Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days (2015) opens with the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer. The protagonist, Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric), cavorts in his Tajikistan apartment with his Russian lover before the audience is whisked back to his provincial childhood. Desplechin’s hero is a globetrotting anthropologist, collecting stories and experiences in locales as disparate as France, the Soviet Union, and Central Asia, but the film’s primary story is firmly located in a closely observed pocket of provincial France. Despite the seeming distance between Paul’s work and the focus of the film, Desplechin emphasizes the similarities between his scholarship and art’s ability to transform the everyday workings of a specific milieu into a captivating, humanistic study. My Golden Days suggests that, rather than being a purely aesthetic or narrative exercise, filmmaking can also function as a stylized work of anthropology.
For Paul, anthropology is not simply an academic pursuit, but an escape. Nightmarish scenes of his childhood reveal a suicidal mother, ferocious arguments, and an absent father. As a child, Paul studies Russian with one of the only stable adult figures in his life. As a teenager, he takes a school trip to Moscow, where he disguises himself in Soviet clothing to deliver a forged copy of his passport to a group of refuseniks. (With this he creates a doppelgänger and an alternate life narrative that stretches from gray Soviet longing to the sunny hope of Australia.) As a young man, he reads anthropological texts voraciously in a room decorated with Asian prints, as unfamiliar music plays.
Paul’s anthropological instincts always point outward. They are a symptom of a longing to leave his familiar and stifling existence of a small town and a broken family. As a student, he finds himself led imaginatively across the world by his subject. After university, the field physically draws him to Paris for a graduate course and later to work in Central Asia, straining – and eventually snapping – the threads that held him to the fabric of his young life. The anthropological impulse is intertwined with a hunger for knowledge of the world at large, but for Paul it is also a means of dodging knowledge of the self and of the internal lives of those closest to him.
While Paul’s anthropology has a global view, the film interrogates a slice of life so slim that it might reasonably be accused of myopia. Quotidian events are given the heft and attention of epics. The arc of a small town teenage couple’s courtship and eventual breakup is the stuff of tumblr and messily scrawled diary entries, but Desplechin offers the story reverence worthy of poets or monarchs.
Similarly, the filmmaker observes the couple’s milieu with the attention and scholarly rigor of an academic paper. Provincial French life in the ‘80s is rendered with fascinated, exacting detail. Contemporary songs blast on the soundtrack, sweaters hang just-so, and casual references to Janet Jackson ground the work in specificity. While Paul may reject his childhood world as narrow and stilting, Desplechin argues that, by applying an outsider’s anthropological eye, it teems with as much rich complexity as any locale the wanderlust-afflicted Paul might find more interesting or “exotic.” From the texture of the characters’ physical world to the variety of their language and aural soundscapes, to the complicated social dances that govern their relationships, the film presents these small but great lives with anthropological verisimilitude, gilded with poetry.