Near the end of “My Golden Days,” an elegy for young love and its lingering ache, a wind starts to stir. And, for the second time in this transcendent film, Paul Dédalus, its middle-aged hero, is caught up in a gust. But where once autumn leaves swirled at Paul’s feet, he now finds himself walking —in keeping with the story’s romantic melancholy — amid a tornado of flying book pages and thinking of the girl who once loved him. “The hour of the waning of love has beset us,” William Butler Yeats writes in his poem “The Falling of the Leaves.” Paul, we know, began reading Yeats early.
The brilliant French director Arnaud Desplechin likes to mix lofty touchstones with George Clinton beats, slipping in nods to “Ulysses” alongside the post-punk band Marine Girls. There’s a restless intelligence to his sampling, which always feels organic, experiential instead of merely ornamental. In “My Golden Days,” which largely takes place in the 1980s, every musical, literary and fashion cue speaks to the moment when Paul began a feverish love affair. When he reads the Yeats poem “Among School Children” (“She stands before me as a living child”), there’s meaning in the moment, as there is when the score picks up a haunting thread from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
The story is straightforward; the telling, less so. It opens on the middle-aged Paul (Mathieu Amalric, Mr. Desplechin’s longtime collaborator), an anthropologist in Tajikistan. He’s packing for his return to France after a lengthy time abroad, and trading looks with a slinky blonde, Irina (Dinara Drukarova), who’s in a man’s shirt and little else. The women in his life run the gamut: blond, brunet, young, old, underdressed, undressed, sane and rather less so. When this one crawls on top of him in bed, he murmurs in voice-over, “I remember,” as the scene fades to black. What follows are three epoch-defining chapters from Paul’s life, the longest dedicated to the turbulent teenage affair that’s still haunting him in the film’s epilogue.
These first two sections move swiftly and elliptically. Like the first, the second turns on a flashback introduced by the adult Paul, who, having been stopped at the French airport, ends up describing his mysterious Soviet trip to a French intelligence agent (André Dussollier). As the present gives way again to the past, Paul recounts how, during his Soviet jaunt, he gave his passport to a Jewish dissident, who assumed Paul’s identity, becoming an effective double. Mr. Desplechin likes to throw a lot into his stories, and not everything he puts into play necessarily seems to fit. But the passport and Paul’s refusenik doppelgänger add layers to a story that, chapter by chapter, evolves into a meditation on identity.“My Golden Days” is a memory movie, a story told through a glass darkly. (Paul, played by Mr. Amalric, also appears in Mr. Desplechin’s 1996 film, “My Sex Life … How I Got Into an Argument.”) A kind of embodied Proustian madeleine, Irina inspires Paul’s reminiscing, setting off flashbacks that can seem like dreams. In the first chapter, “Childhood,” Paul violently confronts his unbalanced mother and flees into the arms of his great-aunt, Rose (Françoise Lebrun, a star of the 1973 film “The Mother and the Whore”), and her Russian lover (Irina Vavilova). In the second, “Russia,” he travels to the Soviet Union, where he and a school friend play adult spy games with dissidents.
By the second chapter, Paul is a lanky adolescent (the newcomer Quentin Dolmaire) and a jittery charmer, ready for love. He finds it in the third and final chapter, “Esther,” named for the girl (Lou Roy-Lecollinet, another superb discovery), whom he takes up with. At this point, he’s a poor student living on his own in Paris, where he studies anthropology. During a visit to his childhood home, he swings by a courtyard where he meets some friends and his sister. There, he also sees Esther (she’s a beacon, impossible to ignore), sitting on a bench with a cluster of people who soon clear out. By the time Paul makes his move, Esther, alone and elevated, the camera whirling below her, looks like a statue on a pedestal.
Mr. Desplechin stages and shoots this encounter beautifully, pulling back to show Paul walking across a suddenly emptied courtyard toward Esther. As Paul walks, the wind picks up, and fallen leaves begin eddying around his feet, their swirling movement echoing the fluid, sweeping camera and helping shift the movie from its more familiar realism into a lyrical register. Head bowed, Paul approaches Esther like a sly supplicant, advancing obliquely; she, in turn, appears haughty and amused as she looks down from her perch. The distance between them disappears when he at last sits next to her, inaugurating a flirty conversation relayed in sumptuous close-up.
Did it happen this way? Did the leaves scatter and Esther smile with such seductive knowing? Does it matter? For Paul, these memories are the truth (“I remember”), the foundations of his existence. They have shaped him, making him the man who, when someone asks, “Who are you?,” looks genuinely bewildered. “I can’t remember,” Paul answers. It’s a strange assertion, particularly given that most of the movie is a collection of remembrances. Then again, as Paul says several times, “life is strange,” a (true) statement that becomes as much a refrain in “My Golden Days” as another of his repeated confessions: “I feel nothing.”
Yet Paul, we know, feels deeply, all the way to the shattering epilogue, which suggests that his memories of Esther — who, teary encounter by teary encounter, he makes the very image of the needy woman consumed by passion — don’t line up with who she was. The final scene echoes the opening, with Paul once again in bed with a woman he will separate from. For all the slim-hipped boys who cluster around him, it is women — his mother, his great-aunt, her lover, his beloved professor and, most important, Esther — who serve as the signposts in his life. They help write the story of this solitary man, this restive anthropologist, who, after leaving his tribe and losing his identity, has a chance to make himself whole with a girl whose love is, at last, too great for him to bear.
“My Golden Days” is rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for love and desire, bien sûr. It is in French, Russian and Hebrew, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours.