Having watched two films about old age over the past month, I’m beginning to wonder if this is the start of a trend: perhaps a reaction to all those movies about comic book heroes. In these geriatric sagas there are no super powers on display – it’s enough if characters can keep their faculties intact until the credits roll. Rather than saving the world, they conserve their energy for activities such as climbing the stairs.
It may seem depressing to contemplate movies such as the Spanish animation, Wrinkles (Arrugas), and Stéphane Robelin’s And If We all Lived Together? (Et si on vivait tous ensemble?), but since aging is an unavoidable part of life, one might as well approach these projects with a positive attitude.
The great pleasure of And if We All Lived Together? is the opportunity to see a group of celebrated actors playing roles far removed from the ones for which they are famous. Jane Fonda is a very long way from Klute, and that great comic actor, Pierre Richard, is finally seen in a dramatic role, as is Guy Bedos, another French comedian.
Add the transcultural Geraldine Chaplin and another renowned French actor, Claude Rich, and you have a star-studded ensemble.
Stéphane Robelin’s second feature is largely a vehicle for these actors, being based around a situation rather than a story. We begin at the home of retired academics, Jeanne (Fonda) and Albert (Richard). She has just received some bad news about her cancer diagnosis, while he is becoming forgetful. For forty years they have been friends with another couple, Annie (Chaplin) and Jean (Bedos); and with Claude (Rich), a widower.
Jean has been an activist all his life, an advocate of good causes, but is now too old to play the political missionary. Annie is a retired psychologist, with time on her hands; while Claude is an aging playboy, reduced to occasional encounters with prosititutes and a spot of erotic photography.
When Claude suffers a heart attack and is put into a retirement home, his friends decide to act on a seemingly whimsical idea of Jean’s – that they should all live together and look after each other. Claude is rescued from the home for fossils; Jeanne and Albert sell their place, and come to live in Annie and Jean’s large mansion. A young student of ethnology, Dirk (Daniel Brühl), is hired as a dog walker, but soon becomes a live-in carer who uses the group for research purposes.
Dirk’s research and his conversations with Jeanne allow Robelin to subtly explore many different aspects of the new communal arrangements. There are interpersonal and sexual tensions, but also many opportunities for comedy. Jeanne knows she is dying, but wants Dirk to understand that elderly people also have sexual feelings. Their conversations are also a form of flirtation. Meanwhile, Claude finds it hard to accept the fading of his own sexual powers.
Death is creeping up on all of them, but there is nothing morbid or tragic about this movie. It is an assertion of the power of personality over physical infirmity. It posits the idea of a community of friends as an alternative to impersonal, institutional care. As such, it paints a slightly idealised picture of old age. Even though we watch Albert losing his marbles, Claude recovering from a heart attack, and Jeanne being cheerful in the face of her own demise, it could be so much worse. Believe it or not, one walks out of the cinema feeling uplifted by the unflinching vitality of this tale.
And If We All Lived Together? France/Germany, rated M, 96 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 28, 2012