Age-Gap Romances in Film
Communing with the Chasm
Watching the Clint Eastwood film Breezy, starring William Holden (fifty-five) and Kay Lenz (twenty-two), we find ourselves in what we will call an age-gap-romance. Lenz could easily be Holden's daughter and there is a scene more than halfway through the film when Frank (Holden) buys Edith (Lenz) some new clothes in a boutique and the woman behind the counter refers to Edith as his offspring. Such a moment can lead to feelings of flattery, perversity or deflation and in time it will be the latter that becomes the most pronounced as Frank wonders just how this relationship could possibly work. In another age (which could be our own) such an affair would be viewed as so age-inappropriate that the film would point up the situation as tantamount to abuse if it were to be made at all; in the more distant past, it may hardly have been seen as an issue that would need to be addressed as an issue. Indeed in Sabrina, Holden was the man that Audrey Hepburn (ten years his junior) adored before she found love in the arms of his brother Humphrey Bogart (thirty years her senior). But this was a Hepburn thing in the fifties: in Love in the Afternoon she falls for Gary Cooper (twenty-eight years her elder) and in Funny Face, Fred Astaire (thirty-years). And we might think too of Bogart's marriage to Lauren Bacall that also involved a number of forties films: including The Big Sleep and Dark Passage where little is made of the twenty-five years between them. In none of these films, with Hepburn or Bacall, does the age-gap become a central aspect of the narrative. In Breezy it very much does, suggesting that such an age difference can never easily be forgotten. About two-thirds through, after a conversation with a friend, after various comments made by others, and after looks he insists on reading a certain way, Frank ends the affair. Of course we can see this as consistent with any romance that offers a late second act complication all the better to bring the couple together at the end of the third, but we can also acknowledge that the complicated action happens to be the complicated feelings Frank has over dating a woman more than thirty years his junior. There was a sense that the blithe disregard of age in the fifties had become a pressing problem by the seventies, taking into account other example from the period, Last Tango in Paris, Manhattan and Bad Timing. But by the time of Elegy, Fish Tank and An Education it as though the problem has expanded. Of course all our examples are older men and younger women, and there are essays to be written on older women and younger men (The Piano Teacher, Le vent de la nuit, Post-Coitum, Animal Triste, Notes on a Scandal, About and other relatively recent examples), or same-sex age gap romances (with Call me by Your Name a contemporaneous and very popular example).
But what interests us here are male-female age-gap films, and more specifically still the seventies age gap affairs in Breezy, Last Tango in Paris, Manhattan and Bad Timing (released in 1980) to see that the complications the films work though suggest that though the first ends happily, the second tragically, the third ambivalently and the fourth horrifically, they all work through the problem of a large age difference, wishing to address age within an ethical enquiry. In the fifties' films, the age-gap was absorbed into a traditional model that indicated what mattered was the man's capacity to look after a woman, to make her feel special. When in Sabrina, Hepburn's poor title character shifts her affections from Holden's David Larrabee to his brother Linus (Bogart) she doesn't do so as a pragmatic realisation that she will at least marry a Larrabee, it is that she sees Linus could love and look after her as the playboy David would not be able to do so. The film makes nothing of the actual fact that John Williams who plays her father in the film is four years younger than Bogart; what counts is that he has the love, if also the money, to make her life rich. The film is neither cynical nor Freudian, but turn the film around slightly, or turn the society around out of which the film comes, and these questions can easily formulate themselves.
If Breezy can feel like a complication of Sabrina it rests not only on seeing Holden again in an age-gap romance but also in seeing how much more nuanced the film becomes. We say this offering no criticism of Billy Wilder's fine romance, but as though director Clint Eastwood and perhaps more especially the writer Jo Heims, knew that by the early seventies an age-gap romance needed to entertain the complications. One of these rest on Frank's prior life. He is a man in late middle-age with no kids and a messy divorce behind him, in the early stage of the film we discover that his casual lover is about to marry another man, and Frank realises just how much he cares. He's involved in real estate and lives in a fancy house in the California hills, but while life has been good to him, there is no sense in which he has been very good to others. The film ends more optimistically than the complications of the story might justify, but there is complexity in the feelings and even to some degree in the form. As the film shows the burgeoning affair between Frank and Edith so it also registers the dispositional differences between a man from a conservative generation who has made good, and a young woman from the hippie era who just wants to make love. Frank's cynicism can't easily accept Edith's emotional generosity and assumes a quid pro quo scenario where she milks him for his cash.
Partly what makes the film interesting is that Breezy simplifies the characters of Frank and Edith and complicates the various situations surrounding them. Superficially the film could be read as a romance between a tetchy ageing man and a free-loving hippy less than half his age, but what gives the film texture is the surrounding relationships that all have their own realities. Edith's friend is caught in a miserable relationship with someone who expects her to stay at home doing nothing so he knows exactly where she is at all times. The film pays little temporal attention to this couple but manages nevertheless to convey in a few moments the inadequacy of the relationship. Obversely, we see that Frank's ex-lover is in a very loving engagement and in turn marriage with the man she leaves Frank over. When near the end of the film he dies in a car accident she is lucky to survive, Frank goes to the hospital and sits by her side while she tells him how wonderful the few days of marriage with her husband happened to have been. The man had given her so much love, she says, and Frank sees that he can perhaps now give this to Edith if she will have him back. There is also a scene where Edith and Frank are in a restaurant and he sees his ex-wife, as Frank afterwards explains that he and his wife stayed in a marriage that led to hatred replacing affection. Meanwhile, his best friend talks about wishing to feel young again by cheating on his wife if given half a chance. The film fills out the context of Frank and Edith's relationship by paying attention to a number of others, as if to say not what are the moral problems with Frank and Edith getting together, but what the are the ethical possibilities available in two people loving each other. As Frank and Edith lie in bed she tells him they have something many other couples don't have, an affinity that transcends the age-gap.
However, it isn't just that the film opens up the idea of relationships beyond the central couple's own that gives the film a sense of perspective; it is also there on occasion in the form. Though Eastwood during the seventies would usually work with cinematographer Bruce Surtees (on Play Misty For Me, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales), Frank Stanley worked with Eastwood on several films that the star acted in or directed - Magnum Force, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Eiger Sanction. In Breezy he gives to a few of the scenes visual subtlety that sometimes surprises. In one where we see Frank and Edith make love, the sequence is shot in near darkness not at all because it wants to hide the bodies but more that it wants to indicate the emotional immersion the couple share. In a scene at the end of the film when Edith agrees to take Frank back, the film offers a shot from behind Edith rather than a frontal shot of her face, managing to convey in the image a feeling not just or especially of her enthusiasm, but also offering a perspective on that enthusiasm to indicate perhaps that while the film wants the happy ending, we cannot pretend that a wider world can easily be ignored for the immediacy of the couple. We wouldn't want to exaggerate the adventurousness of this shot, but it is the sort of camera positioning Terrence Malick might adopt to indicate that the story is contained by a meaning greater than what it ostensibly conveys. It undercuts the sentimental with just a hint of the metaphysical. It seems to be saying that if we can escape the dictates of temporal prejudice and the obsession with ageing, we can find a higher meaning in love. We should remember that Frank discovers the importance of Eros through Thanatos the death of a man his ex loved gives him the impetus to try and become the man who will love Edith. The film indicates that love needn't conquer all but it must at least conquer the idea that a relationship with a thirty-three year age gap must be an impossible a priori.
Last Tango in Paris is obviously a much more ambitious film than Breezy, far more interested in questioning first principles of physical attraction and addressing problems of the societal. In Bernardo Bertolucci's film, Marlon Brando is a man approaching fifty whose wife has passed away and who himself might seem washed up and wiped out. An American in Paris who has in the past made some sort of living as an actor and journalist but chiefly seems to live off his wife, Paul, as if aware of the futility of that past, seeks an encounter holding him firmly in the present, finding it when he meets an engaged young woman looking for an apartment he looks at too. They keep coming back to this empty space for sex and intimacy, and Bertolucci's slim story is held together by an aesthetic sense that does not prioritise the telling of the tale but instead the brilliance of the non-telling. One way of looking at this non-telling is to think of Brando's claim that Bertolucci, according to an interview quoted by Charles Higham, "appeared to me as a man who is capable of extracting from an actor the best of himself and also of teaching him something new, of tearing away all conventions, of overturning psychologies and renewing them, like a psychoanalyst." (Brando) It is as though the acting doesn't further the story; more that the non-story allows for the development of the intricacies and intimacies of character. "I'll never know who you were" Paul sobs by his dead wife's side, as Bertolucci and Brando ask what it might be to try and know someone cinematically. Thus the importance of Francis Bacon's influence on the film. Opening on Bacon's paintings, Brando encapsulates an aspect of pain we find Bacon's work. If Bacon famously said "champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends", we can easily pun on the idea that Bacon put the pain into painting. When asked by a friend about an anecdote he tells in the film which suggests pain, disgust and hatred, Brando replied, "you've never really hated, have you? When you hate like I do, you have to suffer the pain." (Lives: Marlon Brando) Brando always possessed a strip of Bacon, so to speak, someone who could more than any actor before him (and in this sense Joaquin Phoenix would seem his proper heir) convey in thespian form the painter's ability to register a conflicted present tense. In an important remark, Bacon reckoned "we know that most people, especially artists, have large areas of undisciplined emotion, and I think that abstract artists believe that in these marks that they're making they are catching all these sort of emotions. But I think that, caught in that way, they are too weak to convey anything. I think that great art is deeply ordered." (Interviews with Francis Bacon). But the operative word here would seem to be deep: how does an artist elicit the depth of that undisciplined emotion and does a certain type of discipline consequently release it?
Bertolucci's film may seem on the level of story an undisciplined, plotless account of two people hanging out in an empty Parisian flat. Yet if Bertolucci's film is the most complex of age-gap relationship films (so much so that to call it an age-gap romance film somehow demeans it) it rests on the properties of the image over the demands of the story. If we have noticed that there are a couple of moments in Breezy that indicate Eastwood and his crew wanted to give a context to the film that would show more than just the complications of the affair, by utilising the occasional shot that gives us a context upon it, Bertolucci's very purpose is to find in the image this context. When Paul talks about his childhood the play of light on his face moves him back and forth into shadow as the light from the window coming in changes. When Paul moves around the apartment the camera often generates 'unbelievable' tracking shots as Paul moves from one room to another while Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro's camera seems to move through walls. The film's use of colour is both very deliberate and realistic at the same time: an artistic construction that wants to capture a deeper sense of reality. As Storaro says, when he went to Paris in winter he found the natural light was so low that the city compensates with an astonishing amount of artificial light. "The conflict between these two energies (natural and artificial) gave me the different wavelength or vibration, the different grade of Kelvin [the colour temperature of light sources] that can be represented, the different colour that you can take." He decided this was important in telling a story about the city, and decided on orange. "We started to paint the empty apartment orange; we started to use the winter sun, which was very low, during the daytime. The light of the sun gave us very warm tones. And the colour of the artificial light next to the daylight suggested this colour too." For Storaro orange is "the colour of the passion, of the emotion." (Masters of Light)
The artificiality of the circumstances needn't be seen as a mannerist tendency on Bertolucci and Storaro's part (though maybe it shouldn't be ignored either); more that the apartment becomes an interesting example of what Foucualt would call a heterotopia, accepting aspects of Foucault's definition when he says: "the heterotopia is at its most effective when it distorts the conventional experience of time" and that "heterotopias feature systems of opening and closing that isolate them from the space surrounding them." ('Of Other Places') Near the end of the film, Paul declares his love for Jeanne (Maria Schneider) and says they should live together though she's engaged to a young director closer to her own age. Where will we live, "in your flophouse?" she asks. "What the hell difference does it make if I have a flophouse or hotel or a castle? I love you...." But perhaps location matters more than most as the whole affair has taken place in the most abstract of environments: an empty apartment that neither of them owns and that Brando merely rents. The relationship is predicated on chance and is held together by a temporary moment if and when the flat is sold what will keep these two strangers together, two people who have eschewed names and social identities no matter if a bond develops?
The film is about a lot more than an age gap but the discrepancy in age isn't irrelevant. Paul has years of useless experience; Jeanne years of possibility. His pessimism has been lived; her chic radicalism she can forego the moment they no longer have access to the flat. Unlike in Breezy, Paul's declaration of love is contrary to what Jeanne wants to hear. Robert Phillip Kolker notes, while the apartment "was all along an imaginary space, with golden light and strange, draped objects, guarded over by a concierge who laughed maniacally...back in the world with Jeanne, Paul becomes reinfected by the romantic disease he attempted to cure in the quarantine the apartment offered." (The Altering Eye) Paul's declaration also meets with his limitations what can he really offer? While many of the other figures in age-gap romances from Sabrina to Breezy, Paul is down at heel and desperate once seen beyond the confines of the apartment's walls. Kolker says that Paul "would like to see himself as the atom smasher of the nuclear family, breaking its repressiveness and sanctified hypocrisy", but he is also a powerless figure in a capitalist world where money counts. While Breezy acknowledges this fact too, it breezily makes Edith so indifferent to status and angelic in nature that the question needn't come up. Certainly along the way Frank wonders whether she is trying to take advantage of him but central to the love that develops is how ingenuous she happens to be.
If fifties films like Sabrina, Funny Face and Love in the Afternoon indicate that there isn't much of a problem with age-gap romances, Breezy sees that there can be and then perhaps too neatly resolves the film through making Edith so benign that many of the problems that could come up don't. Her attitude is that love conquers all and that the all has little to do with it. The all in this instance would be Frank's comfortable, bourgeois and middle-aged lifestyle. By showing Paul a financial failure, Last Tango in Paris makes the question of money and love more complicated. When people discuss their future together they might not want money to be a factor, but that promising future is likely to incorporate at least a modest amount of it. Denis De Rougemont, looking at marriage in Passion and Society, says: there "is a crude delusion on the part of common sense. You may try as hard as you like to put all the probabilities at the outset in your own favour...but you will never be able to foresee how you are going to develop, still less how the wife or husband you choose is going to, and still less again how the two of you together are going to." De Rougement is correct in assuming that a marriage based on cold calculation is unlikely to be successful, but the warm feelings that are generated and called love, often contain within them 'warm calculations' the sort of decisions that aren't based on money as such but definitely on what money brings. An Atlantic article by Aida Harvey Wingfield notes that a "tendency for people to marry people like themselves extends to the realm of income, educational level, and occupation which means richer people marry those with similar levels of wealth and income." ('The Unique Tensions of Couples Who Marry Across Classes). Most aren't making calculated decisions we can assume, believing that they really do love the person they will marry, yet warm calculation allows the pragmatic thinking to be buried under no less genuine feeling. Yet remove or expose that underlying calculation and we have Jeanne's remark about the flophouse. When Frank declares his love for Edith at the end of Breezy, her reply might have been: "and where are we going to live, in your luxurious home in the Hollywood Hills?" Warm calculation indeed.
Our purpose here isn't at all to be cynical, but to see in Last Tango in Paris, amidst all the scandals that now engulf it, the myths that surround it, an exploration of an economic fact. Paul cannot afford to sustain the relationship while Frank in Breezy happens to be able to do so with ease. Frank has the good life and wants, finally, to share it. Paul doesn't and realises he has so little to offer as the film suggests that while money can't buy you love it might be a very good way to sustain it once it happens to be there. The person who feels no love but can see a future with someone who has cash is a cynic; a person who feels the love but can't see a future except as one of impoverishment is pragmatic. Edith can share Frank's wealth even if that isn't what she likes most about him. Jeanne cannot because there is no wealth to be had. Paul is in this sense an especially 'pathetic' character because unlike a man starting out (perhaps a Gatsbyesque figure determined to make his fortune to win the girl), Paul has so much experience in life but so little financial accumulation to match that experience. It is as cruel and telling a line as we are likely to find in an age-gap romance: "Where are we going to live, your flophouse?"
In Manhattan, Issac is closer to Frank's wealth rather than Paul's impoverishment. But he quits a comedy TV show to write a book and moves from an elegant duplex to a much smaller, one-floor apartment. During this period he is still in a relationship with the seventeen-year-old Tracy, but there is no sense the break up has anything to do with money, even if Isaac has alimony to pay and will have to continue giving it though he foregoes his high-paying employment. Nevertheless, the first few scenes with Tracy show how comfortably off Isaac happens to be, and no doubt part of Isaac's appeal to the very smart but still impressionable Tracy is the good life he promises. At the beginning of the film they are eating in Elaine's restaurant, not long after they go to see an exhibition in MOMA, and after that are seen shopping in Zabar's, a gourmet deli. Isaac tells Tracy the relationship is over in Empire diner. A fruit salad in Empire Diner now costs twelve dollars. Elaine's was a celebrity hang-out before closing in 2011, while a trip to MOMA now costs twenty-five dollars. Our point isn't at all that Tracy is with Isaac for his money. Indeed she seems as innocent and wise as Edith, as indifferent to materialism and astute to feeling as our heroine in Breezy. Nevertheless, the feelings she has for Isaac are augmented in environments where money is necessary. Last Tango in Paris (no matter if the apartment he temporarily rents is in the salubrious 16th arrondissement) wonders what happens to the intimate life when it has no outlet and where a lack of money means that the feelings can't go anywhere. On set, on Bertolucci's next film, the Marxist epic 1900, Gideon Bachmann notes that the reputed budget of six and a half million dollars would buy "14, 278,000 loaves of bread" (Sight and Sound) as he wonders just how egalitarian the director really wishes to be. But Last Tango in Paris is no less problematically political as it blends luxury with poverty, with the apartment indicating heterotopic comfort within the four walls but where the wolf is indeed at the door.
The initial apartment in Manhattan is undeniably impressive, and much is made of the inadequacy of the one Isaac ends up renting. But Isaac (Woody Allen) is downsizing, not down on his luck; he is still the comfortably off man in early middle-age who can seduce with a bit of cash even it would be utterly unfair to claim that is why Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) is hanging around. As she says of her previous boyfriends, "they were really immature boys. They were nothing like you...I think I am in love with you." Isaac tells her to go easy, saying she will meet many men in her life. She should just enjoy what they have and what he can provide as he jokes about "my wry sense of humour and my devastating sexual technique." Plenty critics have come out against Manhattan, especially since the MeToo Movement and claims again made by Woody Allen's daughter Dylan Farrow. As Steven Kurutz says in a useful article about the way the film has been perceived over the years: "since the MeToo movement his once celebrated film Manhattan has emerged as the archetypal work of male chauvinist art, a byword, for some, for everything that's wrong with Hollywood and the patriarchy." (New York Times) Yet Manhattan is not a paean to age-gap relationships but an ironic account of what an adult happens to be as Hemingway's Tracy shows often more maturity towards her feelings than the ostensible adults within the film played by Allen, Diane Keaton and Michael Murphy. Hemingway towers over Allen as they walk along the streets and anyone who knows anything about comedic juxtaposition is aware that height hardly functions neutrally in the genre. Indeed, later in the film, when Isaac and Mary [Keaton] are together, her ex Jeremiah (Wallace Shawn) shows up in a boutique and afterwards Isaac is amazed at how small he happens to be. Mary's sold him as a great ladies' man who opened her up sexually, and all Isaac sees is a little guy even he looms over. If Issac and Tracy look like a mismatched couple this isn't just because she is seventeen and he is forty-two, but also that he is several inches shorter in a film that isn't impervious to the comedy of height differentials in the most vertical city in the world.
Manhattan explores the comedic in many manifestations without quite itself being a comedy. Unlike Love and Death, or even Annie Hall, Manhattan seeks an ironic and mildly acerbic approach to love and friendship in seventies New York and part of that emotional musical chairs is exploring an age gap-relationship. Murphy's Yale and his wife are still childless, Isaac's son lives with his ex-wife and her girlfriend, and when Tracy comments on dating boys her own age it just seems far too conventional for the sort of milieu she is interested in exploring. The film is a mature account of the sexual revolution in both senses of the term. In the first instance, it shows how the changes in society's perceptions of copulating and coupling have created a new world of values the characters are trying to deal with. In the second instance, it possesses a maturity in the means by which it explores this milieu. It neither approves not disapproves of it but finds a way to film the milieu in a manner that enquires into it. Gordon Willis's camerawork constantly finds perspectives on events rather than merely filming the comedic drama. It might take the form of splitting the frame in two by filming Issac lying on the bed in one shot with the wall taking up the right-hand half of the frame and then showing Keaton typing in the room next door with the wall taking up the left-hand side. Or it might be evident in car scenes where the characters are talking but the camera remains at a distance from the car. Throughout, the film finds the means by which to frame the lives of the characters; refusing judgement but hardly falling into their values either. To focus too much on the age gap between Isaac and Tracy would be paying attention to only one aspect of the film and also ignoring the degree to which the film is an inquiry into values rather than a film confirming a particular set of them. These are messed up characters and Tracy the least messed up perhaps because she remains young and half-outside the world in which she finds herself moving. It is after all Tracy who will escape Manhattan at the end of the film by going off to London.
If age-gap relationship films of the fifties could be presented so innocuously that even now, in these morally assertive times, few seem to be exposing Audrey Hepburn's movies, while works like Last Tango in Paris and Manhattan are attacked, is this a failure of the critical faculty? In other words, Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon and Funny Face don't really see a problem and thus neither does the viewer. In Last Tango in Paris and Manhattan the films themselves acknowledge a problem and they're thus open to condemnation. All the commentator has to do in the latter instance is take further the critique already noted in the film. They read in it an aspect of what has been deliberately critiqued and then 'expose' and condemn it. To explain this a little further let us look again at Last Tango in Paris and Manhattan from the point of view of what in literary theory is called the intentional fallacy. Speaking of Last Tango in Paris in the New Yorker, in 2018, Richard Brody reckoned, "for a while it won him [Bertolucci acclaim]; in the light of history, it has rightfully brought him infamy." Claire Dederer says: "I'm just acknowledging the realities of the situation: the film Manhattan is disrupted by our knowledge of Soon Yi." (Paris Review) Some of the articles attacking Last Tango in Paris and Manhattan aren't entirely unsubtle accounts, including Dederer's, but when Dederer found herself in discussion with various male friends they would say to her "you must judge Manhattan on its aesthetics", Dederer wasn't so sure, and there is nothing wrong in this reservation just as there is something wrong in the male friend's assertion. To judge a book only on its aesthetic aspect and to ignore its social and ethical implications can seem as naive as looking only at the social and ethical and insisting a work is without merit because they find it morally objectionable the dismissal of Last Tango in Paris a case in point. But equally Last Tango in Paris wasn't just a formal work that wanted to be looked at as if some abstract entity. It wanted to impact on the world of cinema as a social and ethical intrusion into it. Tanya Krzywinska isn't wrong when she says films like "Romance, Ai no Corrida and Last Tango in Paris draw on the values of art cinema in their use of classical forms of composition, their contemplation of the human condition and their markedly beautiful colour schemes." But if the first and third aspect of her claim is valid to a work that must be "judged on its aesthetic", the second indicates a concern and interest in the humanly ethical. When the film came out what people played up was the liberating force of the work "realism with the terror of actual experience still alive on the screen" Pauline Kael commented, " that's what Bertolucci and Brando achieve." (New Yorker) But if Kael admired the film for pushing the envelope, Brody, writing almost fifty years later for the same magazine, reckons things should be pushed back into the envelope as he sees the exploitation of Schneider more than he cares for the liberation of Brando and Bertolucci. We can explore the exploitation without ignoring the aesthetic, and vice versa - the point is to try and understand the work in its manifold complexity. When the male friend tells Dederer to focus on the aesthetic, that manifold complexity is getting ignored.
Equally, Allen is flirting with controversy by showing a 42-year-old man having an affair with a 17-year-old High school student, and to ignore this aspect would be to ignore both a tension within the film and the irony involved in its narration. Dererer interestingly differentiates between Heidegger's Dasein and Vorhandensein. Dasein is aware of its own mortality, aware of itself as a consciousness. Vorhandensein isn't aware in the same way it is closer to an object, perhaps an animal. As Heidegger says, "Death is a possibility-of-Being which Dasein itself has to take over in every case. With death, Dasein stands before itself in its own most potentiality-for-being." (Being and Time) It might be fair to say that Tracy is less aware of impending death than the others, less able to see perhaps, in common parlance, that she is wasting her time on Isaac. But to suggest Tracy lacks awareness indicates a failure to understand the film as a work. By this, we don't just mean its aesthetic concerning some abstract notion of lighting, staging and framing, but in its very narration in the manner in which the characters exist in this filmic world. Tracy may be more straightforward than the other characters but is this because she lacks consciousness or because she has the necessary amount of it to look after herself and to show interest in others as she suggests that Yale seems really keen on Mary? At the end of the film, she is determined to go to London and explains precisely why, and why Isaac isn't being fair turning up just as she is about to leave. Dererer admits that this young woman he is "fucking" is not a "nitwit", but in the process arrives at a condescension far greater than that practised by Allen in the film. To 'get' Manhattan we have to accept that maybe Tracy and Isaac are a really good match but Isaac's indecision, Tracy's youthfulness, and society's disapproval (Mary speaking about Tracy as "the little girl") leaves him betraying and probably losing a woman he loves. One might not like that idea (the notion that there can be a deep love between a 17-year-old and 42-year-old) but that is part of the flirtation with controversy Allen is practising. To deny that provocation by insisting we concentrate on the art is to do Manhattan an injustice perhaps less great than that practised by many who want to dismiss the film because of its content, but an injustice nevertheless.
One of our main points in this essay is to indicate that films of the seventies were seeking out the complexity of their given situations without feeling obliged to say that age-gap romances are so acceptable that no questions need to be asked (more or less the Hepburn films' approach and evident also in the Bogart/Bacall movies), or are so objectionable as to be clearly exploitative (evident in very different ways in the mediocre An Education and the vastly superior Fish Tank). We're not interested in excusing the dubious morality while admiring the aesthetics, but seeing partly how the ethical and the aesthetic are interlinked in works that are pushing both form and feeling: an aesthetic ethics. Few films pushed this farther than Bad Timing. Made in 1979 and first released in February 1980 at the Berlin film festival, it was described by one unnamed executive as "a sick film made by sick people for sick audiences." Manhattan looks wholesome next to Nicolas Roeg's film, a fragmented tale of bad timing indeed a relationship between a woman in her early twenties, Milena and a man in his late-thirties, Alex. The age-gap isn't so enormous but there is also Milena's husband, (played by the fifty-eight year-old Denholm Elliott), while the actress playing Milena, Theresa Russell, was seeing the film's director, who was in his early fifties. Yet the film is most problematic because of the way it plays out a relatively modest age-gap with the maximum amount of power imbalance. One needn't side with one character over the other to know that for Milena Alex is a monstrous figure, a controlling psychoanalyst determined to read her mind and control her movements and all for her own good. After all, Milena looks like a woman who needs someone to keep her balanced, but Alex's problem, unlike her husband's, is that he cannot love her more than he loves his own dignity. Milena's husband knows that anyone incapable of this will not be of any help to the young woman.
While Last Tango in Paris invokes Bacon's art in the opening titles of the film, Bad Timing gives us the work of Klimt as the couple wander round a museum in Vienna. Like Paul in Bertolucci's film, they are Americans in a foreign city, but Roeg fills out the Austrian capital and beyond far more than Bertolucci fills out Paris. Roeg doesn't create a heterotopic claustrophobia but a world that constantly opens up to show the enormous damage a bad relationship can do. If Bertolucci shows his characters generally trying to survive in the confines of an apartment, Roeg indicates that travel cannot save an affair that is doomed. At one moment Alex and Milena go to Morocco and sitting on the terrace of a cafe in the huge square in Marrakech Alex announces he wishes to return to New York and marry Milena. Milena doesn't so much reject his suggestion; she just wants to live in the moment as she tells him to forget about everything else and enjoy the heat, sounds and smells that Roeg makes vivid to us as viewers. There Alex happens to be with Milena on a dream holiday and he keeps dragging her back to a reality principle that invokes work and two other cities Vienna which he wishes to leave and New York to which he wants to return. But if Milena might appear the more sympathetic character here, Roeg's technique would seem closer to Alex's thinking. The film is itself constantly moving from one thing to another, from one time frame to another, from one location to another, as if seeking myriad ways in which to insist that the relationship is doomed. As it shows a detective investigating whether Alex took advantage of Milena in a comatose state at the end of their relationship, so Roeg offers editing strategies that keep the film in a constant state of temporal disarray all the better to echo the affair's messiness. Even in the Marrakech scene, there are eight cutaways to the performers in the square before the film cuts to the plane that will take them back to Austria. On the plane the film shows Milena looking at a broken memento she has taken back from the trip but as the camera zooms in and we might expect a flashback to where she came across it, Roeg cuts to Alex on the plane looking up as the film then cuts to the detective investigating the case. Roeg's approach has always lent itself to the temporally multiple over the temporally predictable. One scene doesn't obviously follow another in Roeg's work and this is partly why (in Performance, Don't Look Now and others) we can't guess the next shot let alone the next scene. Indeed part of the offensiveness of the film rests on its editing. A quarter of the way through the film, Bad Timing cuts between Alex and Milena making love to Milena in the hospital having a tracheostomy. As the film punningly and horribly cuts between the two situations so we see at one moment Alex, his arms raised standing over Milena's body a body in coitus but also on an operating table. The age gap romance shows a crisis in the form, as if it needs to indicate the impossibility of the affair in the rupture of its cutting.
Yet what we see in a very minor way in Breezy and a significant way in Last Tango in Paris, Manhattan and Bad Timing is the importance of finding a form to reflect a feeling. It would be too easy to say that these unconventional romances need an unconventional means by which to reflect the societally unacceptable but there is also some truth in it too. If the fifties films showed no crisis in the situation they also indicated no crisis in the form. In this sense, Breezy is still closer to the fifties movies, a work that doesn't generally push very hard into the form and also resolves the affair between Frank and Edith without too many complications. The late second act breaking-up and end of the third act getting back together is a common device in a romantic comedy. But the other three films of the decade push hard into the form even if Manhattan does so more 'elegantly' than either Last Tango in Paris or Bad Timing. Manhattan emphasises the form 'brilliantly' rather calling it into question, as the camera placements are often innovative and surprising but never shocking or alienating. When we see Tracy and Isaac in Isaac's duplex apartment early on the lighting is mainly on Tracy as she sits on the couch and Isaac as he comes down the stairs the rest of the room in relative darkness. A little later, when Tracy, Isaac, Mary and Yale walk along the New York street the shot is a single take. Every shot in Manhattan feels thought-through and directorially expressive, but it doesn't feel distanciating. Allen and Willis ask us to witness the lives at the remove brilliant form demands, but not a removal that at any moment need call into question the diegesis. One feels watching Manhattan that a hundred years of cinematic innovation has found its way into the possibilities available to the film, but any outrage a viewer feels is likely to remain within the confines of the diegesis, no matter the widescreen, monochrome Allen uses rare indeed in a modern comedy. It might be Manhattan's very elegance, its wonderful cinematic nonchalance that the male friend is addressing when Dererer has a chat with him over the film.
However, Last Tango and Paris and Bad Timing are seeking new forms to messy feelings. It would be wrong to say the films aren't elegant works, but their elegance seems secondary to what we might call an absorptive element to the image. While Allen namechecks numerous artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers in Manhattan, they remain evident chiefly in the content rather than the form, excepting George Gershwin's music that is deployed, which nevertheless feels consistent with the film's images. In Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci is frequently finding a disjunctive correlative to the Bacon images he introduces us to and also gives free play to his composer Gato Barbieri, a free form jazz tenor sax player. In Bad Timing, Roeg works similarly with Klimt, while utilising Tom Waits, Billie Holliday, the Who, Pachelbel and others on the soundtrack. There are also numerous literary, psychoanalytic and philosophical references within the film too, from Freud to Paul Bowles. If Breezy is a fine, conventional work and Manhattan conjunctively brilliant, Last Tango in Paris and Bad Timing are disjunctively determined to generate a new aesthetic approach to the question of what a relationship happens to be. The age-gap element is absorbed into an ontological question which also incorporates in complicated ways other artworks. While Breezy works off strong oppositions (moneyed Frank against poor Edith; conservatively-minded versus hippy-oriented, luxuriously homed versus homeless), and arrives at the moving yet conventional acceptance that love can conquer all, no matter the differences, Last Tango in Paris and even more Bad Timing create a muddy set of complications that needs to be explored with the aid not of given oppositions, but messy emotional and intertextual intricacies. When Bad Timing ends to the sounds of Billy Holliday singing the same old story about love, Roeg's point is that it hasn't been the same old one but an exceptional story indeed. The constant references to Freud, to Klimt, to Bowles and others don't work as casual homages to other works, as Allen's so brilliantly do, but instead create a collagist sense of chaos indicating artworks are constant attempts to understand this 'same old story', to comprehend the complexities involved in a story abut a "boy and a girl". For Roeg, and his screenwriter Yale Udoff, the age gap between Milena and Alex is a secondary issue (which is why it doesn't focus much on the still greater age-gap between Milena and her husband), but it is the mosaic of emotions generated in any intense encounter that matter. In turn, Roeg asks us to encounter the artworks within the film and on the soundtrack as contributory attempts to comprehend feeling. When we see at the beginning of Bad Timing Milena and Alex wandering around the gallery we wonder what will bring these two characters together, how significant will the Klimt works be to our understanding of the story, what Waits' song means as it offers "an invitation to the blues' and has lyrics invoking other movie stars, James Cagney and Rita Hayworth. (Both of whom are also invoked in Last Tango in Paris) Equally, if a little less densely, when we see the two Bacon paintings, over the credits in Bertolucci's film, with Barberi's score anticipating an emotion we cannot yet comprehend, Bertolucci offers as well an invitation to the blues, asks us to see the blues as a complicated process of understanding our emotional existence without assuming the filmmaker will sort those feelings out for us. The two Bacon paintings are Portrait of Lucian Freud and Study for Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne. Commentators have noted that the clothing Brando and Schneider wear resembles the garb of the figures in the paintings: reckoning "the first image depicts a man wearing white underclothes lying on a red couch. In the second painting, a woman in a white coat and brown skirt is seated in a chair" as Bertolucci "used these portraits as visual counterpoints to his two main characters..." (Italian.vassar.edu) But more interesting still is Bertolucci saying he took Brando to see a Bacon exhibition and showing him the two paintings said: "well I want you to recreate that same intense pain. That was virtually the only direction I gave him on the film." (Eduardoangel.com)Bertolucci may have wanted to capture the Baconesque in image replication, in acknowledging the paintings in the work he made, but even more important was to find in Brando the sensibility that would bring out the raw slab of humanity Bacon's work invokes.
In Last Tango in Paris there is a constant sense of enquiry as form, with Bertolucci's story contained by an aesthetic which insists the film is framed. There are numerous shots that echo the diptych approach Bacon utilised without merely aping it as homage. There is the moment when the concierge shouts after Jeanne; another when Paul is in the hotel with his late wife's mother; another when Jeanne first goes into the bathroom and urinates. Frequently the films plays up what we don't initially see in the scene either because the image is too dark or the objects in the frame hide what else is there. When Jeanne first enters the dark apartment she doesn't notice Paul against the wall and nor do we. Later, we don't see Jeanne crouching against the wall at the entrance of the building because of the lift. As Paul goes up in the lift so Jeanne appears in the frame. Throughout, the film insists in asking us to search the frame rather than find the story, as though the story is contained by its own formal limits just as Paul tries to contain the relationship within the confines of the apartment.
In both Bad Timing and Last Tango in Paris, the directors suggest that the age-gap is secondary to an ontological gap between one human being and another, using other artworks not so much to close that gap as to show how it has been there before and will continue afterwards. While Breezy complicates the fifties age-gap romance it also resolves it, seeing in Frank a misguided sense of mistrust that needs to be overcome. But Roeg and Bertolucci's films are very far away from resolving anything. One reason they offer the accumulatively cultural is as if to acknowledge there is nothing new in the irresolution of human relationships, but that they must acknowledge the history of that irresolution. An age-gap doesn't create the problem, it is just a very good way of acknowledging it. Fifties cinema could create an offscreen absurdity out of masking biographical reality. Famously North by Northwest casts Jessie Royce Landis as Cary Grant's mother even though she was only eight years his senior, while the love interest is played by Eva Marie Saint, twenty years Grant's junior. If Breezy opens up the problem eventually to close it down, for Hitchcock there would be no problem at all. Hitchcock creates a narrative problem between the couple as Thornhill and Saint need to find out whether they can trust each other, with Thornhill trying to prove his innocence and Saint proving she is trustworthy. We needn't go into the intricacies of the plot; what matters is that the film doesn't generate any pressing questions about being and relationships.
Bad Timing does exactly that even if it has elements that could lend itself to being the very spy thriller North By Northwest exemplifies. In one scene in the film, Alex introduces us to various famous spies and includes Freud in the mix. At one point, Alex wonders whether the border crossings Milena makes visiting her ex-husband in Prague might indicate that she is a cold war spy, while in turn Harvey Keitel is the Austrian detective investigating what happened between Alex and Milena. Yet the potentially dense plot Bad Timing could have generated becomes irrelevant next to the emotional chaos a couple can create all on their own. To think of North by Northwest side by side with Bad Timing indicates just how messy age-gap romances had become.
If numerous fifties films made the gap irrelevant, and films like Bad Timing and Last Tango in Paris made the gap open up a still greater one between beings themselves, have films like Pretty Woman, Damage, Adrian Lyne's Lolita, Elegy, An Education and Fish Tank simplified the problem as a problem? We are covering a broad period of time here from 1990 to 2010 and while there are a lot of ostensible similarities between An Education and Fish Tank in terms of their story, Elegy and Pretty Woman are quite different again. In Elegy, taken from Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, a professor now in his sixties continues his habit of each year seducing a student at the end of term, but this time the lover is a little older than the others (but still many years younger than him) and a combination of impending mortality and emotional vulnerability leads to a devastating loss when David (Ben Kingsley) loses Consuela (Penelope Cruz), when she refuses to continue the affair after one let-down too many. By the conclusion, the film hinges on the irony of old age versus youthfulness on the one hand, but good health versus ill luck on the other as Consuela comes back into his life and informs him she has a lump in her breast. The film points up David's vain insecurities in a work that recognises the error of David's ways in the biological error that leaves Consuela with cancer. Directed by a woman from a very masculine book, Isabelle Coixet's film (written by Nicholas Meyer, who also adapted Roth's The Human Stain), emphasises the vulnerability and downplays the masculinity. If the first section of Roth's book very much implicates us in David's mindset, as he lays out his seduction methods, Coixet instead is keener to show how fragile people are. The age-gap romance isn't impossible; it is instead very possible indeed but precarious as a future isn't given to any of us young or old. Elegy isn't knotty or complicated, doesn't open up the breach of being as Last Tango in Paris and Bad Timing do, and its impeccable small-scale quality can seem close to conservatism.
Yet this is a very different conservatism from that practised by Pretty Woman, which indicates that a young woman in need of a fortune must surely be in want of a rich husband. The movie's purpose is to hide this fact, yet if we make Richard Gere poor it doesn't really work as the film returns us just a little to the principles of the comfortable provider we see so centrally in the fifties examples and especially Sabrina a film that so easily could have been about a woman on the make had she not been played by Audrey Hepburn. We might just say this was careful casting but it was as though Billy Wilder could see in the Hepburn persona someone who could easily accept love over money that the film could only be as good as the thought experiment which would allow us to imagine Hepburn marrying someone without a fortune no matter her liking for nice things. Julia Roberts is much more pushy a figure than Hepburn (in Notting Hill, Erin Brokovich and The Runaway Bride) and Anthony Lane sums up Pretty Woman pretty well. "The blow job that Vivian, Roberts's character, administers to a dog-tired Richard Gere feels like the last gasp of Reaganomics. With this movie, the eighties delivered a bitter, all but unanswerable slap to the mantras of the sixties: money, contrary to what Paul McCartney had informed us, could buy you love." (New Yorker)
But if Pretty Woman not so much normalises but materialises makes materialistic the age-gap romance, both An Education and Fish Tank abnormalize it as we have seen a general shift from normalisation (in the fifties) to problematisation (in the seventies) to demonisation (more recently). One says this without drawing an aesthetic equivalence. An Education is a very mediocre piece of cinematic compromise, directed by Dane Lone Scherfig, from the novel by Lynn Barber and with a script by Nick Hornby, the film shows a bright teenager falling for a chancer (Peter Sarsgaard) before eventually seeing the error of her ways in the numerous failings of his personality, and finally accepts that he is of no use when he lets her down and disappears from her life. But all is well as she eventually gets into Oxford. The film is a tale of youthful enthusiasm coming up against jaundiced, manipulative maturity, but Jenny (Carey Mulligan) has a good enough time as the film convinces us that her future is safe even if she may have been a bit stupid. The film is as safe in its production aspect as it is in its narrative approach. The age gap between Mulligan and Sarsgaard is only thirteen years and Mulligan was twenty-four playing seventeen. We wouldn't at all wish to say that exploitation in cinema is fine and well, and there are undeniably problems in different ways in the production histories of Last Tango in Paris and Manhattan. But An Education plays so safe, is so sure of its values, that the film generates no tension in the age-gap because there is nothing to indicate that there is much of a problem at all. The film's interest in verisimilitude is so secondary to its determination to follow through on a value system: older man bad; Oxford good. We simplify for effect, but it is a simplification in keeping with the film itself. By contrast, Fish Tank takes far more risks, a British film not in the tradition of quality and production values, but miserabilism and social values. Again the age gap isn't so great - fourteen years between the actors Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbinder, but Arnold is a director who allows the tensions of the world into the diegesis that she films, evident in Jarvis's very casting. She was sixteen at the time and the casting director discovered her yelling at her boyfriend "across opposite platforms of Tilbury station in Essex" The interviewer Maddy Costa says: "there is much about her that might provoke middle-class snobbery: her typically estuary disregard for grammar, for instance, all double negatives and misused verbs. Her rambunctious behaviour on the day she was discovered. Her questionable career choices: to leave school at 16; to have a baby at 17." (Guardian) Whatever we make of Costa's comments we can see that Fish Tank is interested in finding in the actress the character, and not just imposing an actress on a characterisation. As Arnold says, "when people ask me where does your inspiration come from, I would say absolutely my first answer is life." (Filmmaker Magazine) An Education has little interest in life but actually in what its title indicates: it is interested in education as teenage Jenny learns the error of her ways and the film concludes with strong moral point. In some ways Fish Tank, which also has teen Mia (Jarvis) embarking on an affair with an older man (Michael Fassbender) ends similarly: both films show that they are family men living lies. But Fish Tank cannot offer so easily an education as the title indicates life can seem more like the tank of its title, an enclosed environment where its working-class characters are unlikely to find their way out of the milieu they have been plonked within. While both films acknowledge the 'abnormal' nature of affairs with older men, Fish Tank illustrates a broader unhappiness that no plot twist can especially exacerbate. Fish Tank allows the age-gap romance to go full circle from the dreamlike to the lifelike, from Hollywood fantasy to British social realism. Hepburn's fifties films are astonishingly believable she convinces us that love is far more important than money and that she is all but blind to men who aren't only twice her age but also quite close to the grave: Bogart died three years after making Sabrina; Cooper four years after Love in the Afternoon. They could be seen as old men, no matter if they died relatively young. But what is just beyond the diegesis in Fish Tank is that a bit of fantasy with an older man is respite to a real life that doesn't have much hope in it. Dreams die, not people, in such an instance.
Fish Tank is a good enough film but we are inclined to find the masterpieces in Last Tango in Paris, Manhattan and Bad Timing, in films that seem to complicate the question to such a degree that the age-gap issues fall away next to the complexity of the material more generally. To indicate that two people are unsuited because there are too many years between them can appear like a facile way in which to resolve a crisis that is ontological as readily as social, that is about the difficulty of not only knowing the world but knowing very little about a person we ostensibly love and who would surely know more about us than anybody else. But as Paul says in Last Tango in Paris, sitting beside his wife as she lies dead awaiting burial: "even if a husband had two hundred years, he would never understand his wife's true nature." In Manhattan, more comedically, Isaac's wife's true nature leads her to write a book detailing numerous horrible aspects about Isaac's behaviour while she now lives with her lesbian lover. In Bad Timing, Alex doesn't initially know very much about Milena but determines to find out as he becomes another voyeur to put alongside Freud and co. By the end of the film, he will be making love to the comatose ex in a terrible moment that isn't too far removed from Paul yelling at his wife's corpse. Both are men realising that they cannot know the other whose presence was supposed to remove the alienation of their being, and instead exacerbated it.
In this sense, the operative word in our exploration of age-gap romances hasn't been age but the gap the means by which films have shown its presence or its absence. In the fifties examples we have passed over but nevertheless touched upon the age and the gap are resolved without too many difficulties. In more recent examples the age gap has been seen simplistically (An Education), or complicatedly (Fish Tank) as reprehensible. But it is in Last Tango in Paris, Bad Timing, and Manhattan that the age gap is much more than a social problem. It is an ontological problem well expressed by thinkers as different as Hegel, Sartre and R. D. Laing. "To desire something is to be unsatisfied so desire is...an unsatisfied state for self-consciousness" according to Peter Singer in his short account, Hegel. Sartre refers to Hegel when he notes "thus Hegel's brilliant intuition is to make me depend on the for-itself only through another. Therefore the Other penetrates me to the heart." Sartre also notes, "this position [the Other is the one who excludes me by being himself, the one whom I exclude by being myself] allows us at the same time to define the way in which the Other appears to me: he is the one who is other than I; therefore he is given as a non-essential object with a character of negativity." (Being and Nothingness) Laing notes that "we need to share a communal meaning to human existence, to give with others a common sense to the world, to maintain a consensus." (The Politics of Experience) How to achieve communion with another if desire is dissatisfaction, if while the Other can strike us to the heart at the same time they are an Other to me, and if so often what we settle for is a superficial communication rather than a profound communing? This is a compromised solution towards the complexity of the problem that arises when recognising self and Other and the attempt to conjoin them. An age-gap romance can be an easy way to generate a problem that needs to be resolved (An Education's need to show the man as a cad who a teenage girl should have the good sense to extricate herself from emotionally), an acceptance that age-gaps are fine since the man will likely by this stage be a good provider (the fifties films and Breezy too), or part of a more complicated milieu of class differences: in this sense Elegy and Fish Tank are two sides of the coin. In Elegy, Consuela is the working-class woman coming into David's erudite world; in Fish Tank Conor (Fassbinder) comes into Mia and her mother's life from the other side of town hardly great wealth but a step down into their world nevertheless. But it is in Manhattan, Last Tango in Paris and Bad Timing where the filmmakers properly frame and contain the relationships they explore, films that seem capable of entertaining the sort of provocative complexity that indicates age might be an aspect of the problem but human interrelations are much bigger than that. As Woody Allen says, speaking of Manhattan, "the American Dream is, you grow up and you meet some woman or you meet some man and you fall in love and you get married. And then you raise your children and you're faithful...of course reality does not always allow this to come true." (Woody Allen on Woody Allen) Indeed it doesn't.
© Tony McKibbin