London 2015: 'My Golden Days' review

★★★★☆
Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days (2015) follows Paul Dédalus (Quentin Dolmaire) on a path through adolescence into adulthood, as told by his older self (Mathieu Amalric). Paul is reminiscent of those teenagers embodied by a youthful John Cusack - a twinkle in his eye, too smart for his own good but above all forthright and principled; he is beaten up for sticking to his guns on a number of occasions. Bloodied, bruised and patched up by siblings Ivan (Raphael Cohen) and Delphine (Lily Taieb), he proudly defies, "I didn't feel a thing".

The French title translates to 'Three Memories of my Youth' which accurately reflects a coming-of-age story where sticks and stones may break bones but the recollection of heartache and loss have a much longer lasting effect. My Sex Life...Or How I Got Into An Argument (1996) also starred Amalric as a grown-up Dédalus but My Golden Days belongs to newcomers Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet, who is Paul's great love, Esther, combining elements of Brigitte Bardot with Debbie Harry's pout and effortless cool.

The two leads give stellar debut performances as fledgling lovers pushed and pulled from one another by the imperceptible and impenetrable magnetism of the first great romance of a lifetime. Although cinematographer Irina Lubtchansky bathes certain moments in gold, the tone never strays anywhere near the saccharine. The highs of infatuation and lows of betrayal are genuine and acutely felt by characters who are striving to discover themselves while being both profound and shallow simultaneously. Paul and Esther stray to different lovers until gravity brings them back to orbit one another. The director has fun with the stylistic and structural approach taken to presenting Paul's memoirs, divulged to a government official (André Dussollier) when stopped entering France due to irregularities with his passport. Like an autobiography, key events are split into three chapters - 'Childhood', 'Russia' and 'Esther' - the last of which fills significant screen time. The use of an iris draws attention to the process of remembering, a split-screen during the 1980s is a tongue-in-cheek jibe at contemporary films, an all-seeing but unknown narrator enters the third act and direct address comes into play when love letters flit back and forth between hometown Roubaix, in Northern France and Paris, where Paul studies.

Bearing in mind point of view, Desplechin ejects Paul's psychotic mother (Cécile Garcia-Fogel) swiftly and only latterly informs of her suicide. This allows for great aunt, Rose (Françoise Lebrun) and further into the film anthropology professor, Madame Behanzin (Eve Doe-Bruce), to fill surrogate roles to a boy who "never loved his mother". Each actress is charming in her own right and they are a welcome addition to a faultless ensemble. Chapter two sees Paul as a willing accomplice in smuggling money and his own passport, to Russian Jews when on a school trip to Minsk. A complete tangent from the rest of the film, it nonetheless sits well as part of the whole. Amalric takes a back step in this feature but a freeze frame of his beloved captured in his mind's eye is the final image. Desplechin's My Golden Days introduces two promising young actors and is a superb meditation on memories of the past, dealing with the present, and aspiration for the future.

The London Film Festival takes place from 7-18 October. For more coverage, follow this link.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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