Twilight Cinema: Three Recent Films About Ageing

On My WayTwenty-five years ago, Christopher Guest made a lovely little movie called The Big Picture. It is a mostly gentle satire about Hollywood, which features Kevin Bacon as a young film school graduate who has come out west to make his fortune. The movie he wants to make – the one that the whole industry is buzzing over – is about a love triangle among three forty-somethings stranded in a snow-bound cabin. Of course, almost as soon as our hero arrives in Hollywood, the suggestions begin. Instead of two men and one woman, let’s make it two women and one man. Instead of a cabin in winter, how about a beach in summer? And instead of characters in their forties, let’s have them be in their twenties.

I find myself thinking about that final suggestion more and more. Twenty-five years ago, I was in my twenties. Today – well, my forties are becoming an increasingly distant memory. Ageism, I have always been told by those who work in Hollywood, is the most entrenched “ism” there is. It was probably always in the cards that mainstream American film would begin showing more interest in older characters as the baby boom generation began signing up for their AARP memberships. Indeed, two years ago, Michael Haneke’s Amour, starring two actors in their eighties, won accolades and Oscar nominations. There are a great many formidable actors past seventy who are still going strong and finding interesting roles. Hollywood, which has never shown much interest in portraying age on screen, has made genuine progress on this front.

But sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for. And sometimes, in the fickle world of film, the best of intentions don’t always result in the best of movies. Here are three movies concerned with ageing that have received limited release in American theatres in 2014. They all feature first-rate actors. Only one is an American production. One is French, while the other is a French-British co-production. I really wanted to like them all. Problem is, I didn’t.

On My Way

Director Emmanuelle Bercot’s loosely-plotted road trip provides an intriguing character for screen legend Catherine Deneuve. This is essentially a senior citizen coming-of-age story about Bettie, who realises rather suddenly that her life has not amounted to very much. She hits the road, has an affair with a much younger man, and eventually winds up transporting her grandson across a section of French countryside. Deneuve is quite good, and the movie also offers delightful performances by the very young Nemo Schiffman as the grandson Charly, and the very old Claude Gensac as Bettie’s nagging mother Annie. Unfortunately, the plotting is so loose – with the central dramatic construct involving Bettie and Charly’s trip coming very late in the proceedings – that the movie as a whole doesn’t pack much punch. Pleasant moments, but nothing special.

Love is Strange

This is the American entry, and it has been a critical darling. It deals with an ageing homosexual couple played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina. The problem is that it is trying so hard to be meaningful and important that it sucks the joy right out of some very likeable performers and becomes ponderous. Long time partners Ben and George marry at the beginning, and that marriage kicks off a chain of events which forces them to live apart from one another. This is a very slow movie, where nothing happens for long stretches, and unfortunately, the plot favours Ben’s rather mundane domestic situation over George’s more interesting living arrangements. There are other odd choices throughout – such as the incomprehensible casting of Darren Burrows, and the odd use of ellipsis at the end. This is essentially a modern retelling of Leo McCarey’s magnificent Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), still the best examination of aging that Hollywood has ever produced, with none of McCarey’s sense of humour, or sense of life to be lived.

Le Week-End

It’s easy to feel like a snob when you write about movies. Easy to side with Andrew Sarris over your sister-in-law. Easy to scoff at the latest Marvel production. So when a movie like Roger Michel’s Le Week-End scores a very impressive 89 from critics on Rotten Tomatoes but only a pedestrian 6.4 from fans on IMDB, I am very proud to side with the fans against all those critical snobs. Let’s be honest. Despite the presence of excellent actors Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, this just isn’t a very good movie. Their characters, Meg and Nick, might be Celine and Jesse (from Richard Linklater’s Sunrise trilogy) some thirty years later. And with British accents. They have come to Paris for a romantic weekend, even though by this point in their relationship, they are basically sick of the sight of each other. For the first half of the movie, they wander Paris mumbling angrily at each other. Then, a deus ex machina in the person of Jeff Goldblum shows up to speak more loudly and cause a plot to coalesce. There are a few nice moments, but it closes with a very unlikely feel-good resolution that essentially betrays all that came before. This is a significant disappointment.

Toward the end of the year, Bill Murray starred in Theodroe Melfi’s St. Vincent, a generally more satisfying gentle comedy about a crusty old guy and his young friend. St. Vincent relies on some rather unbelievable plot contrivances to make a lot of the painful subject matter (like bullying and gambling) go away. But it has a good heart, and if Murray’s accent is somewhat dodgy throughout, he and young co-star Jaeden Lieberher have enough chemistry to make the whole thing work. My friend John Douglas, professor of Film at American University, has dubbed this type of movie “curmudgecom.” (see Gran Torino or Scent of a Woman.) And maybe the crusty old guy will become Hollywood’s standard treatment of age. I’d like to think there is more range out there. I’d like to think I have more to look forward to, both on screen, and in my off screen life.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

11 thoughts on “Twilight Cinema: Three Recent Films About Ageing

  1. I think it may be coming up on twenty-five years ago when I first noticed this myself. Or had it brought to my attention, anyway, in relation to the Britcom Waiting for God. I remember someone opining that no one in Hollywood could ever dream of making a romance whose two main characters were in their seventies, and the more I looked after hearing that, the more I realized how true it was. I think that’s one of the reasons Ozu’s films have always resonated with me. His protagonists are usually my age or older. (My forites are not in the rearview mirror, but my thirtysomething wife is increasingly horrified at how close I’m getting to the half-century mark. Of course, that’s because I tease her mercilessly about not having been alive during the seventies.)
    […and Ikiru. jesus. That movie ripped my heart out and stomped on it.]

    I still hold onto some sort of misguided optimism that the continued, and well-deserved, global popularity of older, still gorgeous actresses like Helen Mirren and Judi Dench will cause someone to say “you know, we need a good autumn-years romance here at Paramount” or wherever. It’s a dim hope, but it still flickers. If they allow Isabelle Hupprt to reach eighty without doing it, though, I’m jettisoning the whole system and will watch exclusively Nollywood product. See if I don’t!

    • Thanks Robert. Excellent point about Ozu. He seemed able to create interesting characters regardless of whether they were children, young adults, or older adults. (Though the children were generally there for comic relief.) I think American film can do it, they just don’t do it very often. There was a movie out earlier this year called Land Ho! which is built on a lovely and funny relationship between two elderly men. I think in general, movies about old people fall into the same trap as any other movie — they tend to rely on a gimmicky premise and tend to be overly sentimental. So you get things like Cocoon and Bucket List. And with so few entries out there, it’s harder to identify movies that rise above those issues.

  2. Good points, Jon; it seems like more of the same from a moviemaking standpoing re: aging. It’s almost like a subject that few know what to do with. Still, there are films that tackle the topic well–two of my picks are The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Up (which, despite being a cartoon, has some of the most realistic depictions of aging on film). This is still an untapped resource, in my opinion.

    • Thanks Simon. That’s a great point about Up. It seems like a lot of difficult subject manner can be more easily addressed in genres like animation or sci-fi. They can slip in powerful material without running the risk of seeming too earnest.

  3. I read this selection with great interest. As I am now of the age where I like to see films about old people, I was hoping for rave reviews; especially concerning Deneuve and Duncan, two of my favourite actresses. From your (always) intelligent appraisals, it would seem that great chances have been missed. To waste the talents of Lithgow, Molina, Broadbent and others, is just unforgivable. I have now gone from a clutch of films I was looking forward to, to not really being bothered either way.
    I wrote a post on my blog last year, referencing what for me, is the best ever film about old age and youth. ‘The Way Home.’ (2002) Here’s a link.
    https://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/some-films-about-old-people/

    Thanks for a good theme Jon, I really enjoyed it. Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. I will need to track down The ay Home. I know some people have thought much more highly of these movies than have I. I remember something Wendy Ide wrote while praising Mike Leigh’s movie Another Year (a significantly better Jim Broadbent movie about the elderly.) She said the movie had no “manufactured crescendos.” To me, Le Week-End is nothing but such manufactured crescendos, which is a real shame.

        • Agreed Pete. It sometimes feels as if movies like Le Week-End are deliberately unpleasant in an attempt to be somehow more “real.” But Another Year manages to show all the difficulty of aging (what the Lesley Manville character goes through is as emotionally devastating — and real — as anything I have seen on screen this decade) while also having a sense of life about it.

          • I absolutely loved that film Jon. But I do confess to being a Mike Leigh obsessive. He can rarely do any wrong, at least in my book. I do worry that I am so overwhelmed with how good his work is, because it is British. But on reflection, to hell with that, it is all basically wonderful.
            Best wishes, Pete.

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