‘Venus’ sheds light on more than sex and seniors
December 29, 2006
At 74, Peter O’Toole remains a pleasure to look at. In his latest film, “Venus,” he carries himself straight and long, his smile is charming, and his blue eyes are what they have always been, twinkling, deep and mischievous, among the finest pairs of peepers to appear onscreen.Yet the idea of O’Toole – or any 70-something – as a physical being, not only attractive to others, but full of carnal desires himself, is something many people would prefer not to entertain.”I’m sure some people will find it seedy, or distasteful,” said Roger Michell, director of “Venus,” in which O’Toole plays an actor staving off the old-fogy stage by flirting with a quasi-sexual relationship with a 20-year-old. “Whether this is a proper subject for artistic examination – I’ll have that debate any day.”Michell – who is 50 – and his “Venus” co-writer Hanif Kureishi, 51, have explored the idea of senior citizen sensuality before. In their 2003 film “The Mother,” Anne Reid starred as a grandmother who takes up an affair with a man half her age. That film brought in elements of familial propriety; the grandmother’s paramour was also her daughter’s boyfriend. In “Venus,” the family issue is stripped away; O’Toole’s Maurice, an actor still in some demand, is pursuing Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), an unattached, unpolished girl who has come from northern England to London, to care for great-uncle Ian (Leslie Phillips). Even without the family dynamics, Michell finds much worth exploring.”They don’t lose their sexuality,” said Michell, who has peppered the film with scenes that emphatically make that point. “It doesn’t go off like a light bulb at the age of 55 – even though we like to think of it that way.”In “Venus,” Michell attempts to dispel another myth about the elderly – the idea that as people accumulate wrinkles and experience, that they necessarily become repositories of wisdom. But O’Toole’s Maurice, despite his sophistication and success in the theater, can be naive regarding Jessie and her desires. Likewise, Maurice makes sexual advances toward Jessie without considering the frustrating effects on his own mind and body.”It’s a film that points out the obvious – as people get old, they don’t necessarily get wiser. Not wiser about themselves,” said Michell by phone. “We load our elder relatives and friends with expectations which aren’t fair. I doubt most people say, ‘Oh yes, I know everything now.'”I’m getting older, and I don’t feel wiser than I did at 25.”
Even one of the presumed gifts of old age, the ability to enjoy things without guilt, gets burst in “Venus.” When Maurice says the relationship with Jessie gives him pleasure, it seems a moment of innocent indulgence. Michell, however, warns of the consequences of such behavior.”It does give him pleasure,” he said. “But he knows simply giving oneself pleasure is not the way to happiness. It gives him guilt and frustration as well. He knows this relationship with this girl is fraught with all kinds of betrayals and wrongness.””Venus,” however, offers a fuller picture of old age than just the depressing news that enlightenment is as dubious a proposition of old age as Social Security checks. Early in the film, before Jessie’s arrival, Maurice and Ian are having their daily tea in their usual café, having the same conversation that has become their habit: about their forgetfulness, their meds, their earlier years. Ian is a fuddy-duddy beyond repair; he probably was even in his 20s. But Maurice decides not to go so gently down that road, preferring the company of the nubile, feisty Jessie. It is in what Maurice can give Jessie – acting as her Henry Higgins – that the film finds its sense of redemption.”At the beginning of the film, she’s inert. She’s got nothing going for her. She’s dead, in a way,” said Michell. “And at the end, she’s very much alive. What she learns from him is curiosity for life, boldness for life. There is a symbiosis, and eventually you could call it a loving symbiosis, or an affectionate one.””Venus” could be seen as a gift to O’Toole – a plum role mixing the comic and sad that might finally earn the actor a proper Academy Award. He has been nominated seven times for best actor and never earned the award; in 2003, he very reluctantly accepted an honorary Oscar, informing the Academy that he wanted to “win the lovely bugger outright.””Venus” gives him another chance. He is currently up for a Golden Globe Award, and he is a virtual shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, which would be his first since 1982, for his role in “My Favorite Year.” But Michell says that “Venus” was not created with O’Toole in mind; only when Kureishi’s script was near completion did they begin to think of casting. And then O’Toole’s name was, as Michell says, “high up on a very short list.”Maurice, continued Michell, “seems like a version of Peter, a very frail and vulnerable version of Peter, but still very robust and very funny. He brings so much of his own baggage to the role. It’s certainly hard to think of anyone else playing that now.”Also showing this week in the Academy Screenings series (all screenings are at Harris Hall):
“Breaking and Entering”Saturday, Dec. 30, 5:30 p.m.Director Anthony Minghella returns to some favored actors here: Jude Law, whom he directed in “Cold Mountain” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” and Juliette Binoche, who earned a best supporting actress Oscar for her role in Minghella’s “The English Patient.” Minghella himself returns to writing with “Breaking and Entering,” his first original screenplay since 1991’s “Truly Madly Deeply.”Law stars as a successful London landscape architect in a failing relationship with his girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn). A series of break-ins at his office leads to a life-altering relationship with a young criminal and with the hoodlum’s mother (Binoche), a Bosnian refugee.”Notes on a Scandal”Saturday, Dec. 30, 8:15 p.m.”Notes on a Scandal” focuses tightly on the collapsing friendship between two teachers at a London secondary school, a domineering elderly one and a new arrival. It is the sort of movie that depends heavily on the performances of the actors, and the two leads, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, have both earned Golden Globe nominations.
“Arthur and the Invisibles”Sunday, Dec. 31, 3:30 p.m.French director Luc Besson showed a knack for visually and emotionally stimulating settings in “The Fifth Element.” In “Arthur and the Invisibles,” he steps it up a notch, mixing 3-D animation and live action for a fairy tale about a hidden world populated by creatures too small to be seen. Freddie Highmore and Mia Farrow appear as live-action characters; voicing the animated characters are Madonna, Snoop Dogg and David Bowie.”God Grew Tired Of Us”Monday, Jan. 1, 3:15 p.m.Director Christopher Quinn’s documentary follows three young Sudanese boys, refugees from civil war, as they settle in America. The acclaimed film, which won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury prizes at the Sundance Festival, not only tracks the lives of strangers in a strange land, but also allows Americans to look at their own country through fresh sets of eyes.”Miss Potter”Monday, Jan. 1, 5:30 p.m.Renée Zellweger stars as the writer Beatrix Potter, who overcame personal grief and the social constraints of Victorian England to become one of the most successful children’s book authors.
“Golden Door”Monday, Jan. 1, 8 p.m.Charlotte Gainsbourg stars in Italian filmmaker Emanuele Crialese’s epic story of immigration and the search for a better life. “Golden Door” earned numerous awards at the Venice Film Festival, including the Silver Lion.Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series continues with daily screenings through Monday, Jan. 1. For complete program details, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/film.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org