The true story of Paul who, after two years at the front, is mutilated and deserted. To hide it, his wife Louise disguised it as a woman. In the Paris of the Roaring Twenties, he became ...
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Cécile De France,
The true story of Paul who, after two years at the front, is mutilated and deserted. To hide it, his wife Louise disguised it as a woman. In the Paris of the Roaring Twenties, he became Suzanne. After the war, finally amnestied, Suzanne will try to become Paul again.
Ambiguous movie depicting ambiguous characters and period
A general crisis (war) triggering a personal crisis: the original title "Nos années folles" ("Our wild/crazy years") illustrates this dichotomy. On the one hand, "années folles" (equivalent of "Roaring Twenties") refers to the 1920s since the movie spans from WWI to 1929. On the other, "our" refers to Paul/Suzanne's wild and crazy personality, taking his wife Louise on a no-return journey ("folle" also being a pejorative word for gay): the general crazy years are also their own.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
If it were not based on real facts, the story would be unbelievable: a man deserts the army and dresses as a woman to escape the law. The most incredible part is: it succeeds even though under his new identity he becomes almost public by having sex with anybody. The movie is gripping because it does not only focus on that catching story: Paul's psychological ambiguity, the main driver of the plot, spreads to the whole movie, which constantly plays on ambiguity.
1. The story is at first non-linear, with numerous flashbacks. It takes some time to understand what is present and past.
2. The flashbacks are either real, either staged in a cabaret. Yet it is sometimes unclear what is staged or not. For instance the WWI battle is supposed to be real but is very stylised, with artificial lights and noises. Also, staging and real life sometimes alternate, for instance when we see Paul's sexual encounters in the forest.
3. Characters are ambiguous. Paul not only because of his gender and sexual transformation: he can be at the same time generous (he has sex with a disfigured soldier for free) and abominable (how he treats Louise and their child). Louise seems very steady and sane, yet because of her love for Paul she copes with his incredible, unfaithful and increasingly violent actions: she goes very far in acceptance and behaviour. The Count Charles looks like a mundane and affected aristocrat; yet, as opposed to Paul, he loved fighting in the war: his speech to Louise sounds like a warmonger's and a patriot's. However it was mainly because he had lost interest in life, that war provided a meaning to his existence. Hence it is difficult to judge who was a hero or a coward: Charles who ran away from life or Paul who took enormous risks to come back to Louise?
4. Apart from the general plot, events are sometimes "crazy". In the basement, Paul makes love to Louise while he is dressed like a woman. When Charles tells Paul he leads a ludicrous life, he is wearing a comical dressing gown and plays a small saxophone (sopranino) producing high-pitched sounds. The exuberant sexual party at Charles' is over the top.
When Paul asks Louise to sing for wounded soldiers in the hospital, we expect a song such as "Auprès de ma blonde" ("Together with my blonde girl"), which appropriately is a military march, yet also charming, and which is sung at another moment in the movie. But Louise sings a bawdy song: first surprise, since it is completely uncalled-for and the doctor asks her to stop. Second surprise: the wounded soldiers thoroughly enjoy it and applaud. This simple scene is one of the best in the movie, funny and touching.
5. Events can be interpreted in different ways: they are two-sided. When the cabaret stages Paul's first sexual encounters in bois de Boulogne, it is a beautiful scene, with glowing lighting and music: Paul is worshiped and carried like a god(ess). When it is staged a second time, it is sordid: Paul is treated like an object and left unconscious; the foulness is emphasised by also showing the scene in the actual setting.
Paul meets a handsome soldier, seen from his left side; however he is actually horribly disfigured on his right side. When Paul loses a finger at war, it is not clear if he did this himself to avoid fighting or if it was a real wound (historically, this point is still doubtful, even though Paul was trialled and acquitted regarding this event).
6. Most paradoxically, the movie depicts various extreme situations (war, horrible wounds, cross-dressing, prostitution, group sex, conjugal violence, etc.) in an elaborate and temperate style. The film is challenging but never vulgar.
We are hence immersed with the characters in this ambiguous story. The director introduces two additional elements for this immersion:
1. It is not strictly speaking a "period movie" with imposing reconstitutions (war, scenery, costumes, etc.): it is shown at human level, with minimal effects. There have been many movies about WWI, but rarely such a one focusing only on characters, their personalities and relationships. For instance, there is an intense scene where Paul and Louise (as well as other couples) meet at an inn close to the battlefront just to have sex: the war does not even seem to exist; people are quiet and healthy; we do not hear the distant cannons.
The war is not depicted in itself, but as the impact it has on people: the wounded soldiers, Paul's transformation, Louise's involvement, Charles' personality.
2. There is no off-screen music that could introduce a distance. We hear what characters hear since all music comes from actual scenes: people singing, cabaret, band, instruments, etc.
The fact "Golden Years" is based on a true story is of little relevance, especially since the movie seems to embellish Paul's personality, who apparently was a vile person in real life: style is more important than content. André Téchiné again demonstrates his talent. "Golden Years" is one of his most stylised movies, doubly putting into perspective the story: by staging it in a cabaret and by creating an elaborate atmosphere throughout. Yet far from generating a distance, this style brings us closer to the characters' ambiguities and instabilities. Some fine art, subtler than it first appears.
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