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Christina Patterson Headshot

At Last, Some Films That Acknowledge That People Get Old

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"Who is it," says a character called Cissy in Quartet, "who said 'old age is not for sissies'?" The character, played by Pauline Collins in Dustin Hoffman's first film as a director, can't remember.

But then she can't remember quite a lot of things. In this, she is like many of her fellow residents at the retirement home for musicians where she now lives. Some of them, like Jean, played by Maggie Smith, repeat themselves. Others, like Wilf, played by Billy Connolly, have problems with their prostate, and piles. "Why do we have to get old?" Jean asks her long-estranged ex-husband, who's also at the home. "Because," says the character, played by Tom Courtenay, "that's what people do."

Yes, people do get old, though you wouldn't normally know it from films. But at the moment, if you choose carefully, you might. If, for example, you go to see Trouble with the Curve, you'll see Clint Eastwood struggling to pee, and bashing a car against the walls of the garage, and burning a burger because he can hardly see. If you go to see Hope Springs, you'll see Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones as an older couple struggling with a sexless marriage. If you watch The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (which you can now buy on DVD) you'll see men and women struggling with bereavements, weak hearts and wrecked hips.

And if you see Amour, you'll see a man and a woman who have loved each other for more than 50 years quietly falling apart. You'll see the woman, played by Emmanuelle Riva, suddenly go silent over breakfast as she has a stroke. You'll see the man, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, pushing her in a wheelchair, and helping her off the toilet, and pulling up her pants. You'll see a marriage that has been alive with love, and conversation, and shared experiences, change into something that's full of fear, and loneliness, and shame. You'll see, in other words, what happens to the human body, and the human mind, when both begin to decay.

In four of these films, including the one whose title makes it sound as though it ought to, hope springs. In Quartet, it's the hope of a musical reunion -- the quartet of the title -- in a gala concert, and of a reconciliation after a betrayal. In Trouble with the Curve, it's the hope that an old curmudgeon with old ways can triumph over the fancy ways, and flawed technology, of youth. In The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it's the hope that good things, including sex, are "never over," and that those good things will happen if, as one character says, "we get up in the morning" and "do our best." I won't give away the endings, but let's just say that "feel-good" films aren't called "feel-good" because they make you feel bad. They are all, in their different ways, enjoyable. They are all, in their different ways, limited. They all edge, at times, towards caricature, and they all give in, at times, to the temptation to patronize the old with sentimentality and easy laughs.

That's OK. Most films patronise most people with sentimentality and easy laughs, and at least these films, unlike television and most of the media, acknowledge that old people exist. But Amour doesn't patronize anyone. Amour shows us what happens when even the greatest love is tested, by the body's frailty, to its limits, and when hope, which has sprung for so long, dies. It shows us, in fact, the difference between a nice story that cheers you up, and a work of art that's sad, but also beautiful, because it's true.