Last year’s “Being 17” reminded us that André Téchiné could still make beautifully crafted, youthful films with insight and emotional certitude. The master’s latest, “Golden Years,” offers a far less encouraging lesson, since this ragtag period piece, clearly plagued by script problems, is lifeless to the core. Artificiality was never Téchiné’s strong suit, and the film’s structure, main characters and recurrent “Lola Montès”-style cabaret-circus device don’t play well to what he does best. Based on the fabulous but true story of a World War I deserter who discovers a thrilling new life when his wife dresses him up as a woman to avoid being caught, “Golden” enters a market already awash in gender fluidity and is unlikely to find a berth outside France.
Who can blame the director if the irresistible lure of this unlikely tale broke down his presumed wariness of costume dramas? (They appear infrequently in his oeuvre.) Paul Grappe (Pierre Deladonchamps) went to war like most of his generation, but the trauma of the trenches caused shellshock. While in a hospital recovering from the loss of half a finger, he deserted, hiding at home in Paris with the collusion of his beloved wife Louise (Céline Sallette) and her easygoing grandmother (Virginie Pradal).
Living in a dark cellar to avoid the military police is making him climb the walls, so seamstress Louise hits on the idea of dressing him up as a woman and seeing if he can pass. As a red-blooded heterosexual who very much enjoys conjugal pleasures, Paul rejects the idea, but finally the boredom of life underground wears down his resistance and he agrees to Louise’s crazy scheme. Then presto change-o! As quickly as Eddie Redmayne’s character took to ladies’ lingerie in “The Danish Girl,” so too Paul suddenly discovers he enjoys his new persona, now christened Suzanne. The problem is (well, one of many problems): Deladonchamps is a fine actor but he makes a seriously unconvincing woman.
Accustoming himself to his new be-stockinged freedom, Paul/Suzanne takes an evening stroll in the Bois de Boulogne, notorious as a gathering place for sexual escapades, and there embraces a sybaritic bisexual nightlife that turns lucrative when he charges for his services. Occasionally he brings Louise along, but she’s not comfortable either with the sex or with the liberated yet hard figure her husband has become. Inexplicably, hedonistic Count Charles de Lauzin (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) falls madly in love with Louise during one of her rare appearances in the Bois, and his pursuit of the married woman leads to considerable tension between husband and wife.
By this point the war is over, yet Paul continues his life as Suzanne. To save his marriage, he sets his alter-ego aside, yet money is scarce now that he’s no longer selling himself. Then after an amnesty for deserters, along comes cabaret impresario Samuel (Michel Fau), who proposes a theatrical extravaganza based on Paul/Suzanne’s life. Perhaps on paper this invention seemed like a good idea, recalling the potent way Max Ophüls used the circus as a method of tying together, and commenting on, the many lives of Lola Montès. Yet Téchiné seems flummoxed by what to do with the device, which provides no insight and instead plays like a 1980s variety show imagining life in the 1920s, with handsome chorus boys in tuxes gesturing longingly at Suzanne’s ravishable figure.
The cabaret scenes recur throughout the film, interspersed in a jumble apparently meant to be a comment on how the war fractured time and identity. It’s an interesting conceit but not one Téchiné knows how to handle, so the jumping among past, present and future feels merely confused. Relationships have little buildup, and Paul’s shift from pleasant, sensitive soul in love with his wife to hardened, violent libertine is too Jekyll and Hyde to feel remotely true. As always with Téchiné, there are moments of warmth, notably between Louise and Valentine (Mama Prassinos), her boss at the seamstress workshop, but this is a minor note in an otherwise uninspired symphony.
Perhaps Deladonchamps’ performance had a greater sense of development before editing broke up the continuity; instead his scenes as Suzanne never lose a sense of the ridiculous. Sallette has more consistency but that’s because Louise is a more straightforward character, whereas the usually excellent Leprince-Ringuet seems out of place and oddly mannered — unsurprising given the underdeveloped nature of his role. Far more successful is the art direction, saturated with reds in the cabaret scenes, richly gilded in the Count’s mansion, and suitably sober in the trenches.
This is Téchiné’s eighth film with DP Julien Hirsch, and the two have gone for an intimate look, privileging tight shots that combine with fluidly choreographed movements. The film’s artificiality is deliberate — how else to explain the back-projection of Paris during a carriage ride? — yet the contrast between Téchiné’s justifiably vaunted penchant for naturalism and the stiffness of the cabaret scenes, never achieving the desired phantasmagoric quality, brings everything crashing down. The French title translates as “our crazy years,” which works considerably better than “Golden Years.”