Paul Dedalus can be a man of action. The middle-class protagonist of the dynamic yet ultimately melancholy My Golden Days carries a gun into a tense negotiation with a drug dealer, and happily accepts a secret mission to carry documents and cash to Jewish refuseniks while on a high-school trip behind what was then the Iron Curtain.
Yet Paul — like his Irish cousin, James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus — is more observer than doer. In fact, he's an anthropology student who will grow up to be the central character in director Arnaud Desplechin's 1996 film, My Sex Life, or ... How I Got Into an Argument.
The older Paul is played by Desplechin regular Matthieu Amalric, who also had the role 20 years ago. He appears only in brief framing stories, set in Tajikstan and Paris. The movie belongs to Quentin Dolmaire, soulful and selfish as the teenage Paul, and Lou Roy-Lecollinet, who movingly plays Esther, the troubled girlfriend he can't comfort, and will never forget.
Despite its references to ancient Greek literature, My Golden Days doesn't try for classical symmetry. Its French title means "three memories of my youth," and the film does consist primarily of a trio of episodes, set in the 1970s and '80s. But the first two are quick and open-ended, while the third is a movie in itself.
In the elliptical first chapter, Paul protects his two younger siblings from their manic mother, and then seeks refuge with his lesbian great-aunt. He hears a story about a Stalinist execution, and attends a funeral. The circumstances won't be explained until later.
The second part sends Paul and a Jewish pal to Minsk, where they meet the refuseniks. Paul makes a spontaneous gift that will inconvenience him later, and also provide a metaphor for his detachment. "I feel nothing" is Paul's refrain, although it's not always true.
Finally, Paul meets Esther, one of his younger sister's classmates. She's a headstrong siren who's certain of her attractiveness, yet has doubts about her other qualities. Their relationship is roiled by infidelities on both sides, and also by distance. Paul is studying in Paris, while Esther still lives in Roubaix, Paul's — and the director's — Belgian-border hometown.
Like My Sex Life, Desplechin's latest effort is as much novelistic as cinematic. Indeed, it might benefit from being longer and more discursive, so as to fill in such sketchy characters as Paul's enigmatic younger brother, and to show more of how Esther became the person she is in the earlier film.
The overall style is realistic, and Irina Lubtchansky's hand-held cinematography emulates documentary. Yet the director includes such movie-buff touches as split screens (most popular in the '70s) and iris shots (which recall silent movies). Although the performances are immediate, the goal is to evoke a sense of the past.
This lost age is not particularly golden. Wispy classical-style music is interrupted by the earthy rap and funk of George Clinton, Run D.M.C., and Roxanne Shante, and Paul's historical and anthropological interest in the former Soviet Union is tempered by his experience of Communist oppression.
But then this is a movie where Paul greets the demolition of the Berlin Wall with regret; he sees not freedom for millions but the end of his childhood. Years later, in a startling scene with the middle-aged Paul, a hometown rival, and the latter's wife, Esther also becomes a symbol of private loss. It's impossible to say how autobiographical My Golden Days is, but there's no question that it's profoundly personal.