Arnaud Desplechin's Cannes sensation "My Golden Days" contains an intoxicatingly realistic portrayal of the intense emotionality, the intertwined joy and pain, of first love. It's not the whole film, but its power is so strong it feels like it is.
The translation of the picture's original French title, "Three Memories of My Youth," gives a more accurate idea of what Desplechin is up to here. This is essentially an omnibus film, featuring a trio of stories all dealing with the early days of Paul Dédalus, the alter ego of co-writer (with Julie Peyr) and director Desplechin.
As played by Mathieu Amalric, the die-hard romantic Dédalus was the protagonist of one of Desplechin's earlier films, "My Sex Life, or ... How I Got Into an Argument." But enjoyment of this new tale, created with tangible warmth and emotional precision, is not linked to familiarity with that earlier effort.
Amalric does make a brief but crucial appearance as the adult Dédalus in the framing device that opens and closes the film. We meet him as an anthropologist working in Tajikistan but returning to Paris to take on a government job, a return that triggers the three memories of the title.
The first memory, titled "Childhood," has the very young Paul growing up in Roubaix (Desplechin's home town as well) and dealing with a difficult family of origin, trying to comfort and protect his two siblings from both a deranged mother and a depressive father.
Next comes "Russia," the story of a high school trip to Minsk (now in Belarus), where he agrees to give his passport to a young Russian Jew desperate to leave the country and start a new life.
Both of these stories (which take up 30 minutes of the film's two-hour running time) present a Dédalus who feels things very deeply. It's a trait that makes life difficult for him more often than not, but he wouldn't have it any other way.
The lion's share of "Golden Days'" running time is devoted to the third story, "Esther," named after the young woman who turns out to be not only Dédalus' first love but also the most significant passion of his life.
It starts with a 19-year-old Dédalus (newcomer Quentin Dolmaire), an impoverished student working toward a bachelor's degree in anthropology in Paris, returning to Roubaix to visit his younger brother and sister.
There he locks eyes with the 16-year-old Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet, another newcomer), whose come-hither blond sensuality makes her the femme fatale of the local high school.
"My eyes devour you," he tells her, and she confidently replies: "I always do that to guys. I have that effect because I'm exceptional. You can't forget me, you never will."
The ups and downs of what goes on between these two plays out amid the chaos of his siblings and their circle of friends (a portrait of the hectic nature of the young adult years that feels exactly right), but Esther and Dédalus are always front and center.
We see them playing out the drama of attraction and insecurity, inexorably drawn to each other but having to face the problems different personalities invariably bring to relationships.
Their passion makes them mad with both desire and despair, and their intimate love scenes are convincingly filmed by cinematographer Irina Lubtchansky. Yet their union is as spiritual as it is physical, as each is able to see the other person whole in a way the rest of their circle cannot.
The difficulties they face, however, are formidable, starting with the one of distance, as both are forced by their school lives to spend most of their time in different cities. This leads to a soulful exchange of letters, some of which are read to the camera by the actors to great effect.
These young actors, guided by the veteran Desplechin, are so effective in their roles that we feel we are watching them live out a lifetime's worth of emotions right in front of our eyes. Film has always been especially effective it portraying what it can feel like, what it can mean to be in love, and "My Golden Days" is right up there with the best of them.
'My Golden Days'
In French with English subtitles
MPAA rating: R, for some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and language
Running time: 2 hours