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Die goldene Jahre / Golden Years

Director: Barbara Kulcsar (Switzerland). Year of Release: 2022

It’s Peter’s 65th birthday and his last ever day of work. He leaves his generic workplace after an office party where they tell him that his office is going to be turned into a store room. Walking down the stairs outside work, he carries a red party balloon in one hand and a large bottle of whiskey in the other. He lets go of the balloon, watching it soar into the sky.

Peter returns to a birthday party where we are introduced to his family and close friends (not that there are too many friends). We’ve already seen Peter’s wife Alice in the opening scene, trying way too hard in a seniors’ fitness class. Their daughter Susanne drinks too much and has her eyes on Peter and Alice’s huge bungalow, which they are preparing to leave for something smaller. Their son Julian meets up with a lot of women on Tinder, which his parents think makes him a gigolo.

The fact that these are the kids’ primary (and particularly in Julian’s case, the only) characteristics, tells us that we are in the territory of the comfortably rich. Overuse of alcohol and dating Apps is disapprovingly seen as being something a little risqué, but nothing that’s really dangerous. The phrase “First World Problems” comes to mind, as it does throughout the film. For all the film’s pretensions towards subversiveness, we rarely stray from self-satisfied comfort.

Also at the party are Heinz and Magali – who are there to provide Peter and Alice the company of someone of their own gender. The film has a whiff of “Men are from Mars…” about it. Peter and Heinz are inseparable – later, they will even sit side-by-side on deckchairs reading the same book. I guess this is intended to show that they are closer to each other than to their own wives. But what starts as potentially attacking the smugness of bourgeois marriage ends up a little too cozily.

When out walking with Alice, Magali collapses and dies. This has 2 consequences. Firstly, Heinz gets very sad, causing Peter to invite him on the romantic cruise he’s about to take with Alice. Secondly, when cleaning out Magali’s stuff, Alice finds a bundle of old love letters. About the same time, Heinz discovers a train ticket to Toulouse in Magali’s pockets. It turns out that every year for the past 15 years, Magali has been going to France to hook up with someone called Claude.

Meanwhile Peter is having what I guess we must call a late-life crisis. He swears off alcohol and becomes a vegan. It’s not obvious exactly why he’s doing this, other than as responding to general ennui with a performative act of doing something, anything. You could say that giving up alcohol makes it easier for Peter to look disapprovingly when Susanne pours her next glass of red. Having said this, unlike Alice, Peter seems to be too laid back for that sort of snark.

Die goldene Jahre is much more successful than Triangle of Sadness, say, at showing how deathly boring a luxury cruise can be. Endlessly running on fitness machine with a view of the oceans, dancing to a covers band playing “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie”, and being shepherded around tourist destinations for a couple of hours before you’re herded back onto the boat. We find out that Alice initiated the cruise tickets, but the more we go on, the less happy about it she looks.

Alice’s state of mind is not helped by the fact that her husband spends more attention to his grieving best friend than to his wife (alongside “First World Problems”, the other phrase that comes to mind when watching this film is “Sense of Entitlement”). When Heinz decides to go to bed early, Peter follows him almost immediately, leaving Alice to get drunk with the woman from Basel who’s on the cruise on her own to celebrate her recent divorce.

After they dock in Marseilles, Alice decides to lose Peter and Heinz in the bazaar and not to reboard the ship. After all, she has someone to chase up in Toulouse. When she finally gets back in touch with Peter, she tells him that she needs a bit of time for himself. Peter’s first reaction is to have a panic attack, but the more he thinks about it, the more he understands. He invites Heinz to live with him full time, and next time Alice calls, he tells her that he also needs some “me time”.

It’s not that Die goldene Jahre doesn’t ask important questions, more that the answers that it finds are fairly bland. The film is permanently split between desires to be both radical and comfortable. We see a used condom, a feminist socialist lesbian collective and – something that should not be shocking, but clearly is to some people – encounter old people who take magic mushrooms and have a sex life. The ending even strays outside traditional family structures … but not too far.

You can also deliver only so much dramatic tension from the comfortably off. Feeling a little listless? Oh, just go on a cruise. That not working for you? No problem, go and get a hotel room. This means that the real problems that we do see – marriage breakdowns, having to deal with grief, lack some gravitas. You always feel that the main characters can buy a way out of their problems.

This is a film which has broken one small barrier by depicting older people on screen. Now if we could have a follow up showing older people who are struggling to survive, this might result in us actually giving a fuck what happens to them.

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