Golden Years

Golden Years
Golden Years
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There are countless films that focus on older couples who fall in love again during their twilight years. In fact, growing old is like a second puberty: your children grow up and move away, careers become less important, and your last few years give you permission to be reckless with your decisions. Of course, this only applies if you have enough social and financial capital; which is why most movies of this kind (from “Book Club” to “Something’s Gotta Give”) involve well-off seniors vacationing in beautiful places while they discover new relationships instead of worrying about their shrinking 401(k)s. “Golden Years” also falls into this category – it’s sweet and unassuming, just as one would expect. But fortunately for us, it has more tricks up its sleeve than that; the film offers some interesting answers to what could be seen as an insurmountable issue.

Barbara Kulcsar’s movie begins when Peter (Stefan Kurt), a sexagenarian man, packs his office into boxes after working at the same job for 37 years. (No one will replace him: his office will become a server room; even his position is redundant.) Now he can retire alongside Alice (Esther Gemsch), his wife of unknown age. They’re both excited about all the free time they’ll have from now on — but that means different things for each person. Specifically: Alice wants to rekindle their sex life; Peter likes doing obsessive cardio at ungodly hours and wants her off his back.

Yet two events occur which force them both to radically re-evaluate how they’ve lived together (and apart). First, Alice’s close friend Magalie (Elvira Plüss) dies suddenly after accidentally pointing Alice towards some love letters she’s kept from a secret lover she’s been seeing for fifteen years straight; then their kids give them two tickets on a Mediterranean cruise.

Now, Alice is thrilled: this is her chance to get them back on track. But Peter doesn’t seem too excited — which may be part of the reason why he’s invited Magalie’s widow, the sweet but morose Heinz (Ueli Jäggi), along in the first place. So instead of turning into a more gruesome, tongue-in-cheek class satire on a cruise ship — think “Triangle of Sadness” — “Golden Years” sets off on something far gentler and loopier; which also turns out to be much more satisfying as a viewer. It doesn’t take too many days of Heinz eating up Peter’s time and attention or Peter admitting to Alice that he isn’t interested in sex anymore for Alice to jump ship when they dock in Marseilles. She wants a “time-out” from their disappointing marriage and travels around Europe tracking down Magalie’s lover with his letters in tow.

The traditional concept of marriage and life that sucks the soul out of living — how two people can be made to stay together for years when they have nothing else in common — is at the heart of “Golden Years.” Alice may be the one actively getting her groove back (complete with visits from other older Europeans with, let’s say, different views on sex and loyalty), but Kulcsar does not forget about Peter’s modest desires. He and the quiet Heinz find their own version of a cozy domesticity. Both want to spend their final days — Peter running from death, Alice running toward life — in ways that are mutually exclusive.

“Golden Years” ambles through these diverging paths at an unusually lackadaisical pace that can make it feel more than a bit insubstantial. Because Peter and Alice will ultimately be fine, and because the sunny cinematography and Carsten Meyer’s cloying, Casio-heavy score do little to make Alice’s late-in-life sexual rumspringa feel all that essential. Ultimately, there is no cost to Peter or Alice for any of this self-discovery stuff; Fleischhacker is too talented an actress not to imbue every second she’s on screen with a certain degree of importance. But there aren’t any real stakes here.

At times it can be frustrating watching people wring their hands about what to do next with their elegantly appointed Swiss homes looming behind them. Even Alice’s bohemian son (she moves in with him after a furious Peter kicks her off the boat) hosts his nightly Tinder conquests in a snug bungalow.

But what wins are the performances themselves, which pack so much pathos into such delicate packages. Gemsch is especially lovely as Alice: Soulful as well as gorgeous, like a church mouse who throws herself into hedonism like she was born for it after spending her entire life avoiding such things. The way she peels back Alice’s layers of repression inch by inch, from the uptight housewife in Act 1 to the relaxed, liberated person she becomes in the closing minutes, is the film’s primary magic trick.

“There are other options besides marriage or being alone,” someone tells Alice late in the movie. This is where “Golden Years” finds its most invigorating footing — especially because it zags where most late-life romantic dramedies zig. Rather than treating bisexual flings or trips to a “socio-feminist collective” as temporary detours on a road that leads back to monogamy, Volpe’s script dares ask these characters if they owe it to themselves to let go of old ways of thinking and find something that works for them. It’s frothy and insubstantial, but at least takes its central idea — life’s too short, start a polycule — seriously enough to be charming.

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