The Sexiness of Old Age

Some filmmakers are breaking the mold of youthful beauty by depicting elderly people as desirable.

Bruce LaBruce

The title of Canadian director Bruce LaBruce’s film “Gerontophilia” refers to the fetish in which a person is sexually aroused by someone at least 15 years older. Possibly the most mainstream work by this director known for his semi-pornographic movies, the film is a romantic comedy that follows saga of 18-year-old Lake, who finds a job in a nursing home, realizes he’s attracted to old men, falls in love with an 81-year-old resident, escapes with him after he discovers that the institution has been keeping the patients doped up, and sets out on joint adventure with him across Canada.

Despite its provocative title, the movie examines one of the least talked about subjects in popular culture – old age and sexuality; sexual attraction to the aging body – with the sort of love and compassion that could only be summoned by an outsider director such as LaBruce.

“Gerontophilia” still has no scheduled release date in America, though it will likely be distributed sometime during 2015. The film has already been screened in Europe. It has no official release date in Israel either, but it was shown in July as part of the Gay Film Festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

AP

“I first heard about gerontophilia from the director John Waters, who described it as a crazy fetish,” LaBruce tells Haaretz. “It really is a fetish, and the film doesn’t shy away from presenting it as such. But my point of view is that fetishes aren’t always repulsive or nauseating, and aren’t always related solely to sex. There’s an aesthetic side to them too, and they can be based on a wide range of impulses.

“The hero of the film has a fetish for old men, which shouldn’t cause so much objection, and the movie also presents other sides of this fetish, like empathy for older people – and on a deeper level you also have the fixation with death and with the transitory nature of the physical body. In the movie there are many references to situations in which the object of your passion is transient, a nearly universal theme but one that is rarely spoken about in these contexts.”

Why is the movie relevant just now?

“I was dealing with a question that has to do with how older people are taken care of as they age, and this is a question that keeps coming up because, demographically, there are more old people in the world. On the one hand people are living a lot longer, and on the other hand because of the economic situation, there are fewer resources to take care of them. There are many institutions where the elderly receive medications they don’t need just because there isn’t enough manpower to care for them, so they just dope them up. Or you have people who cannot be cared for in their homes and they’re tossed into nursing homes and forgotten.

“I’d read about all of that, but I’d also read about the sexuality of the people in these places. Contrary to the popular notion, sexuality doesn’t end when you reach an advanced age. Sometimes, especially in these places where nothing much happens, sexuality actually increases. I heard all kinds of wild stories, like old women hiring strippers to come to nursing homes, or the men in old-age homes locking their doors to keep out the women – since there are so many more women in these places. There’s even an increase in sexually transmitted diseases in these institutions.

“From the start I knew I was making a mainstream film, not a porno movie, and the actors didn’t have to have sex in front of the camera,” says LaBruce. “I wanted to find actors who would be open to the film’s subject – inter-generational romantic relationships – and who would be convincing. I searched for actors through the usual agencies. I wanted them to be the same age as the characters in the film (18 and 81), and we found them.

“Pier-Gabriel Lajoie, who plays Lake, was a young, inexperienced actor, but he had bigger qualities like innocence, naiveté and openness. He’s straight but he’s very keen to understand what makes a young man fall in love with an old man.

“The older actor, Walter Borden, who plays Mr. Peabody, was very open with his body, someone who wouldn’t be embarrassed to be nude in front of the camera. Borden is also gay and black and has been an activist since the 1960s. People call him a ‘Black Panther.’ He came from the time before the sexual and racial liberation of the 1960s, and went through the whole process of coming out of the closet, through struggles over sexual identity and the formation of a political identity.

“Another interesting thing was to take someone like that, who’d gone through a long process of coming out and of liberation, but as he matured and reached old age essentially had to go back into the closet. That’s another thing I found in these institutions – gay men in old-age homes have to go back in the closet and hide their sexual identity. He brought authenticity to the role. Also the fact that he’s black wasn’t something that was in the script. He happened to be the best one for the part, and I decided not to make a big deal out of this aspect of the relationship.”

Popular culture doesn’t often focus on the sex lives of old people – unless, of course, it’s about young women with older men.

“That doesn’t interest me because it’s usually rich men, and it has more to do with financial security where the men hold the power,” says LaBruce. “Meanwhile, older women who have sex with younger men are usually portrayed as something grotesque. These are the clichés about old people.”

Light falling on skin

“It seems that since the advent of popular visual media, there’s been hardly any visibility for old age, especially for old women,” says Ma’ayan Goldman, who researches cultural representation of gender in literature, language and fashion.

“‘Gerontophilia’ and the Israeli film ‘A Farewell Party’ signal a new direction in which old age is the main focus, without avoiding the appearance of the aging body, even naked. The importance of these films is first of all in that they really raise the visibility of this age, even if it isn’t perceived as the embodiment of beauty and desirability, and while youth is still perceived as the default choice,” says Goldman.

“The reason this is so important is that without this visibility, none of us would have a model of old age to aspire to and when we get there – which will happen before you know it – we’ll be left with the sense that old age is something that has no place in the culture, something to be ashamed of and something we go through alone, especially as women.

“The main problem with ‘upside-down’ relationships, in which you have old women with young men or old men with young women, is that then the absence of those parameters that are perceived as paramount in the heterosexual romantic relationship – fertility and reproduction, above all – is exposed, and it’s seen as a ‘waste’ of the young masculine fertility. It could also break down the very entrenched framework of power relations that’s supposed to be arranged by a certain age and gender correlation, and thereby violate the expectations for the various stations in a couple’s life, such as division of labor, finances and so on.

“To see a relationship that operates separately and seemingly as the opposite of all that is apparently quite stressful and upsetting. Perhaps it reminds us that this isn’t what people live, love and sleep together for to begin with, that everything is transient and unknown, that there is no actual end point that we have to reach or even any milestones that we have to go through and check off. Gay and lesbian relationships already undermine those necessary categories. Add to that age differences that are considered anomalous and it goes beyond anything that tries to somehow appear to be a ‘normal’ relationship, a relationship that is as similar as possible to the heterosexual relationship with its rituals and division of roles.”

No happy ending

Cinema has dealt with these issues in the past, but the latest films mark a new direction in dealing with the elderly. “It’s true that only a few of these love stories in the movies reach the finish line – that is, that the movies end with the couple still together after having overcome all the different obstacles,” says Goldman. “Something always has to go wrong: In ‘Harold and Maude,’ Maude dies; in ‘The Graduate,’ Benjamin Braddock marries Mrs. Robinson’s daughter; in ‘Sunset Strip,’ he tries to leave her for a woman his age and is murdered.

“But the happy ending isn’t what matters. Maybe the opposite. In movies that have a happy ending for such a relationship, like ‘The Rebound’ with Catherine Zeta-Jones, they’ll usually make the couple conform to the behavior of a ‘proper couple.’ They’ll have to ‘grow up,’ to find a solution to the issue of children, to fit into the world around them in terms of friends and career. Only then can they get to the end of the movie as a real couple, despite the age difference.”

The tyranny of beauty

Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit, directors of the Israeli film “A Farewell Party,” agree that depicting old people naked is out of the mainstream. “When we’re making movies, we’re not so interested in the popular beauty ideal that you see in commercials and telenovelas and other places,” they say, completing each other’s sentences.

“We’re interested in showing things that are less than perfect. We live in a world that’s controlled by the dictatorship of youthful beauty and the beauty ideal. People glorify youth and artificial models of beauty. Every model you see on a billboard has been photoshopped to remove every little wrinkle. Death isn’t attractive to anyone.”

The poster selected for the movie, featuring all the elderly actors in the nude, is one example of the how the movie relates differently to the aging body. “This was the most powerful image in the whole film, a picture that sums up the whole story because it’s the strongest and most exciting and very sexy. It’s a tribute to life,” they say about that particular scene.

“Aliza Rosen is gorgeous in this scene and the men also come out looking beautiful because we all get old in the end, and there is beauty to that. We try to show this in the movie, because anyone who sees Aliza in the movie thinks that she’s sexy, and it’s interesting to see people who aren’t ashamed of their bodies, even when they get old. When we were preparing to shoot the scene there was tension in the air, at least for us, but then Aliza took off her robe and spared us the timidity. And this was half an hour before filming started.

“When we were writing the script, we came across the story of an old-age home in the Sharon area where the director caught some old men having an orgy and threatened to throw them out of the place. People aren’t willing to accept that old people have sexual impulses, but the elderly are people with needs and desires just like anyone else,” they say.