Paul Dédalus, the protagonist in Arnaud Desplechin’s dense, lyrical, and polymorphous “My Golden Days,” carries a lot of baggage.
I mean this literally, since the character (played at various ages by Quentin Dolmaire and Mathieu Amalric) always seems to be toting luggage as he makes his peripatetic way to escape his drab hometown of Roubaix. And I also mean it literarily, since Dédalus bears the surname of James Joyce’s alter ego in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Ulysses.”
The film’s literary heft also includes the goddess Diana, the princess Nausicaä, Freud, Solzhenitsyn, Stendhal, Levi-Strauss, and “The Brothers Karamazov,” all of whom have their names, or books, mentioned.
It should be too much, especially in a movie that has two false starts and includes a bildungsroman that is like all the Antoine Doinel movies crammed into two hours. But Desplechin doesn’t stop there. He takes an unconventional approach to the story, relating it from the point of view of Dédalus who, despite lengthy flashbacks, a detailed voice-over, and an iris effect that mimics the effort of the mind grasping a memory, is an unreliable narrator.
He isn’t even sure who he is. As an idealistic teenager he gave his passport to a young Soviet refugee. Or is he the refugee? Because he is also on the run — from love and pain.
In “Esther,” the film’s penultimate section, Dédalus confronts at last his elusive, inescapable lifelong passion. Played by newcomer and instant star Lou Roy-Lecollinet, Esther is brilliant, beautiful, arrogant, and utterly lacking in self-esteem. She is high maintenance, but so is he. They complete and define each other, and such intensity is not always pleasant.
Desplechin depicts this ardor like someone who knows a thing or two about it. Key scenes resonate: the first time Dédalus walks Esther home at dawn after an all-night party; an epilogue in which a middle-aged Dédalus confronts with undiminished fury the friend who betrayed him. In between is the moment when he writes to Esther, “Your existence proves that I am not stuck in a dream.” Desplechin is true to both the reality and the dream.
MY GOLDEN DAYS
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin. Written by Desplechin and Julie Peyr. Starring Mathieu Amalric, Quentin Dolmaire, Lou Roy-Lecollinet. At Kendall Square. 120 minutes. R (some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and language). In French, with subtitles.