My Golden Days

A Frenchman spins tales of sex and espionage in this bold, brilliant movie from Arnaud Desplechin

Lou Roy-Lecollinet and Quentin Dolmaire in 'My Golden Days.' Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Yes, it's in French with English subtitles. Don't worry. Nothing gets lost in translation as this coming-of-age tale brims over with humor, heartbreak and ravishing romance. Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days is a prequel of sorts to the writer-director's 1996 bout of swirling eroticism, My Sex Life, or … How I Got Into an Argument. You don't have to see My Sex Life first since My Golden Days stands on its own as an origin story.

Now in his 50s, Desplechin has made something vibrantly alive and fueled by teen hormones that are ready to howl. The great actor Mathieu Amalric once again plays Paul Dédalus, an anthropologist returning to Paris after years in Tadjikstan. Held by security at the airport on charges of possible espionage, he recounts his story to a government interrogator (Andre Dussolier).

That's the movie, told mostly in flashback. We meet the young Paul, now played with irresistibly awkward charm by the terrific newcomer Quentin Dolmaire. Desplechin guides us through Paul's unsettled childhood with a suicidal mother and then switches to spy thriller mode as Paul travels to Russia and smuggles cash and passports to Russian Jews (hence the interrogation). But the main focus is on Paul's all-consuming love affair with a heartbreaker named Esther,  played with a tough core of intelligence and wit by Lou Roy-Lecollinet. It's here that Desplechin and these two captivating actors capture the euphoria of first love and the sting that comes when adult trouble intrudes on  paradise.

In Desplechin's best films, including Kings & Queen and A Christmas Tale, the comic and the tragic regularly bump heads. My Golden Days brings out a playful side in Desplechin and also an aching tenderness. Memory gives the movie a formal frame, but Desplechin laces the past with such raw emotion that nothing is hemmed in. Love hurts, that's for sure. And Desplechin makes sure we feel it. He crafts My Golden Days as if he'd never made a movie before, as if youthful emotions were spilling all over it. The result is an exhilarating gift.