As anyone who saw last year’s Being 17 knows, the great, undersung French filmmaker Andre Techine doesn’t direct like most 74-year-olds. It wasn’t just the racing camera and breathless pace that made that chronicle of the evolving bond between two rural high-school boys so vital; it was how alive Techine was to the possible twists and turns of male sexuality, as well as to the sometimes surprising leaps of the human heart. Though the movie was far from perfect, it was ripe with emotional and physical spontaneity — as open and vibrant a work as one could imagine from an artist of any age.
Techine’s latest, Golden Years (which premiered at Cannes in a Special Screening slot), is similarly spry, a World War I-set tale of love, war, crossdressing and murder told with little of the stuffiness or preciousness we’ve come to expect from period dramas based on true stories. But the feeling and generosity of spirit that fill the frame in the director’s best offerings are conspicuously missing. Adapting Fabrice Virgili and Daniele Voldman’s nonfiction book La garconne et l’assassin (The Flapper and the Killer) about a French army deserter who disguised himself as a woman in order to dodge the authorities, Techine has a made an atypically chilly, undernourished movie — one that leaves a knot of themes pertaining to gender, sexuality and identity frustratingly tangled. Given the richness and texture of even mid-tier Techine, it’s a letdown.
The writer-director’s name may help secure distribution outside France, but Golden Years is unlikely to garner much attention, even with its buzzy subject matter.
Despite scrambled chronology that never feels entirely justified, it’s not difficult to piece together the plot. Stoic-looking Parisian seamstress Louise (Celine Sallette of Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures) is happily married to Paul (Stranger by the Lake’s Pierre Deladonchamps, a sort of younger, more delicate Willem Dafoe). It’s 1914 and Paul leaves to fight in the war, but one glimpse of the stricken-looking protagonist cowering in the trenches is all we need to understand that a soldier’s life is not for him.
Louise visits Paul one day, and they get to spend a couple of blissful hours at an inn. He gulps down wine, she helps him bathe and they lie naked in bed, bodies intertwined. These scenes establish a convincing intimacy between the two, as well as an intriguingly modern dynamic: “I feel like I’m protecting you,” Paul whispers to Louise as she nestles her head in his chest; “I feel like I’m protecting you, too,” is her reply. Paul is the fragile one, Techine and co-writer Cedric Anger suggest, while Louise is steadier, more sure of who she is and what she wants.
Soon after returning to his unit, Paul injures his finger in battle. Depressed, homesick and revolted by the violence that surrounds him, he flees the infirmary and returns to Louise, hiding out in their basement (much to the consternation of Louise’s live-in, pipe-smoking Granny, played by Virginie Pradal). But Louise quickly tires of that restrictive arrangement, and comes up with the idea of having Paul dress as a woman when he ventures outside. Her decision is presented as one of clear-eyed, hard-headed pragmatism. “It’s not so bad being a woman,” she tells him as she puts makeup on his face and a wig on his head. “At least we don’t wage war.”
With that line, Golden Years suggests that for Paul, becoming “Suzanne” (as he names his alter ego) will be more than a way to avoid the police; it will also amount to a form of therapy for his PTSD — an exercise through which he can adopt a persona that, in its gentility and inherent pacifism, is the opposite of the brutal macho identity so traumatically imposed on him in the army. In other words, Suzanne allows Paul to purge himself of the ugliness of war.
Louise procures her husband an electrolysis machine and pierces his ears, completing the transformation (though with her wavy bob and stylish 1920s garb, Suzanne bears a distracting resemblance to Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl). Immediately after first getting all dolled up, Paul/Suzanne mounts Louise, and they have sex. Is he turned on by crossdressing? Or trying to demonstrate his virility to compensate for embracing, and exteriorizing, his feminine side?
It’s hard to tell, since Techine and Anger so studiously circumvent any kind of character psychology, relying on sparse, declarative dialogue and brisk narrative streamlining to tell a complex story. Techine’s work has always been characterized by his respect for the mysteries of the heart and mind — his refusal to explain or overanalyze the actions of the people that populate his films. But whereas that matter-of-fact, intrinsically compassionate approach comes off as deeply humanistic in masterworks like Wild Reeds (one of the very best films about adolescence) and My Favorite Season (one of the very best films about sibling relationships), here it seems evasive and even a bit lazy.
The unprobing nature of Golden Years becomes particularly problematic when Paul/Suzanne begins turning tricks in public park Bois de Boulogne. As depicted, the swift progression from transvestism to prostitution is not persuasive; even less so is Louise’s decision to start going to the woods to share in Suzanne’s sexual adventures. Understandably, Techine doesn’t want us to judge his characters. But by declining to explore their motivations or conjure their inner lives, he places us at too much of a remove; we end up feeling very little for them, despite the efforts of two supremely capable leads.
Later, a love triangle forms between Paul/Suzanne, Louise and Charles de Lauzin (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet), a count who hosts the couple at lavish parties where flappers and dandies get debaucherous on the dance floor. Around this point, the war ends, and Paul is granted amnesty. But he’s reluctant to stop living as Suzanne, and a local emcee (Michel Fau) invites him to play himself in a cabaret show recounting his and Louise’s unusual experience. The interspersed performance scenes, with their romance and lyricism, are more compelling than the rather prosaic drama unfolding offstage.
A breaking point comes when Louise and Paul have a child, and Paul lashes out, raging against the pressures of domesticity and rejecting his wife’s plea to stop living and working as a woman. “I’m stronger when I’m Suzanne,” he tells her, setting up the conflict of the final act: “And I refuse to choose between Paul and Suzanne.”
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Even a minor Techine movie is worth a look for the unshowy beauty and balance of the filmmaking: Golden Years boasts handsome cinematography, nimble camerawork (as always with Techine, lots of gorgeous, fluid tracking shots), crisp editing and seamless production design. Music is almost exclusively diegetic, with Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” used to especially evocative effect in one sequence.
What’s unfortunate is how much the filmmaker seems to be holding back. The most wonderful thing about Techine’s movies is their messiness, a function of their auteur’s insatiable interest in both the specifics of French society and the more universal aspects of human behavior. But while Golden Years looks, on paper, to be right in his comfort zone — an oft-ignored zone of ambiguity, fluidity and mutability of identities and desires — Techine never settles into it as you expect him to.
It’s the rare Techine film to feel clenched, shrunken — which is perhaps, in a way, fitting for a story of people trying to make life liveable in the ever-looming shadow of death.