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'My Golden Days,' An Heir To French New Wave


This is FRESH AIR, a film that was a huge hit at the Cannes Film Festival last May has begun opening in American theaters. It's called "My Golden Days," and it's a story about the memory of young love. It was directed and co-written by Arnaud Desplechin who won France's equivalent of the Oscar as Best Director. Our critic at large John Powers says the film is delightfully French in the very best sense of the term.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: A couple of years ago, I was on a panel discussing the seemingly dire future of foreign film in America. Afterwards, a woman came up and asked, why don't the French make movies like "Jules And Jim" anymore? But they do, I said. And if I were talking to her now, I would tell her to hurry out and see "My Golden Days," the wonderful new movie by Arnaud Desplechin, one of the heirs to the French New Wave. If you've seen earlier Desplechin films like "My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into An Argument," you'll know he's a rare blend of stylistic grace and novelistic richness. If you haven't, you'll have a chance to discover his talent in this leaping, drifting tale that contains perhaps the finest evocation of young love I've ever seen on screen. "My Golden Days" is built from the memories of Paul Dedalus, an anthropologist played by Mathieu Amalric, the well-known actor and director who's something of Desplechin's alter ego. As the action begins, Paul is returning to Paris from Tajikistan after years of living abroad. This homecoming gets him thinking about his youth in the 1980s, in particular three separate episodes of increasing length, framed by Paul's current middle-aged life. The first is a brief and impressionistic look at the young Paul's desire to escape his depressive father and clinically crazy mom by moving in with his grandmother.

The second is a mini spy adventure in which the teenage Paul visits Soviet-era Minsk and winds up giving his French passport to a young Jewish refusenik so he can emigrate to Israel. In this episode and the third one, Paul is played by newcomer Quentin Dolmaire, who's such a dreamboat you wonder how he could possibly grow up to be Amalric, who resembles a ravenous frog. But no matter - this third episode concerns Paul's time at university where he parties with his buddies, finds a mentor in a black, female professor and, most important, begins an affair with the imperious Esther, who tells him up front, I'm extraordinary. She's played by another newcomer, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, who actually lives up to that claim. Over the years, Desplechin has tackled movies about everything from the Cold War to a psychoanalyst's friendship with a Native American, yet he's best at revealing the mercurial nature of romantic intimacy. You'll see few scenes more magically alive than the one in which Paul first flirts with Esther, wooing her with his insistence that he's bad at wooing or the one at a museum when they look at the painting of a Roman palace and he explains how he sees her in it, totally locked in on one another. Dolmaire and Roy-Lecollinet give us their every blush, every glance, every smile whether nervous, calculating, or triumphant.

Capturing such emotional delicacy takes far more skill than, say, showing Leonardo DiCaprio being mauled by a CGI bear. Although it has the offkilter rhythm of actual memories and employs stylistic flourishes like 80s-era split-screens, "My Golden Days" is never hard to follow. That said, Desplechin is not one to do all the work for viewers. It's up to us to see the echoes and connections that hold the film together, for instance, the way Paul's experience with his mother affects his relationship to the hyper-intense Esther or how giving away his passport is bound up with his own questions of identity. And because we're seeing Paul's memories not objective truth, we wonder how they've been shaped by his ever-changing sense of himself. Central to that self-image is Esther, who's both a source of an antidote to the film's nostalgia. Esther doesn't merely enter Paul's life, and, by extension, the film. She takes them over not because he's a sexpot or one of those so-called Manic Pixie Dream Girls you find in American indie films, but because Roy-Lecollinet endows her with so much depth, emotion and sheer vitality that her love may be too much for Paul. Where his charms are a tad shallow and cautious, Esther blazes like a sun toward which everything bends. Charles Dickens famously began "David Copperfield" with his hero wondering whether or not he would turn out to be the hero of his own life. Paul Dedalus is in every scene of "My Golden Days," but by the end of this achingly romantic film, you may find yourself wondering who the true hero of those days actually was.

GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and Vogue.com. He reviewed the new movie "My Golden Days." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Peggy Orenstein, one of the leading writers about the cultural messages directed at girls. Her new book "Girls And Sex" is about the complicated questions facing girls regarding their sexuality, how they dress, how alcohol affects sex and consent and how pornography is affecting expectations. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.