Twenty years after “My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument” was released in France, its sequel/prequel “My Golden Days” now opens in the States. It might hold a record for being the sequel/prequel for the most criminally underseen film ever. It is the opinion of this critic that “My Sex Life,” a 3-hour long romantic comedy (although it’s also much more than a romantic comedy), is a singular masterpiece and remains director Arnaud Desplechin’s best work. In that vein, “My Golden Days” does not measure up, but no one should expect it to. It’s a very different movie, far more of a straightforward melodrama.
“My Sex Life” was Mathieu Amalric’s breakthrough picture, and he returns to the role of Paul Dedalus for the framing story in “My Golden Days.” The bulk of the story though is set in Paul’s youth and separated into three chapters – “Childhood,” “Russia,” and “Esther.” “Childhood” opens dramatically with Paul at age 11 fending off his mother (Cecile Garcia Fogel) with a knife. He leaves his home in Roubaix and moves in with his lesbian great aunt Rose (Francoise Labrun).
In “Russia,” present-day Paul, now an anthropologist about to start a job in Foreign Affairs (having moved on from philosophy professor in “My Sex Life”), is being detained for suspicion of being a spy and must explain how a passport exists for another Paul Dedalus with the same date of birth living in Melbourne, Australia. This leads to Paul recounting how his 16-year old self (Quentin Dolmaire) and friend Marc Zylberberg (Elyot Milshtein) pretend to be tourists in Minsk to deliver papers and money to Russian Jews to help them escape.
“Childhood” and “Russia” are relatively brief compared to “Esther” which roughly takes up two thirds of the 123-minute running time. Viewers of “My Sex Life” will immediately register “Esther” as referring to the character so charmingly played by Emmanuelle Devos as an adult in that film. Here Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet) starts off at age 16 as she embarks on a highly turbulent romance with Paul. As in “My Sex Life,” Paul’s approach to hitting on women is to declare to them that he doesn’t know how to hit on women so he’s not even going to try, but he is very interested nevertheless. Esther, haughtily juggling boyfriends and stating, “I don’t dislike girls. They dislike me,” starts off very different from the less secure, quirky woman she would become, but we see much of that journey here.
“My Golden Days” lacks the ambition and scale of Desplechin’s “My Sex Life” and his amazing “Kings and Queen” or the intensity of the excellent “A Christmas Tale.” At first, “My Golden Days” feels like it’s a series of visual footnotes to the original film and the individual segments never add up to a coherent whole. “Esther” references the events in “Childhood” and “Russia,” but those events don’t contribute any real dramatic power to the love story. Desplechin has never been a director very focused on narrative and often branches off into tangents for their own sake. Those tangents don’t work as well in “My Golden Days” with Paul’s sister Delphine (Lily Taieb) unconvincingly worrying about being ugly and Paul’s brother Ivan (Raphael Cohen) dealing with the tug of religion (something handled with much more humor in “My Sex Life”). The one tangent that does work is Paul’s incursion into the life of Professor Behanzin (Eve Doe-Bruce), an accomplished black female academic he much admires.
“Esther” is easily the strongest segment with no small thanks to Dolmaire, who has a stout, easy going presence as young Paul. Paul and Esther are young and despite their exaggerated declarations of love, easily tempted by others – Gilberte (Melodie Richard) in Paul’s case and Jean-Pierre (Pierre Andrau) among many others in Esther’s. Desplechin casually captures the transitory nature of human relationships, how quickly people abandon commitments to accommodate immediate gratification, and how we often hold double standards for what we do and when others do the same.