Desire overtakes them. They are willing to risk family, friends and finances to follow their suddenly unleashed desires, even when the object of attraction is younger, earthier and offers nothing in the way of security. Nevertheless, abandon all, they do.
Am I describing yet another movie in which some hunky guy tires of his placid, aging wife and falls hard for the gorgeous and frisky young thing? Well, hardly.
Middle-aged women, rejoice! Someone out there is aware that you still have a passion pulse, that you are walking away from stale relationships in greater and greater numbers and that you may look damn good to boot. Consider two recent films, "I Am Love" and "Leaving," which share a remarkable number of similarities. Both are foreign-made, though they star actresses better known for English-speaking parts: Tilda Swinton and Kristin Scott Thomas, respectively. In both films, the actresses portray sensually challenged, bored wives of busy, successful men; each features an affair between this initially forbidding woman and a man of a lower class who shows up at her villa for domestic purposes (one paints, the other cooks); and in both films the women ultimately choose to bid adieu to children (one per family who supports Mom, the other who is furiously unforgiving) and husband.
It is easy to say that films like these could never be made in America. There is not enough action. There are long moments of merely watching these actresses' faces unpack and register a wide array of emotions. People don't talk like that over here. Small details of daily life are allowed to breathe. It is also easy to point out commercial considerations, which is an excuse for fewer and fewer Hollywood films being made about women, particularly those of the middle ages and beyond. (Small wonder that Mary Louise Parker, Kyra Sedgwick, Holly Hunter and others have found safe havens on cable TV.) Even Julia Roberts bombed this year in an adaptation of a chick book that sold a zillion copies. The most touted American female performances of the year are those by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a married couple, directed by an openly gay woman who made a mainstream movie.
Ms. Bening and Ms. Moore won plaudits not just for playing against partner preference, but for letting their chronological ups and downs show. Well, we will take it where we can get it. Ms. Scott Thomas and Ms. Swinton are by no means old, but they are past the age that Hollywood traditionally considers appropriate for leading women. But why is that? One of the last truly sexy female performances -- not to mention the best chemistry with a leading man -- was Vera Farmiga's in "Up in the Air." Whether strutting with nothing but a towel wrapped around her waist, or sexting to fellow traveler George Clooney, she was the very essence of mature and anything-but-dormant sensuality. And hey, she got George.
And jilted George, let us not forget. Although they did not play a married couple, it was Ms. Farmiga's character who ultimately did the hurting, as do the ladies in lust in "I Am Love" and "Leaving." This is not strictly the stuff of reel life. Two thirds of divorces are now instigated by the wives. Some of this is attributed to child custody issues, but much of it is not. "The topography of marriage has changed as women's role in society has expanded," says Dr. Vivian Diller, a psychologist who writes about gender issues. "Women have come to expect more from their marriages and staying with a mate simply to have children and to be provided for financially isn't enough. They want respect, stimulation and passion."
This is especially true as all of us are looking at living longer than ever before. Suddenly, the thought of 30 more years of a stagnant union can seem unacceptably stifling. One sees that paralyzing possibility on the faces of Kristin Scott Thomas and Tilda Swinton as they move like elegant automatons through their cinematic European homes. Ibsen, obviously, touched on similar female discontent, but the current-day films are few and far between that give us restless women calling the shots, inflicting the pain.
If nothing else, the films have continued a European legacy of respecting -- or forgiving -- women as they age. Helen Mirren, Juliette Binoche and others are not only offered an impressive variety of roles, but often show openly sexual sides. (One still hears the word "brave" alongside critical assessments of their work, as if such proclivities are obviously against the norm.) Although they still get some nice supporting roles in Hollywood, it's notable that Ms. Swinton and Ms. Scott Thomas needed to go bilingual to exhibit their multiple attributes.
Women at midlife, in a culture that screams "defy and deny," are at a true crossroads: do they let hard earned experience and character show in their faces, or do they resort to whatever measures allow them to buy more time to feel they have not become invisible? For those in the public eye, matters are even more urgent, and looking at the Stepford faces of Meg Ryan, Nicole Kidman and so many more, one feels mostly sadness. "I Am Love" and "Leaving" are far from perfect films, but they are important in that they portray women smack in the middle of their lives who not ready to hang them up.