Films for Later Life

   

by Jim Vanden Bosch

“I think of age as an abstraction, not a straightjacket.” This line from Still Mine, a recent feature film, invites us to ponder whether perceptions of aging and elderhood are shifting in American culture and society, and to take note of how images and perceptions of aging and elderhood are being presented today in mainline feature films. There have certainly been more films recently that deal with aging characters and aging-related themes. Aging, we could say, has “come of age” in our society — at least in terms of our awareness of it. A society’s attitudes and concerns are often reflected in its feature films. With baby boomers now crossing over into the land of elderhood at the rate of 8,000 to 10,000 a day, many popular films are trying to story-tell what those travelers are experiencing as they navigate that uneven, uncertain terrain. As Paula Span, columnist for the New York Times said this month in her blog, The New Old Age, “Not long ago, I could name the really excellent recent movies about aging on one hand. Now I am running out of fingers.”

To age successfully requires knowing when to resist and overcome, and when to gracefully accept, the changes brought on by life’s aging course. This is often a difficult endeavor. This struggle is what makes films about aging, if they are honest and well-produced, so fascinating to watch. We get to have an extended “conversation” with someone else’s experience and story. We can be challenged by that story, or we can simply sit back and enjoy the narrative. A good film, unless we simply want to be shocked or titillated, converses with us at an honest and emotive level. It invites us to see ourselves, our experience (or our imaginable experience) reflected in the story being played out on the screen. If we have any curiosity at all about how our lives might play out, these films provide rich opportunities for us to see, feel, and reflect on that.

For reasons I have not yet figured out, most of us are attracted to drama in the stories we seek out. Filmmakers, therefore, present us with stories that contain a dramatic arc, usually involving a conflict and then a resolution of some kind. (Sometimes the story effectively stops short of a resolution, and we are left to ponder the outcome.) One of the “dramas” that often accompanies growing older is health related. An illness becomes the invasive “enemy” against which the characters in the story struggle. The resolution comes either in overcoming the threat or in “making peace” with it.

Still Mine (2012) is directed by Canadian filmmaker Michael
McGowan and features Geneviève Bujold and James Cromwell.

Two recent films that give us rich stories about how elders handle this threat are Amour and Still Mine. The films are similar in the arc of the stories they present, but are extremely different in how their characters handle the threat. In both films a couple struggles with the cognitive decline of one of the partners. In Still Mine, Craig (James Cromwell) and Irene (Genevieve Bujold) Morrison, married for 61 years, still live in their well-worn two-story farm house in New Brunswick. Near the beginning of the film we see evidences of Irene’s short-term memory slipping. One of Craig’s responses to this (at 87 years of age) is to use his long-honed carpentry skills to single-handedly build them a new smaller single-story house that will better accommodate Irene’s deteriorating condition. Visually, the film is open and bright, with many of its scenes shot outside. The characters are also open-hearted and honest — even when they are in disagreement with each other. (Both Cromwell and Bujold do a fine job of portraying an older rural Canadian couple.)

In the process of building the house Craig runs afoul of a Provincial building inspector by not always adhering to the minutia of the building codes. This conflict builds throughout the film and threatens the finishing of the house, even as Irene’s condition worsens. Craig and Irene’s grown children also weigh in with their concerns over what is happening, and they worry together over whether to try to convince Craig to follow a different course in meeting Irene’s needs. The film is refreshingly multidimensional in how it shows this couple facing the challenges of memory loss. In so many mainstream films, dementia is misunderstood and portrayed as a condition that destroys one’s personhood. In Still Mine the focus is on the more gradual decline that initially only affects Irene’s short-term memory, not her personhood. But neither is the reality of the decline glossed over. In one scene Craig and Irene are lying in bed together and Irene says “What if I forget everything?” Craig responds, after a few seconds to take in this potential reality, “You’ll still be my Irene.”

The recent film, Amour, by acclaimed Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, shows a couple dealing with a more immediately severe health issue. The tone of Amour is radically opposite that of Still Mine.1 With the exception of two scenes at the beginning of the film, the entire story unfolds within the apartment of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an older French couple. Early in the film, Anne develops stroke-like symptoms. An attempt to deal with them in the hospital fails; the symptoms get progressively worse. At first, just her left side is affected. She can talk but needs help with walking and getting in and out of bed. After returning from the hospital, Anne extracts a promise from Georges that he will not place her back in the hospital. A second stroke soon follows and leaves her incontinent, unable to talk without great effort, and mentally confused. Georges provides loving and steadfast care for her, but is eventually worn down by the effort.

Amour, from Austrian director Michael Haneke,
won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Haneke’s previous films have often focused on the violence that humans can do to each other, or on the threat of that violence. In Amour, a different kind of threat is imposed not by another person but by an increasingly debilitating illness. Rarely has a narrative feature film tracked with such single-minded focus the deterioration that a stroke can bring to an aging body and the emotional effects this deterioration has. One should not be misled, however, as many reviewers seem to have been, with “love” in the title. Amour is at its core a film about one couple’s descent into a self-isolating cavern of caregiving, and a shocking conclusion to that descent.

From a technical standpoint, the film is masterfully done. The acting is superb. The scenes are allowed to play out in long takes within steady and beautifully composed camera frames. There is no external music track to help “guide” the viewer’s emotional response to the story. There is no complicated or tricky story line to appeal to our attention-deficit culture — but my attention was held irrevocably throughout the entire film.

Amour also diverges radically and refreshingly from the vast number of films that present a sentimentalized or sugary vision of growing older. The protagonists in these sugar films either “overcome” the threat of aging’s reality with youth-like revitalization, or they become the object of pity or comedy. The vision presented in Amour has none of that. Instead, it takes us to the extreme in the other direction. The film is severe in its relentless portrayal of the toll taken by Anne’s deteriorating condition, insensitive in its absence of any kind of social support for Anne and Georges as they bear the unrelenting burden, and brutal in its ending. My biggest criticism of the film is that its story line seems to lack any cultural awareness of palliative care options that would have been widely available to a middle-class Parisian couple like Anne and Georges. In later scenes of the film, Anne is often crying out in pain. Why Georges does not seek out hospice care to help Anne with pain management at this point is the huge unanswered question in this film. Perhaps this simply would have been too much of a diversion from the dark ending that is more in character with Haneke’s filmmaking. Finding another way to resolve the pain and isolation for Anne and Georges would have subverted the enduring interest Haneke seems to have with the human experience of pain, isolation, and violence (as seen in many of his other films: The Seventh Continent; Benny’s Video; Cache; The Piano Teacher; Funny Games; The White Ribbon).

The film, therefore, also lacks any sense of grace in the story’s resolution. In the early part of the film, before Anne’s second stroke, there is a sense of grace. Throughout much of the film Georges conveys loving and respectful feelings for Anne — the kind that are garnered in a long and rich marital relationship. There are also momentary interludes of wonderful music (both Anne and Georges are musicians) and some occasional playful banter between Anne and Georges. But these are always cut short or followed swiftly by a scene of decline, as if to drive home the point that music and joy will not persist. They will be cut down. After Anne’s disability increases and takes away her sense of dignity, the film becomes steeped in a cheerless plodding towards the exit. The overall tone of the film becomes one of feeling-lessness, especially on the part of Georges. He becomes stoic, numb, and self-isolating as a caregiver in the later stages of Anne’s deteriorating condition.

This is where Still Mine presents a wonderful counterpoint to Amour. Craig and Irene are not isolated as they face the loss of Irene’s cognitive abilities. While Craig is an independent and resourceful person, he also has a supportive family and community to help him take on the increased work load when Irene’s health is faltering. After Irene has a serious fall, for example, one of the couple’s friends insists on bringing a prepared meal for Craig and Irene once a week. Two of Craig and Irene’s adult children are also at hand, and provide help — when Craig will accept it. In this way the film is infused with a sense of grace that is missing from Amour. Craig, however, is not portrayed without his faults. He is often brusque and prone to angry outbursts. Yet, he also recognizes these lapses and seeks forgiveness for them. In a climactic scene, Irene resists going into the house at night to go to bed. Craig, after repeatedly cajoling her, finally physically drags her up the steps and into the house, while she screams in protest. Later that night she gets up out of bed, trips on a shoe and breaks her hip. In retelling the event to his children, Craig is remorseful. “You don’t just drag somebody,” he says.

The health issues faced by Irene are initially not as severe and limiting as those affecting Anne in Amour, but after breaking her hip she does end up in the hospital and then has an extended stay in a rehab facility. This lengthy separation is painful for both Irene and Craig, especially for Irene, because she often forgets why she needs to be there. Craig accepts the news of the need for Irene to be in the facility for two months with stoic grace. “Irene and I have been married for 61 years and have never been apart for more than a few days at a time. But if this is what is necessary, well then, that’s just the way it will have to be.”

Eventually, Craig finishes the new house, and Irene comes home. Still Mine is based on a true story. There was a real life Craig Morrison who was harassed and brought to court many times during a two--year period by the Provincial building inspectors. In 2010 they ultimately demanded that the court forcibly remove Craig and Irene from their new house, that the house be bulldozed, and that Mr. Morrison be found in contempt of court and imprisoned. Fortunately the presiding Justice disagreed, saying that he was not going to send a 91-year-old man to jail and his wife to a nursing home.

Both Amour and Still Mine are powerful films and will undoubtedly engage you in self-reflection and discussion on the issues they so contrastingly portray. These two films also stand in sharp contrast to many of the other recent entertaining but rather fluffy films depicting various aspects of elderhood. Films like Quartet and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or Clint Eastwood’s Trouble with the Curve are fun to watch, but really provide very little in terms of deeper reflections and conversations about the meanings and challenges of life’s aging/changing course.


Jim Vanden Bosch is a filmmaker and the founder and Executive Director of Terra Nova Films, a not-for-profit company specializing in producing and distributing films and videos on a wide variety of aging-related issues. He has produced several award- winning videos, including a recent series on elder abuse and a series on geriatric healthcare for the American Journal of Nursing. Vanden Bosch is also an associate editor in the arts and humanities section of The Gerontologist, the main academic journal of the Gerontological Society of America. In this position he writes reviews of mainstream feature films that deal with aging themes. He also presents frequently at conferences, using a multimedia approach that incorporates relevant video stories into a thematic PowerPoint presentation. He holds an MA degree in Film and Television from the University of Iowa.


Notes

1 The comments on Amour that follow are elaborated from the review I did of the film in the June, 2013 issue of The Gerontologist: Volume 53, Number 3.