As we’ve said before, the trend at Cannes this year is foreign-language filmmakers working in English, often for the first time. Both filmmakers and audiences could be forgiven for being cautious about some of these projects, given some recent high-profile misfires, and one of the reasons for that is “Jimmy P.,” the English-language debut of acclaimed French helmer Arnaud Desplechin. A favorite of cinephiles, thanks to a string of whip-smart, deeply humane dramas like “Kings And Queens” and “A Christmas Story,” he came unstuck with “Jimmy P,” which received mostly disappointed notices at Cannes a few years back. Perhaps a little cowed by this, Desplechin has circled back to more familiar territory for his latest, “My Golden Days,” and the good news is that it marks a real return to form.
The film sees anthropologist Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric) looking back, as he returns to Paris after years of living in Tajikistan, on three “souvenirs of his youth,” to literally translate the movie’s French title. The first involves his earlier years, dealing with his mentally-disturbed mother, while the second follows a teenage Paul (Quentin Dolmaire), conspiring with a friend to give his identity to someone on behalf of the Soviet Union while on a school trip (it makes more sense in context).
The third and final section, which takes up at least two-thirds of the picture, picks up with a college-aged Paul returning home to see brother Ivan (Raphäel Cohen) and sister Delphine (Lily Taieb), en route to trying to talk his way into an anthropology course in Paris. While there, he takes a fancy to Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), one of his sister’s friends. She has at least one other boyfriend (Paul takes a beating at the hands of one after walking her home from a party), but they soon enter a burgeoning long-distance relationship that will haunt Paul for decades.
If some of the character names seem familiar, that’s because Paul and Esther were also the central characters in Desplechin’s 1996 film “My Sex Life,” and this film had been billed as something of a follow up. In fact, though, it’s a directly contradictory version of their romance: avid fans of the director will get something out of the connection, but it’s far from necessary to watch the earlier picture to get something out of this one.
And make no mistake, there’s a lot to get out of it. This is a rich and literary film, full of warmth and life and sadness and humor, loving all its characters without necessarily showing them to be good people. The first segment startlingly shows the deep core of pain in Paul over his fear of his disturbed mother, before the film shifts gears into something close to genre territory, a sort of beautifully realised high-school version of a John Le Carré story. It’s perhaps the most unusual element of the film, but one that somehow fits neatly into the whole.
The film’s focus wanders, taking in Paul’s friendship with a mother-figure professor (Eve Doe-Bruce), an affair with an older woman (Mélodie Richard), his brother’s brief flirtations with religion and bank robbery and much more. It’s a dense picture, packing an enormous amount into a brisk two hours. But the focus is undoubtedly on the relationship between Paul and Esther.
It’s also a story of first love — Truffaut’s Doinel cycle and Mia Hansen-Løve‘s recent “Goodbye First Love” being immediate comparison points beyond the director’s own work — but it feels firmly original despite taking place on well-trodden ground. Paul and Esther are both surprisingly mature and incredibly immature, attempting to have a somewhat open relationship as a way of combating the problems caused by long distances and Esther’s flirtatious nature, but finding that jealousy, and their basic personalities, keep getting in the way.
Like the film as a whole, it’s both specific and universal, and anyone who had the one early relationship that got under their skin and never quite got out will identify. I’ll confess that I had a certain uneasiness with some of the rather Nouveau Vague-ish gender politics at play: the film’s conclusion and earlier glimpses of Paul’s misogyny confirm that Desplechin thinks his protagonist is kind of a dick. But even so, Esther isn’t quite as fully-realized as he is, lacking in agency and driven by her neuroticism and need to be loved by men, and I’d have loved to have seen a little more time in the sun for her.
Aside from this, though, there’s little to complain about. Desplechin’s assembled a remarkable young cast, almost all of whom are newcomers. It feels like a new generation of talent emerging who’ll likely be cropping up in French cinema for decades to come, with Dolmaire and Roy-LeCollinet being particular standouts.
The director himself is on more playful form than he’s been in a while, with a loose, bouncy style taking in irises, split-screens and some of the most giddily put-together editing we’ve seen in an age (the way he handles passage of time here made me want to stand up and applaud). He has a real sense for period detail here, too: the characters are younger than the helmer himself, but there’s a vivid authenticity to the being-young-in-the-late-80s setting, without resorting to Rubik’s Cube cliches, that belies that. The soundtrack, in particular, is one of the best I’ve heard in a while.
The film doesn’t reinvent the wheel: it is, ultimately, a middle-class-white-boy coming-of-age tale of the kind that the cinema of France, and elsewhere, has never been lacking. But it’s written, shot, cut and performed with such palpable joy, intelligence and warmth that it ends up feeling entirely fresh. Welcome back, Mr. Desplechin. [A-]