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'My Golden Days' is a nostalgic yet bitter coming-of-age story

French great Arnaud Desplechin ("Kings & Queen," "A Christmas Tale") does a prequel to one of his earlier films. He just does it his way.

‘My Golden Days’
Director:
Arnaud Desplechin
Stars: Quentin Dolmaire, Lou Roy-Lecollinet
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

Bear with us on this, but Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and the intimate French dramedy “My Golden Days” have one thing in common: They're crammed silly with stuff. The first is punishing, the second is enthralling, and not just because it’s European. Stuff is what movies are made of these days — untold superheroes battling untold supervillains, in endless action set pieces that have no shape but plenty of noise and visual bric-a-brac. But maybe titles like “Avengers” are only enervating because few know how to cram with elegance.

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Arnaud Desplechin, the writer-director of “My Golden Days,” knows how. He’s an old pro. Indeed, he’s been making beautifully jam-packed movies since before the newest Spider-Man, Tom Holland, was even alive. In fact, the year Holland was born, 1996, Desplechin made “My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument,” the film that really broke him through as a major international auteur. It was a three-hour relationship drama about the fractured love lives of young neurotics, including Desplechin regular Mathieu Amalric as shy but prickly Paul Dedalus. But even with so much room it positively teemed with stuff, as though Desplechin couldn’t resist piling everything he was obsessed with or thinking into every nook and cranny and corner and alcove.

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With “My Golden Days,” Desplechin technically indulges in another modern movie headache: It’s a prequel (and a bit of a sequel) to “My Sex Life,” filling in Paul’s backstory as a curly-headed youth. It just doesn’t get there by the usual means. Things start with Amalric reprising Paul, who’s stopped in an airport and ushered into a scary interrogation room, forced to answer for what may be a case of identity theft or espionage. Turns out, as a teen (played by Quentin Dolmaire), he whimsically participated in a passport scam while visiting Minsk. And so a prequel to a film you may have never seen begins as an amusingly semi-serious Cold War thriller.

While Paul’s reminiscing he might as well remember a more traumatic memory from his youth: first love. The bulk of the film is a coming-of-age story that charts the first blush of teenage Paul and Esther, the insecure longtime girlfriend Emmanuelle Devos played in “My Sex Life,” now essayed by the more assured and haughty Lou Roy-Lecollinet. Theirs isn’t a love story for the ages: They meet in school in the late ’80s, then watch as their relationship fizzles then recombines, over and over again.

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But what’s notable about “My Golden Days” isn’t the tale being told. It’s how it’s told. Though ever so slightly less busy than Desplechin’s best known films, “Kings & Queen” and “A Christmas Tale,” it’s still a riot of wondrous stuff: of characters, of comically self-important one-liners, of American hip-hop and New Wave and ska, of leftfield movie and music quotes, of dollies and whiplash camerawork and old school iris shots. Desplechin is a movie-mad filmmaker in every way, so much that he doesn’t let rules and standards get in the way of doing whatever he wants. This is an imperfect film, but in a way that’s tightly controlled. It’s, in its eccentric way, perfectly imperfect.

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As it breezily but busily winds down, “My Golden Days” suddenly takes a more gutting shape. By the time we’ve caught back up with Amalric’s older Paul, it’s clear what seemed like an idyllic, nostalgic, frequently hilarious look-back was nothing of the sort. Paul isn’t bittersweet; he’s bitter, and the heartache from his youth can, when properly nudged, still burn with the same force. It finds someone for whom old lovers are not to be gotten over but brooded over, as though Paul, by sheer dint of her being his first love, was chained to her until death. (A seemingly minor but actually major detail: The wry narrator isn’t Amalric but Olivier Rabourdin, who plays his widowed sadsack father, implying he might be slightly delighting in his son’s sad tale.) It’s easy to be charmed by the tons and tons of stuff in “My Golden Days.” But lower your guard and you’ll get clawed.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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