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Actors James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold in the Canadian film "Still Mine."

Silver hair on the silver screen

Compelling stories about old age are finally making their mark at the movies. But do they always have to be about loss?

By Patricia Clarke

It has been a long, loving marriage. Now in their last years, she is failing. He is trying desperately to care for her, to keep life the same though it can never be so. This is the theme of not one but two recent movies: Still Mine, a Canadian film based on a true story, and Amour, which won an Academy Award for best foreign-language film.

I came out of these movies thinking, at last! Moviemakers have discovered that (a) there are an awful lot of old folk today, (b) they have money, and (c) they won’t spend it seeing car chases or teen angst or smutty-talking cartoon animals, so (d) there’s a market for films about their lives, including (gasp) sex.

But then I thought, wait! These pictures are all about loss. Loss of independence, loss of dignity, loss of usefulness, loss of love. That all happens. But it’s not the whole story, and it’s not everybody’s story. As the poet Tennyson wrote about the aging Ulysses, “Though much is taken, much abides.” Where are the films about that?

Still Mine features actor James Cromwell, 73, as a retired New Brunswick farmer whose wife, played by 70-year-old Geneviève Bujold, is slowly slipping into dementia. He wants to build a new smaller house where it will be easy for him to care for her, where she can enjoy the view over the hillsides. But building a house the way his father taught him, with lumber that he has harvested and cured himself, is against modern regulations, as interpreted by an obsessively strict building inspector. As her care becomes more onerous, their children urge him to put her in a nursing home. But he promised to care for her at home, and he is determined to build the home to do so.

Amour, a French film directed by Michael Haneke, asks what love requires. A long-married couple, played by Emmanuelle Riva, 86, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, 82, live in an elegant Paris apartment surrounded by books and music. Returning home from a concert, they find that someone had tried to break into their apartment; soon, something worse breaks into their lives. Riva’s character gradually declines, in an award-worthy performance, from an active, engaged woman to a helpless, diapered, spoon-fed infant, moaning in apparent pain she can no longer describe. Trintignant’s despair, frustration and bouts of anger are real; those who have suffered this themselves will know. As one reviewer said, it’s old age as a horror story. Why would anybody want to watch it?

For aging as horror, see What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), about two sisters, one crippled physically, the other mentally, preying on each other. Still Mine and Amour, by contrast, are honest and loving portraits of a part of life we prefer to hide in hospitals and nursing homes. In that camp are two other acclaimed films from recent years: Away From Her (2006), about a man coping with his wife’s Alzheimer’s, by Canadian director Sarah Polley; and Iris (2001), about the descent into senility of the English writer Iris Murdoch. In all four of these films, the aging still live comfortably.

Somewhat closer to the story of too many Canadians is Umberto D. Although it was made 60 years ago by Vittorio De Sica, better known for Bicycle Thieves, the plight of seniors with disappearing pensions is not unique to postwar Italy (hello, Nortel). Umberto has no family; his former colleagues avoid him. After working for 30 years, he is trying and failing to live on a pension so squeezed by inflation that he can barely feed his dog, his only friend. “Just a good-for-nothing old man,” he says of himself, and De Sica offers no rebuttal. It’s a great picture, if you can put up with 89 minutes of almost unmitigated gloom.

None of these films, truthful as they are about the losses of growing older, is from the United States, the land of the fountain of youth. American screenwriters seem unable to imagine life after Botox. Instead, what Hollywood offers this year to enrich our understanding of aging is Stand Up Guys: three men, two of them in their 70s, on a Viagra-fuelled rampage of sex, booze and mayhem — probably not what Tennyson had in mind when he described Ulysses drinking “life to the lees.”

There are good things about the images of the elderly in films like Still Mine and Amour. They’re not patronizing. They treat the characters and their disabilities with respect. They’re not stereotypes, like Hollywood’s leering old lecher Jack Nicholson or the simpering man-crazy Betty White of television sitcoms. Indeed, they could be people we know. But the films implicitly equate aging with disability. So do the images of the elderly in television commercials. They need walk-in bathtubs, chairlifts for stairs, the security of adult diapers. Such images subtly influence not only the way others see the elderly but how the elderly see themselves.

These films are also timely. With a tsunami of folk past their best-before dates said to be headed our way, end-of-life care is a public policy issue. Still Mine and Amour implicitly praise care at home by a devoted — and worn-ragged — spouse. Only a schmuck would send a partner to a nursing home.

Happily, there are no candidates for nursing homes in two films from 2012 with positive takes on the golden years. One is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, both in their late 70s and not just coping but thriving, though the film seems to suggest a solution to later-life problems is to outsource them to India. The other is Ping Pong, a documentary from British director Hugh Hartford, about eight players with a combined age of 703 at the over-80 World Table Tennis Championships in Inner Mongolia. “They don’t think of themselves as old,” says Hartford; proving his point is 100-year-old Australian Dorothy de Low. Asked why she is competing when she’s “so old,” de Low seems startled: “I’m not old!”

These are the people with whom “much abides,” those for whom the last years are still more life than loss. They have stories to be told; if only we could see them.

Patricia Clarke is a writer and editor in Toronto.

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