery: where Linklater’s baseball jocks bond with each other over keg stands and ping-pong, Desplechin’s poetic types do so over books and cigarettes. Desplechin’s protagonist, Paul Dedalus, is more intellectually curious than just about anybody in the Linklater film. But they do have one interest in common: girls. The majority of My Golden Days details Paul’s tumultuous relationship with Esther, a beautiful but emotionally volatile friend of his sister, who proceeds to cause him a heartbreak that he will carry with him into adulthood.
My Golden Days shares a novelistic sensibility with Desplechin’s other films, and its main character’s name alludes to such canonical coming-of-age stories as Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. Like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, Paul is sensitive, intelligent, horny, and prone to acts of noble folly—as when he accompanies a high-school friend to Russia and gives his passport to a teenage boy looking to escape from behind the iron curtain. (This action comes back to haunt Paul later in life, when French security officials interrogate him about his “double.”) Set mostly in the late 1980s, as the rest of Europe watches the fall of the Berlin Wall, the film is eager to engage with Cold War politics, ethnicity, and national identity, as if to suggest that Paul’s coming of age coincides with the birth of a new era in modern European history.
But these aspects of My Golden Days are vastly less interesting than the film’s romance plot, which consumes everything around it just as it consumes Paul himself. The object of his obsession, Esther, is a beguiling presence. The film’s romantic tone extends to everything else in Paul’s life that excites him—Greek, Russian, anthropology, hip-hop. (As is typical for Desplechin, My Golden Days has a killer soundtrack.) In the film’s best sequences, Desplechin captures the urgency of that excitement. Its framing scenes, which give us brief glimpses of Paul at middle age (played by Mathieu Amalric), suggest that such excitement may be the most treasured aspect of youth—and the most sorely missed.