My Golden Days is the mindlessly generic title the film has been given in English for international distribution, but the French original translates to Three Memories of My Youth. And this blunt, functional title succinctly describes the content of Arnaud Desplechin's latest novelistic epic about domestic emotions, which does indeed consist of three very distinct pieces (four, actually: the three memories and then the present-day framework of remembering them). All well and good, except for one thing: the least-interesting of the memories, by far, gets most of the screentime. By far.

Broadly speaking, this is the shaggy dog story of how it came to be that there were two Paul Dédaluses running around Europe. The one who matters is an anthropologist, played by Desplechin's reliable collaborate Mathieu Amalric, trying to return to France from Tajikistan. Being questioned by immigration officers sends him off into a series of reveries: not just about the time that, as an idealistic leftist 19-year-old in the 1980s (played then by Quentin Dolmaire), he left his passport in the USSR for a political refugee to use, but prior to that, to a snippet of his grim childhood (played then by Antoine Bui), with an abusive father (Olivier Rabourdin) and an emotionally unstable mother (Cécile Garcia-Fogel); and his romantic interlude, after returning from the USSR, with 14-year-old Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet).

So here's the deal: the great majority of the film (which, other than the Amalric-starring framework narrative, takes place entirely in chronological order) is about Paul's relationship with Esther, cast in Desplechin's telling as the natural extension of the first two segments, though all three are presented as essentially self-contained anecdotes. The mode here is assuredly, and happily, not that of a biopic which suggests that one single memory can unlock a whole human life, or anything of the sort. Rather, it's basically a Dickensian bildungsroman, ruthlessly carved down to two hours, in which events don't inform each other in a blunt cause-and-effect manner, but simply give us some kind of understanding about who the subject is, as a person. We can read a throughline: Paul's unhappy childhood led him to lash out by joining in with radical politics, which later informed the aggressive, inorganic way he tries to live his adolescent sex life as a freethinking cultural anarchist. But it is not schematic or deterministic in any way, which is very much one of the best strengths of Desplechin & Julie Peyr's script. My Golden Days unfolds in a singularly casual way, with events studded in as fragments, necessarily limited by the grown-up Paul's limited perspective as an adolescent, as well as his difficulty in recalling all of the fine details of his youth. It's really quite lovely.

But as I was saying, this is mostly the story of adolescent romance and sexual jealousy, as informed by revolutionary politics and a high-strung sensibility that's not really "artistic" in Paul's sense, but has the philosophical underpinnings of artistry. And that's like, dirt common in French cinema. I cannot say with blithe confidence that François Truffaut's Stolen Kisses invented the genre of love stories focused on brilliant, egotistical young men who cover up their insecurity and crappy behavior with an elaborate line of sophisticated verbiage, but it certainly established a tone that many, many movies have eagerly replicated. And Stolen Kisses came out all the way back in 1968. That's a lot of year's worth of movies doing more or less exactly what My Golden Days is doing in more or less exactly the same way it's doing it.

If Desplechin's take on the material is especially elevated, it's for two primary reasons. The more disposable is that My Golden Days is something more or less like a prequel to the director's 1996 breakout film, My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument (another film whose English title is kind of terrible, in that case because it exactly reverses the emphasis of the French), which gives it a bit of arthouse novelty. The other is that the thing is generally well-mounted and acted with whip-smart intelligence. Roy-Lecollinet is a bit hamstrung by the script's subjective point of view: since much of the point is that adult Paul recalls how adolescent Paul never came close to figuring Esther out, it wouldn't really do for the film to present her as a fully-formed personality. That doesn't necessarily make it interesting. However, Dolmaire is really quite remarkable in this, his very first work as a screen actor. He threads the fine needle of presenting Paul with a great quantity of empathy and understanding - we fully understand why he makes the choices he makes and how he tries to navigate through life - without requiring sympathy on the viewer's part when Paul is being a bit beastly. In his hands, Paul's wounded Romantic worldview emerges as a series of behaviors rather than as overt statements, and he seems truer, somehow, than most of the callow young men in whose steps he walks. Besides, Desplechin is an old hat at making these movies aping the tenor and structure of literature: he combines the insight and acuity of a really fine psychologically realist novel with a specifically cinematic way of structuring scenes and establishing character.

I mean to say that we should not, by any means, pretend that My Golden Days is somehow bad. It is good - maybe even quite good. It is also damned frustrating. The film is much, much more interesting in its first quarter or third than it ever is again: not least because the story of Paul's sojourn in the USSR is far more original and unexpected than the other two threads. But even setting that aside, the filmmaking itself grows less interesting as the film evolves: the scenes start to flow into each other in a much more conventional narrative structure, and the framework with Paul as an adult abashedly and hungrily reliving his past almost entirely disappears, costing the film what might be its single most effective element, the collision of nostalgia with realism, sentiment with honesty.

So again, My Golden Days is not at all bad. It has been written with intelligence and performed with insight, a handsome piece of filmmaking that uses no style when it doesn't need to in order to put its ideas over. But it also makes the critical mistake of putting a better, richer, more unexpected and original movie right there - it peters off rather than builds, and it never, ever addresses the question, "but what if I'd rather be watching that other movie, the one you started with?" A petty reason for being disappointed with a movie, but it really does bring it upon itself.