Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Film review: Frank tale of elder love stumbles on routine plot

Ursula Werner and Horst Westphal in Cloud 9.

By John Thomason

[This review has been updated to correct a factual error.] Even as statistic after statistic shows that senior citizens fornicate just about as much as the rest of us, showing sex among elders remains taboo in American film and TV.

If not found under the “educational” auspices of HBO’s Real Sex, senior citizen flesh is usually only depicted in sophomoric comedies for cheap laughs (recall the hospital scene in The Hangover or Andy Griffith’s embarrassing orgasm-face in Play the Game).

Then again, it’s only natural for movie executives to succumb to the knee-jerk “eww” factor in approaching senior sex; it’s not clear the public wants to see it. Sex among old people has been stigmatized by a generation of people who like to think their parents only had sex one time – the day of their conception – and certainly not afterwards. Thinking of 50-year-olds doing dirty deeds is bad enough, but the inhabitants of retirement communities? Why, that’s just wrong.

Countries more mature than this one have gotten past both the prudish censorship hurdles and societal stigmas, if indeed there ever were any. Look at Britain’s The Mother, for instance, or, most recently, German director Andreas Dresen’s Cloud 9.

The film, which opens Friday at the Lake Worth Playhouse, is about an older woman who is cheating on her husband of 30 years with a virile, young 76-year-old stud. Within five minutes, we see seniors tear off each other’s clothes with adolescent fervor, and the sex is presented matter-of-factly, like everything else in this severe chamber drama. In its honesty and veracity, it’s even physically arousing.

But these moments, however much they shatter preconceptions about senior sex in mainstream cinema, belie an otherwise routine melodrama with messages that hardly resonate beyond grass-is-greener clichés.

You’ve seen this story before: Inge (Ursula Werner) leaves her caring and sweet, but boring and predictable, husband Werner (Horst Rehberg) for a new and exciting beau named Karl (Horst Westphal). Like many a poor sap who’s gotten the shaft in many a familiar love triangle, Werner is presented as a fine and devoted husband, the perfect companion to grow old with. Problem is, Inge has already grown old with him, and when she stumbles upon someone new, she finds both liberation and sexual fulfillment through infidelity.

The sex she shares with Werner is passionless missionary doldrums; with Karl, she tries everything, revitalizing old areas of stimulation. Her forbidden life with Karl is skinny-dipping in tranquil lakes; her mandated life with Werner is complaining that he dropped his cigarette ashes in the bowl with the pretzel sticks.

Adopting the rigid Scandinavian minimalism of Scenes From a Marriage and the Dogma 95 movement, Dresen’s aesthetic uses no music but gains powerful traction from incidental noises on the soundtrack, like the metronomic drip of percolating coffee and the piercing chime of a ringtone. The latter effect signals a pointlessly bleak coda that somewhat exploitively tries to turn a garden-variety tale into a morality-laden tragedy.

Dresen runs into a double-edged sword here: By turning these senior citizens’ dilemmas into a traditional formula, it renders their problems universal, thus making us forget the novelty of their ages. Which is great, except that the novelty is what makes Cloud 9 so unique. It’s less a film about a senior citizen lighting her sexual fire anew as it another infidelity story.

There are elements of sexual frankness and cinematic purity in Cloud 9 that we could certainly use more of; too bad they’re housed in a plot that’s old enough for retirement.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

CLOUD 9 (WOLKE NEUN). Director: Andreas Dresen; Cast: Ursula Werner, Horst Rehberg, Horst Westphal; Distributor: Music Box Films; Rating: Not rated; in German with English subtitles; Opens: Friday, Lake Worth Playhouse; opens Saturday, Cinema Paradiso, Fort Lauderdale

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