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Eva Ionesco Golden Youth Une jeunesse dorée Review

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Golden Youth | 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam Review

Golden Youth | 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam Review

Youth Without Youth: Ionesco Waxes and Wavers on Partying at Le Palace

Eva Ionesco Golden Youth Une jeunesse doréeWriter-director Eva Ionesco returns to semi-autobiographical inspiration for her sophomore film Golden Youth (Une jeunesse dorée), reuniting with French icon Isabelle Huppert, who headlined 2011’s My Little Princess, an incendiary recapitulation of the director’s tempestuous relationship with her photographer mother. Her latest is set in the late 70s, during the fading days of the famed Parisian nightclub Le Palace, a mecca of the period’s varied iniquities (comparable to New York’s Studio 54), where a young couple in love find themselves sucked up into the bizarre sexual decadence of a much older couple who prey on the malleable young creatures they lasso at the club. While this sounds to be as taboo worthy and cathartic as Ionesco’s previous feature, which examined how her mother infamously published photographs of her nude daughter and the resulting trauma which defined their relationship, stilted dialogue and superficial characterizations unfortunately work against the elaborate set designs, fantastic soundtrack and sublime period costumes in a film as visually sumptuous as it is entirely soulless.

It’s 1979 Paris, and young lovers Rose (Galatea Bellugi) and Michel (Lukas Ionesco) are in the throes of a passionate, all-consuming romance. The only trouble is, Rose is seventeen. Taking responsibility for her, Michel is granted permission to take Rose via social services as long as Rose agrees to attend school, learning her trade as a pastry chef. Of course, this is hardly their plan as the young lovers are obsessed with partying at the decadent nightclub Le Palace. Desperate to become a renowned painter, Michel has fallen under the spell of the decadent bourgeois couple Lucile (Huppert) and Hubert (Melvil Poupaud). Lucile commissions a series of paintings from Michel, which she makes obvious is merely a ploy to bed him, aggravating Rose. However, it’s not long before the two couples become further intertwined in more ways than one, forcing Rose to explore her own passions and interests.

Huppert might as well be a synonym for hedonism, and while the actress herself does not disappoint as a bewitching fixture of crumbling decadence, Ionesco doesn’t give her much to work with this time around. Though the idea of Huppert as a tragicomic vampire seems novel, pouting as she does about the terrifying concept of immortality, she’s unfortunately diminished by somewhat toothless dialogue. Of course, Ionesco eventually gets around to the psychosexual kink which seems inevitable after Huppert tells us how wonderful Hubert’s penis is, donning a fashionable dominatrix gown and allowing the kids to take a turn with her. But it doesn’t contain the excitement first experienced in the film’s set-up to Le Palace, enhanced significantly by Agnes Godard’s dreamy grain-infused cinematography, where revelers dance to the “Time Warp” and Huppert arrives to tell Bellugi she’s beautiful in the kind of terms one would expect—“Her little mug reminds me of a Pekinese.”

Lucile’s insatiability for the increasingly petulant Rose isn’t unlike, say, Barbara Stanwyck’s bordello madam pining away for Capucine’s prostitute in Walk on the Walk Side (1962). Later, Poupaud complains in desperation about his wealthy lover “She’s not a woman, she’s a spell!” And while it’s clear this is what Ionesco intended for Huppert’s Lucile, the character is only allowed to invoke the youth crazed zealotry which accompanies similar tabloid and local Hollywood gossip about Demi Moore.

What starts off like Party Monster (2003) and ends up being a little more like Curtis Harrington’s 1967 Games (an underrated film wherein Simone Signoret arrives as a guest to the home of Katharine Ross and James Caan to destabilize their sexual attraction to one another), ends up losing focus of what it wants to be by squandering the energies of its performers. Golden Youth hits a wall when Michel and Lucile head off to New York. It’s here where Lukas Ionesco’s edited limitations are finally unavoidable (a minor temper tantrum about his inability to paint is painful to behold), while Poupaud (twenty years Huppert’s junior) tries repeatedly to bed Bellugi as he fosters her career as an actress.

Poupaud, as dapper as ever as the bi-sexual socialite Hubert, also feels a bit underutilized (though more glaring missteps come from several notable supporting players, such as Alain-Fabien Delon, son of the iconic actor, and Manal Issa, who don’t have enough screen time to overcome their dialogue). Like Huppert, however, one wonders what energies might have transpired in certain sequences, such as when Hubert’s sexual advances towards Michel are rejected. Newcomer Gallatea Bellugi (of The Apparition, 2018) does alright for herself as Rose, her passivity enhanced by the glam costume designs from Marie Beltrami and Jurgen Doering and her charm eventually reminiscent of Lou Roy-Lecollinet of Desplechin’s My Golden Days (2015).

And yet, the canvas of Golden Youth, which taps out at nearly two hours, always feels painted in broad strokes. Co-written by Ionesco’s husband, novelist Simon Liberati further suggests how significant personal and familial investment in certain narrative and character elements might have led to subconscious missteps, as there’s certainly enough meaty material here to have managed something more outré. As Bellugi spins into a Loïe Fuller routine on stage at Le Palace, performing to ‘Gopher Mambo” by Yma Sumac right before she decides to pursue another calling, one wishes all Golden Youth reflected such a delicious mixture of elements as these.

Reviewed on January 26th at the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam – Voices Program. 111 Minutes

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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