‘Golden Years’: Love and Angst in the Autumn Years

This European romantic comedy gleefully bends, then breaks, genre expectations.
‘Golden Years’: Love and Angst in the Autumn Years
Peter (Stefan Kurt) and Alice (Esther Gemsch), in “Golden Years.” (Music Box Films)
Michael Clark

NR | 1h 32m | Comedy, Drama, Romance | 2024

“People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” This is the opening line of a poem by Brian Chalker and perfectly describes what takes place within the frames of director Barbara Kulcsar’s splendidly angular and knowing “Golden Years.”

On the surface, “Golden Years” (penned by Petra Volpe) is a bouncy, slickly produced romantic comedy geared toward audiences already in or about to enter their golden years. This isn’t to say that the 25- to 50-year-old demographic won’t enjoy it or benefit from the many pearls of wisdom the movie tosses out like so many breadcrumbs along a trail. If they’re lucky and make it to retirement age intact, this group will recall why the two leads in this movie viewed their twilight years through different lenses.

Alice (Esther Gemsch) and Peter (Stefan Kurt), in “Golden Years.” (Music Box Films)
Alice (Esther Gemsch) and Peter (Stefan Kurt), in “Golden Years.” (Music Box Films)
The opening title sequence shows Alice (Esther Gemsch) and other Swiss seniors performing something akin to “jazzercise,” dancing to the strains of Tito Puente’s 1962 “Oye Cómo Va.” I say “akin” because the assorted body movements and contorted facial expressions are improvised and free-form. They’re sloppy, disjointed, and without order, but it is clear that everyone is having a ball, especially the glass-half-full Alice.

A Needed Jolt

The story begins at a party for Alice’s just-retired husband, Peter (Stefan Kurt). The couple’s two adult children gift them a Mediterranean cruise, which thrills Alice to no end as she hopes a romantic getaway to exotic locales will provide a much-needed jolt to their waning love life. Peter’s reaction to the cruise is softly muted.

Plans for the trip change shortly after the sudden passing of close family friend Magalie (Elvira Plüss). In literally her last breath, Magalie implores Alice to retrieve some hidden letters sent from her longtime French lover. Magalie doesn’t want her husband, Heinz (Ueli Jäggi), to stumble upon her secret, something that would only prolong, deepen, and sharpen his grief.

Magalie’s death also leads Peter (out of guilt and sympathy) to invite Heinz to join him and Alice on the cruise, and he is only half surprised when Heinz agrees. To put it mildly, this doesn’t sit well with Alice, who rightfully doesn’t want a third wheel horning in on her “second honeymoon.”

(L–R) Alice (Esther Gemsch), Heinz (Ueli Jaggi), and Peter (Stefan Kurt), in “Golden Years.” (Music Box Films)
(L–R) Alice (Esther Gemsch), Heinz (Ueli Jaggi), and Peter (Stefan Kurt), in “Golden Years.” (Music Box Films)
As it turns out, Alice becomes the third wheel when Peter and Heinz become inseparable in what can best be described as a heterosexual bromance.

Break Away

Not quite ready to throw in the towel, Alice does her level best to get Peter to change course, all to no avail. When the ship docks in Marseille, she ditches Peter and Heinz on dry land and doesn’t return to the ship. She texts Peter stating that she “needs a break” and not to worry, which has the exact desired effect on him. He freaks out, has a panic attack or two, and becomes the lyric in a Joni Mitchell song: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Alice (Esther Gemsch), in “Golden Years.” (Music Box Films)
Alice (Esther Gemsch), in “Golden Years.” (Music Box Films)

We’re at the halfway point in the movie and the filmmakers make a detour of their own by turning the picture into a road flick. Alice’s attitude does a 180, and she is all the better for it. There’s a revived spring in her step—she takes in the local culture with relish and glee, and in the process, looks 10 years younger.

First, she hangs out with a married couple making their way through Europe in an RV and discovers that being on her own and untethered isn’t all that bad. While in France, Alice takes it upon herself to try and locate Magalie’s mystery lover, and she is successful, but not in a way that she (or we) might have ever expected.

Eclectic Score

Propelled by an eclectic score by Carsten Meyer, the music ranges from 1960s-flavored South American bossa nova to 1980s dance electronica to World acoustic, and atmospheric ambient. It is executed with seamless ease, providing superb accent to the luscious imagery.
Heinz (Ueli Jäggi, L) and Peter (Stefan Kurt), in “Golden Years.” (Music Box Films)
Heinz (Ueli Jäggi, L) and Peter (Stefan Kurt), in “Golden Years.” (Music Box Films)

Although not included, the David Bowie song “Golden Years” would have been a perfect punctuation mark during the end credits. The lyrics closely resemble what’s going on with Alice.

Just how the filmmakers wrap everything up is also unexpected and brings the “reason, season, or lifetime” thing full circle. It is indeed possible to be in love with someone and come to the conclusion that you no longer want the same things.

Without giving anything away or misleading you, the reader, into thinking “Golden Years” is something it’s not, the movie concludes on an unmistakable up note, but again, not something one might expect.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to do anything new or original within the framework of the thread-worn romantic comedy genre, yet Ms. Kulcsar and Ms. Volpe manage to do so on multiple occasions with breezy effortlessness.

The film opens in theaters on February 23 and is presented in Swiss-German and French with English subtitles. 
Theatrical poster for "Golden Years." (Music Box Films)
Theatrical poster for "Golden Years." (Music Box Films)
‘Golden Years’ Director: Barbara Kulcsar Starring: Esther Gemsch, Stefan Kurt, Ueli Jäggi, Gundi Ellert, Elvira Plüss Running Time: 1 hour, 32 minutes MPAA Rating: Not Rated Release Date: Feb. 23, 2024 Rating: 4 out of 5
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Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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