Article Movement & Migration

Non-stereotypical portraits of late adulthood in film

In contemporary film art, the issues and dilemmas of ageing populations appear more and more frequently. In response to the expectations of older audiences, filmmakers increasingly deal with the problems of people who have reached a certain age.

“If there is a population that is in its forties, it would like to see movies about people its own age. They clearly don’t necessarily feel like they have to see Twilight,” Academy Award-nominated director, writer, and producer Julie Taymor says. The director of Frida remarks that there are many people over 40 who prefer to go out in order to get their entertainment fix. “The older audience was brought up on movies. They like going out, but they don’t necessarily like just sitting at home, channel surfing, and watching television,” Taymor says.

The themes related to ageing have been the focus of some prominent European filmmakers like Michael Haneke (who won an Oscar for Amour) or Paolo Sorrentino (who won it for The Great Beauty).

The British production The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is an example of a commercially successful movie about ageing, with a worldwide gross of more than $136.8 million.

Referring to the current situation of the American film industry, Julie Taymor claims that it is still difficult to make a mainstream movie with these sorts of themes as central issues. “This movie is independent for the time being until it’s really proven that you can have this kind of story in a commercial way,” she adds.

Ageing populations present new themes for filmmakers. Since people live longer and are more concerned about their health and quality of life, the film portrait of the autumn of life is also changing onscreen. Old age is ceasing to be automatically associated with sickness, deteriorating health, and growing feelings of alienation and being unneeded. More insightful and bold studies of characters who have unconventional lifestyles and defy stereotypes about old age are coming to cinemas.

Tasting life to the fullest

Gloria (2013) is a bittersweet picture that glances into the life of a lonely woman approaching maturity. The protagonist of Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s film is Gloria, a 58-year-old divorcee; an attractive, intelligent woman living in Santiago, who tries to make the most of life despite the obstacles that face her at every step. Gloria’s children have moved away from home some time ago and they lead their own lives, devoting a minimum of attention to their mother. Her ex-husband, meanwhile, has met a younger woman. For Gloria, recovered freedom essentially becomes the freedom of loneliness, which is tangible especially since she lives in an apartment building buzzing with relationships and emotions. Gloria’s life is further complicated because her ophthalmologist diagnoses a deteriorating eye disease.

Paulina Garcia, who plays the main role, creates a powerful portrait of a multidimensional character. Gloria does not slacken the tempo of her professional life and is open to new experiences and challenges. She takes part in interpersonal trainings and in yoga classes. In the evenings, she attends dances, where she looks for new opportunities for love. Gloria is aware of the passage of time and does not intend to artificially make her look young (she sports an old-fashioned haircut and glasses), although she also does not want to reject caprices and risks. Bungee jumping, paintball sessions, a fiery romance with the charming newly met Rodolfo: Gloria tries to take everything that is best from life, even if a moment later she feels bitterness and the taste of failure. After all, even failure has value that Gloria appreciates, experiencing another life lesson.

Masterfully played by Garcia, an icon of Chilean television and film, Gloria is one of the most important cinematic portraits of mature women, who search for their place in the world and who do not allow themselves to become enslaved by unfulfilled dreams, aspirations, and talents.

Sex without age limits

Life Begins Today (La Vida Empieza Hoy) is another film that proves that life after 60 can also be interesting, exciting and fulfilling, including in the sexual aspect. The plot of movie by Laura Mañá concerns several pensioners in ages ranging from their 60s to their 80s who attend a “sex class” in an education centre in Barcelona. The class is run by Olga (Rosa Maria Sardà), an energetic teacher who helps her students rediscover their sex lives. In the following sessions, Olga presents the whole spectrum of sexual pleasures in elderly age and teaches students about influence of sex on their health and wellbeing. Life Begins Today deals with the sexuality of senior citizens, which many continue to view as a taboo subject, in a non-priggish yet simultaneously warm way.

The viewers follow the impact of sex education on the lives of four students and their relationships with family members in vivacious Barcelona. This Spanish film reveals a coterie of characters notable for their unusual honesty. There is the cantankerous 70-year-old Juanita (Pilar Bardem), who after the death of her husband is convinced that she will die at any minute. Pepe (Luis Marco) is going through his recent retirement and is considering divorcing his life. Meanwhile, Herminia believes that she is too frigid with regards to feelings, but it turns out that the problem was that she had not yet found the right man. Her meeting with Juan changes her life forever.

Each of these characters approaches matters related to maturity and one’s own vision of happiness differently. Each of them is entangled in different social and family arrangements. Laura Mañá creates a suggestive image of senior citizens who do not want to be a burden on their own children. The protagonists of the Spanish comedy fight for the autonomy of their own life choices in a determined way, at the same time discovering the joys of life anew.

Life Begins Today fully demonstrates that life after 60 can be interesting, exciting, and full of challenges, while love and joy are not only the domain of youths.

A woman at the crossroads

Sixty-year-old Angélique challenges the social perception of the life of a senior citizen. She flaunts her independence at every step. She is marked by tight gaudy clothes in tacky colours, an excess of jewellery and strong makeup as well as her chain smoking. Additionally, she leads an eccentric life. Although she has had four children, she never had thought of settling down. She is the oldest in a group of women in working in late-night cabaret bar in Lorraine, a city situated on the Franco-German border. While most of the clients come to this place aiming at watch women doing pole-dances in the laser lights, Angélique’s job as a bar hostess consists of making friendly small talk and getting them to buy expensive drinks. The times are changing and the club’s regular clientele has withered. Feeling that she is more and more alienated from the nightlife milieu, Angélique starts to consider a change in her life, which so far had been filled with dance, fun, flirting, and carelessness.

Awarded with the Golden Camera in the Best Debut Film category at Cannes, Party Girl (2014) is the inspired story of Angelique Litzenburger, the mother of one of the film’s directors, who plays herself in the film. Her performance as a woman examining her life choices is really moving.

In the film Party Girl, directed by Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger and Samuel Theis, the impulse for Angelique to radically change her life is the unexpected proposal of her regular client, Michel (Joseph Bour). A retired miner proposes marriage to Angelique. Angelique accepts the proposal, moves in with Michel, and tries to stabilize. Although she tries hard, it soon turns out that it is difficult for her to break with her past life and habits, especially since she has growing doubts as to whether she truly loves Michel…

Shot in the convention of a docudrama, Party Girl offers a unique insight into the life of women working in night clubs near the Franco-German border. “Angélique worked in night clubs not because she was forced to do so, but because she liked the job. There are people who really belong to the nightlife world. This film questions if it’s possible to break your profound nature. Can you be someone else than who you really are?” director of Party girl, Samuel Theis discussed the movie during Q &A session at OFF Camera International Festival of Independent Cinema.

Party Girl is a captivating study of woman who has the courage to go her own way despite the social conventions of what is appropriate for what age.

Queer ageing

The cult of youth and vitality is very strong in LGBT culture. The exploration of models of ageing among queer subcultures seems to be marginalized theme in LGBT culture. How can members of the LGBT community keep up to this type of culture as they age?

“Queer ageing, especially in gay male cultures, has historically been regarded as ‘unglamorous,’ in part because of a strong identification with ageing Hollywood legends and divas like Judy Garland, epitomized by fictional characters like Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard,” explains Karen Tongson, associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California and author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries. There is also a long history of the relationship between male beauty and narcissism, from the original Ovidian myth to Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. “In general, ageing in feminine subjects—be it heterosexual femininity, gay male femininity, lesbian femininity, etc.—is regarded with more pathos, despair, etc., especially given beauty standards for women or femme-identified people,” Tongson claims. The expert mentions that now, especially with expanded life expectancies for queer people suffering from HIV/AIDS and the mainstreaming of certain aspects of LGBT culture, particularly in the United States, more attention is being paid to elderly queer life and the possibilities of “growing old” as LGBT people. “Queers, in other words, want to grow old now that we have been given the opportunity to imagine our survival. And while there will always be segments of all populations who wish to remain forever young, more attention in general is being paid to what it means to age happily, gracefully, and with people you love,” Prof. Karen Tongson says.

Unconventional relationship

Centred on themes related to gay ageing, Cloudburst is an exceptional example of a road movie, whose main protagonists are an elderly lesbian couple. Together for over three decades, Stella and Dot have built a very good, trustful but also unusual relationship. Despite being in her seventies, cowboy hat-adorned Stella (Olympia Dukakis) still has a belligerent nature with a blunt and often sex-oriented sense of humour and obsession with K.D. Lang. Her quick temper is softened by the devoted love for her partner, Dotty (Brenda Fricker), who is infirm and nearly blind. They both live in the calm countryside of Maine near the Canadian border. Everything changes in the couple’s life when Dotty’s adult granddaughter, oblivious to the true nature of this relationship, decides to put her grandmother in a nursing home. Facing spending the rest of her life without Dot and pushed over the edge, Stella busts her partner out of there. The two embark on a picaresque trip in a truck towards Nova Scotia, Canada, where they can legally get married and finally be taken seriously as partners.

The determination with which Stella and Dot overcome obstacles in order to be considered partners in accordance with the law, show the strength of their love. Cloudburst is a thoughtful image of the autumn of life. Although it is shot in the convention of a comedy, Thom Fitzgerald’s picture does not avoid reflections on the passage of time, illness, and death.

Love is strange

Love is strange (2014) is another film examining the life of elderly gay people in the United States. The main protagonists of the French-American drama film, directed by Ira Sachs, are Ben and George, a gay couple of certain age who live in New York City. Due to the changes in the state law allowing gay marriages, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) take advantage of it and finally get married after living together for 39 years. Their happiness as newly-weds does not last long. George, who is a music teacher at a Catholic school is fired from his job. The couple must sell their Manhattan apartment, which they can no longer afford. Later, Ben and George are forced to live separately leaning on the kindness of friends until they find a new place. Love is strange is an intimate study of long- term relationship of mature people in the situation of separation. The growing feelings of alienation and loss, which main protagonists experience, being forced to live apart, in different places, make viewers feel how strong the bond between each other they established for years. Love is strange examines the problems that gay people still experience in the American society showing that legalizing same-sex marriage is not the final triumph in the history of the fight for rights of gay people in the United States.

The grand escape

The retirement home is a location that frequently appears in movies about old age. Redwood Highway (2013) tells the story of Marie Vaughn (Shirley Knight), a resident of a retirement community in southern Oregon, who decides to escape from that place and take an unusual challenge. From the start of movie, we learn that Marie is not happy living in this community, blaming her son for placing her there against her will. She is also in conflict with her granddaughter because she disapproves her fiancée, a drummer in a band. When Marie’s granddaughter Naomi withdraws her invitation to her wedding, Marie decides to attend this ceremony on her own by foot because, as she says: “They’ve taken my house, and my car. But they haven’t taken my legs, yet!” She sneaks off out of the hated retirement home and embarks on foot for the 80-mile trip to the beach wedding arranged on the coast near Brookings. The journey to the coast of Oregon to see the ocean for the first time in 45 years become for Marie an expression of her independence and strong determination despite her age and body condition’s limits. During this 80-mile trek, Marie encounters a variety of kind people who give her help and good advise. At various stages in her days-long journey, protagonist of Redwood Highway gains new experiences and also faces her past, lost chances and her lost love. Ultimately, this journey leads to reconciliation with her family and her own self as well as Marie’s gaining inner peace.

The story of Marie Vaughn brings another reflection about the value of life, the moment of being here and now. Life and its complex mixture of joys, sorrows, disappointments, and peace can be immeasurably interesting until the very end.

Still frame from Gloria (2013), director: Sebastian Lelio, Distribution in the United Kingdom: Network Releasing

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