"The Reader", "The Countess", "Cheri": Older Women, Younger Men By Mihai Chirilov

in 59th Berlinale

by Mihai Chirilov

Why do older women get punished for being in a relationship with younger men? The question might be the engine for just another feminist essay, but we’re talking movies here. It’s true that the OWYM relationships are still kind of disregarded whereas their counterparts, the OMYW ones, seem not to bother anyone. And it’s also true that I cannot think of anyone else except Helen Mirren who could look so comfortable and believable in such a sexual partnership on-screen. But still: why do Kate Winslet in The Reader (Stephen Daldry), Julie Delpy in The Countess (Julie Delpy) and Michelle Pfeiffer in Cheri (Stephen Frears) get punished for having a crazy little thing called love with a kiddo?

Does it really have anything to do with the age gap? Or is it just because all three heroines are, in one way or another, carrying guilt in their bags? After all, we’re talking about an illiterate Nazi prison guard, the infamous Bathory countess and a Colette-penned courtesan. It should be enough to crucify them, without having to crucify the possibility of an OWYM relationship in general. And actually, that’s the engine that makes me wonder where the filmmakers stand on this sensitive topic.

Stephen Daldry’s work takes its inspiration from the celebrated best-seller of the same title written by Bernhard Schlink — but it’s worth mentioning that the movie is achronological whereas the book employs a linear structure. The Reader revolves around a sexual encounter between a woman in her mid-30s and a 15-year-old boy. What you see on-screen — teaching sexuality to a newcomer, so to say — is so pure and passionate that you never question the morality of it. The moral complexity of the film though is given by the way this chapter is connected with her earlier life and his later one — and here lies The Reader’s subtle meaning. It’s not necessarily about the woman’s past as a Nazi empowered guard, neither is it just another Holocaust movie.

Given this sensitive topic, it’s tempting — if not vulgar — to “read” it like that. It’s not even about the woman’s shameful secret and it doesn’t ask the viewer to pity her or forgive her terrible guilt as many horrified reviewers claimed with moral outrage. After all, we empathize with the boy. His gradual and disturbing discoveries are ours. His actions — to remain silent and not to testify in her favor — could have been easily ours in the same circumstances. His sin is certainly not as great as hers, but it’s still a sin, within or without the Holocaust frame, and it could have been ours. We all have secrets that we would go to a shameful extent to hide from the rest of the world. I think he punished her for leaving him heart-broken without a word rather than because he found out later that she was a Nazi monster — that was just the trigger and now he was the one in power. I’m even tempted to believe that he was ashamed for having an affair with an older woman rather than because of her dark past.

Julie Delpy’s third directorial effort is not as subtle, although there are plenty of good ideas and observations floating around. It certainly should have had a sharper director and half of the lines should have been re-written to make them less laughable. Nevertheless, The Countess still emanates fascination in its portrayal of an already fascinating character, the 17th-century aristocrat Countess Erzebet Bathory. Her desperate quest for eternal youth gave birth to several cheap horror adaptations and it’s rewarding to see at least an attempt to give justice to her bloody drama.

Countess Bathory was a powerful woman severely damaged by a short-lived love affair with a younger man. Left alone, she goes frantic and can only suspect that the age difference is to blame. A woman nowadays, obsessed with eternal beauty, would go straight to the first plastic surgeon to make some rejuvenating adjustments. That’s what the countess is sort of thinking too, but the only remedy she can find on the way is the spilled blood of young virgins. Delpy embraces, without any safety net, her dark side for this role, and that’s something to be praised. What puzzles me is that her character comes up with this cruel and escalating cosmetic idea. She’s the one thinking that by looking younger her lover will return. Moreover, in an early scene, when she’s furtively comparing her hand skin with his, there’s already a hint of the frustration in her. She is a monster, for sure, just like the woman in The Reader, but then again there’s a love story that could affect our judgment. One question still remains: why trying to get younger when in an OWYM relationship should be about embracing your age? I wonder what feminists will say about this movie intriguingly made by a woman? For me, it’s feminist by default.

Cheri is even more explicit in its exploration of an OWYM relationship. It’s also simply the best film that Berlinale’s competition had to offer. A tale of doomed love, hugely entertaining, pitch-perfectly acted and executed in all departments (hail to Alexandre Desplat’s voluptuous and romantic score), funny, sensual, cynical, juicy and profoundly moving. It shouldn’t be dismissed just because it’s frivolous, based on Colette’s work and in English. Teaming up with his Dangerous Liaisons screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, Frears delivered one of the most political films in the Berlinale — of course, we’re talking here about the politics of emotions that are even harder to solve than the ones highlighted on CNN News. What starts as a fling between a 19-year-old boy and a courtesan about to retire goes on and on for six passionate years. No one dares to think it’s love, it’s a commodity or a human flaw in a time as gloriously artificial as the Belle Epoque was. He’s too hedonistic and she was used to making love not to be in love for so long. They take their pleasure for granted until the moment he has to obey the rules of society and goes marrying a young girl. That’s the moment when vulnerability breaks in and the L-word starts haunting them both. And that’s the moment when they realize it’s too late to acknowledge it. They may be defeated, each in their own way, but at least they never did any harm to anyone or themselves.