It's no surprise that Mathieu Amalric gets top billing in the ads for My Golden Days. Not only does co-writer and director Arnaud Desplechin position the film as a sort of wrapper for My Sex Life... or How I Got into an Argument -- for which Amalric as Paul Dédalus won his first César as the most promising actor of 1996 -- but Amalric's portrayal of the fallout from his romantically turbulent youth is easily the most powerful, nuanced, and interesting performance to be found. The shame is that it's only about ten minutes' worth of the movie, and the rest of its two-hour running time falls short of the bar that Amalric sets.
It's also not much of a surprise that they changed the title in translation. Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse refers to three memories of Paul's youth, but only one of them -- in which he is played briefly by Antoine Bui but mostly by Quentin Dolmaire -- is positioned as important.
We get a glimpse of his childhood, wherein his mother sinks into depression, his father turns abusive, and Paul himself goes to live with a lesbian aunt. This mostly sets up Paul's leitmotif, "I feel nothing", which is how he learned to deal with his father's beatings, and how he deals with physical abuse through the rest of his youth.
In high school, on a trip to Minsk, Paul joins a friend in helping out a group of refuseniks, and even "loses" his passport so one of them about his age can use it to get to Israel. The grown-up Paul finds this out as he returns to Paris to take a job in the French foreign ministry, only to be told Paul Dédalus had recently died in Australia. It's a delicious moment of absurdity, and by itself the confrontation and flashback could have made a marvelous short film, but they don't really build towards anything else in the rest of this feature.
Most of the film, as I said, consists of Paul's on-again, off-again relationship with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet) as French youth in the '80s and '90s. They meet in his hometown shortly before he heads off to Paris to study the anthropology of North Africa and Central Asia, and we watch their relationship develop slowly whenever he returns home to visit. But soon things sour; Paul has flings with other girls, and Esther goes to bed with his friends to self-medicate the loneliness she feels when he goes back to school. Both of them claim to be above petty jealousies, but the stresses of the relationship clearly weigh on them both. It's a relief to everyone once it's finally over, although it evidently remains unresolved for most of Paul's life.
Most men in Paul's position can probably tell a similar story. Most women probably can too. I know I could, but I don't because nobody outside my own solipsistic head cares. For the most part, these are boring, melodramatic stories that only matter to the people who tell them, and most people who have grown past their adolescence realize that these are the emotional equivalent of vacation photos.
There can be exceptions. Maybe the story is extraordinarily well-told, though this one isn't. Maybe it highlights some universal lesson beyond "dumb kids do dumb things with their dumb feelings", but this one doesn't. Or maybe the story of the boy illuminates the character of the man, and we can consider how these events echo down through the years. That seems to be what Desplechin wants to do here, but we see so little of Amalric's Paul that it's hard to bring this attempt to a satisfactory resolution.
Rating: 2 out of 5