In Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days, the audience first sees the character of Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet) through the eyes of young Paul Dédalus (Quentin Dolmaire), the film’s titular first person and Esther’s soon-to-be boyfriend. The teenaged beauty sits apart from the other chattering youths – silent, serene, dream-like, with the thick blonde mane and large, sensual mouth of a young Brigitte Bardot. When Paul finally dares to speak to this small-town Venus, she is coy, amused, aloof, and fully cognizant of her own erotic power. Although she downplays her beauty, she frankly declares that she is exceptional.

The film’s early scenes seem to establish Esther as an exhausted (and exhausting) cinematic and literary trope: she is just the sort of exquisite, unknowable, all-powerful figure that features so prominently in the sentimental educations of a certain strain of romantic, intellectual man. While the flatness of this type of character can be excused by the memoir form, wherein everything is refracted through the prism of Paul’s own youthful perception of the world, female viewers who feel more affinity for the rounded humanity of Jules and Jim than their reckless muse would be forgiven for feeling a certain amount of skepticism.

Desplechin, however, is not content to recycle tropes. While consistently maintaining Paul’s point of view throughout the film, the filmmaker subtly, steadily chips away at this archetype, revealing the way it limits and oppresses the living, breathing young woman straining under its weight.  

After the halcyon early days of Paul and Esther’s courtship, physical distance and Paul’s increasingly self-absorbed academic ambition send Esther into a spiral of isolation and neuroses. Esther spurns the companionship of the other women around her, convinced that men’s approval is the only worthwhile attention. Further, the formerly proud queen is reduced to crippling self-doubt – a frequent refrain in her letters to Paul is her commenting on how stupid she is, unable to understand his lofty words and thoughts. Her former declarations of her own exceptionalism prove hollow, predicated as they are on her erotic appeal and ability to command the slavish attention of admirers. While Paul blooms and progresses, Esther withers and flounders, unable to find a path or meaning. After a lifetime of existence as others’ fantasy, she is revealed as a broken woman, uncertain how to dream for herself.

Whatever Paul’s blind spots may be to the lived experience of women, Desplechin displays a remarkable sympathy for the aching self-consciousness that is the birthright of all women, both those who suffer from the burden of beauty and those pained by their inability to fit into the small, constricting space of prettiness. In one particularly poignant scene, Paul’s younger sister slips away from a party in their living room to find her loving but frequently absent father alone in his room. There, in the upstairs bedroom, she tearfully asks why she isn’t pretty, while, downstairs, Esther navigates the party with her older, controlling boyfriend. A staircase apart, two young women, in the midst of the formative years when they should be learning who they are, are instead being crushed – each in their own way – by the stifling clutch of prettiness.

A romantic French film about the formative years of a sensitive young man may seem an unlikely source to find a finely etched portrait of the struggles of being young, female, and desired. However, in My Golden Days, Desplechin offers a deeply affecting vision of the muse-figure’s power and appeal, as well as the tragedy lurking beneath her exquisite façade.