GOLDEN YEARS (Nos années folles) C-
France (103 mi) 2017 d: André Téchiné
Unfortunately, a lifeless period piece that never rises to the occasion, with few insights or revelations, and no emotional connection whatsoever, that never hints at the underlying psychology to explain how events like this actually occurred, supposedly based on real-life experiences, yet the audience remains distanced and far removed from any of the characters, where the story plays out more as utter fiction than reality. Téchiné has always been a brilliant director of actors, working with some of the best throughout his career, and while that’s not the problem here, the story makes little sense, never remotely becoming believable. Essentially a story about Paul Grappe, Pierre Deladonchamps from Stranger By the Lake (L'inconnu du lac) (2013), a deserter from the French army during WWI, who goes to extreme lengths to avoid detection, dressing up as a woman, changing his/her identity, which continues even after the war is over, becoming much more intriguing as a woman than he ever was as a man, reinventing himself as Suzanne, a cabaret performer, famous for indulging herself in brothels, where you’d think he’d be immediately exposed as a man, but the film never addresses this issue and pretends like he doesn’t have a penis. You’d think that would be pretty easy to spot when having sex, not just once in a while, but all the time, where the bordello he frequents is famous for orgies in Paris during the Roaring Twenties, yet no one utters a word. While the story may be brave for tackling the subject, adapted from a 2011 book by two historians, La Garconne et L’assassin (The Boyish Woman and the Assassin) by Fabrice Virgili and Daniele Voldman, at least as presented in the movie, none of it appears credible, especially during the madness and hysteria surrounding WWI. Let’s not forget, had Suzanne been outed as an army deserter, he would have been shot by a firing squad for treason, as depicted in the Terence Davies film 2016 Top Ten List #7 Sunset Song or Kubrick’s masterpiece PATHS OF GLORY (1957).
Moving back and forth in time, using frequent flashbacks, the movie becomes a story within a story that is ostensibly being told as part of a cabaret show directed by Samuel (Michel Fau), a flamboyant theater owner who supposedly discovered Suzanne, with Paul playing the part of himself, while a much younger actress plays his wife Louise. At least initially they are a young couple who is madly in love, with Louise, Céline Sallette from Bertrand Bonello’s House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide – souvenirs de la maison close) (2011), a dedicated and hardworking seamstress in town, working in a factory with other women, seen sneaking around avoiding her parent’s detection to find moments alone with Paul, though none of it escapes the watchful eye of her adoring grandmother (Virginie Pradal), almost always seen in the corner smoking a pipe. Eventually the couple marries, but war breaks out, and almost immediately Paul is ordered to the frontlines. Surrounded by nothing but inhumanity and death in the trenches, Paul blows his index finger off in order to be sent home, but is ordered back to the frontlines again, which is something he simply can’t face. With the help of a hidden cellar in Louise’s grandmother’s house, Paul hides out in secrecy to avoid detection as the war drags on for years. Growing bored with himself, Louise, always a pragmatist, comes up with the idea of dressing him up as a woman, which allows him the freedom to finally go outside. Plucking his eyebrows while providing garters and a dress, applying makeup on his face and a wig on his head, she is amused at her latest creation, immediately having sex afterwards, telling him, “It’s not so bad being a woman. At least we don’t wage war.” With that, Paul transforms into Suzanne, curiously strolling through the Bois de Boulogne district, famous for sexual escapades, and walking inside, adopting a new persona, supposedly purging himself of the brutality of war.
Suzanne embraces this new bisexual lifestyle, charging for her services, becoming ever more comfortable with the nightlife, drinking champagne, dressing in the finest gowns, and constantly being pampered, like she’s at the center of a new universe, suddenly important and significant. While this causes some degree of marital distress, Louise is the picture of a woman who would do anything to save her marriage. Occasionally bringing Louise along to these elegant soirée’s, she shies away from the attention, not really comfortable with the orgiastic sex or this liberated version of her husband. Inexplicably, a shy young war hero, Count Charles de Lauzin, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet from Christophe Honoré’s LOVE SONGS (2007), falls madly in love with her and wants to swoop her off her feet in extravagant luxury and wealth, but she remains a devoted wife, claiming she loves her husband the way he is, and ducks away. By this time, however, viewers are hardly sympathetic to Suzanne, who is the picture of indulgence and narcissism, thinking of no one else but herself, and certainly blind to the consequences of being discovered, where, as if to emphasize the couple’s downward spiral, Téchiné introduces (slightly before its time) the Depression era music of Bessie Smith, Bessie Smith (Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out, 1929 ... YouTube (3:04). When the war is over, Louise and the other working girls are euphoric, greeting the returning soldiers with dances and kisses on their cheeks. Suzanne continues to live the same way, not wanting to lose all the attention, forcing his wife to lie about the whereabouts of her husband, as if his absence is a lingering mystery, perhaps killed in the war. Likely overcompensating, she becomes devoutly patriotic, taking a hard line on deserters, where she’s forced to put on an act while her husband is screwing anyone and everyone in the Bois de Boulogne, coming home drunk nearly every night. It’s only when amnesty is offered to deserters that Paul finally comes clean, acknowledging his little charade, but in retreating back to a man’s life he becomes bitter and hateful, literally a contemptible person, treating Louise horribly. So when cabaret impresario Samuel offers to make a theatrical extravaganza based upon his life, Paul jumps at the opportunity to return to his life as Suzanne, indulging once more in the same old habits. The deterioration of their doomed marriage is a dramatic descent, yet this film couldn’t be more unengaging, one of the major disappointments in Téchiné’s career, arguably his worst effort ever, where in the end, the best thing about the picture is its use of French songs, including the final credit sequence.