Have you ever walked past an elderly person in the street and wondered at their life, at what kinds of things they did when they were young, and whether their life was anything like your own? We often easily forget that our “senior” citizens were young once too, and shared thoughts, feelings, and experiences similar to our own, as well as the cultural (and mostly Western) presumptions and stereotypes that come with the category of youth.
We are reminded of this by Innocence, the most recent film by Paul Cox, a thoughtful Australian movie maker who has found it difficult to achieve recognition in America due to the perceived obscurity of some of his subjects and the overtly “European” feel of films. Innocence received a positive response at Cannes in 1999, due to its effort to take on issues around elderly romance that are not often dealt with. The majority of “love” stories we are exposed to in filmmaking succumb to the dominant demographic of young to mid-thirties heterosexual couples who experience all of the “appropriate” rites of passage. The two leads in this tale of passion, however, represent an element of our society that many feel should be “beyond” all that youthful ardor and moves beyond traditional romance and into the area of elderly sexuality.
Julia Blake, Charles Tingwell, Terry Norris
Cox delivers a tale of two separated lovers, Claire (Julia Blake) and Andreas (Charles “Bud” Tingwell) who have shared a strong passion and exuberant love when they were young. Late in life they meet again and rekindle the relationship and re-experience the flame of young love from all those years ago. In their renewed relationship, the pair deals not only with the rush of emotions that accompany their affair, but also the reactions of their family members and the society around them, including Claire’s husband.
At the beginning of the film (and their rediscovered love), we are flung fairly quickly into the now-elderly lovers’ relationship, which has been prompted by a letter from Andreas to Claire after many years. The brief introduction to these two characters that the film offers, however, without any chronicle of their previous relationship, seems to cut short the feelings that they might experience in such an emotionally charged reunion. But still, the film’s narrative structure (largely told through retrospection) allows us to delve further into their past and realize the intensity of what they once had, and this adequately compensates for the seemingly rushed beginning. Prior to their meeting up again, neither of the lovers has been particularly happy. Andreas has been quite lonely as a widower.
Claire, on the other hand, is one half of a loveless relationship of longevity and ultimately only convenience. She has been suffocating in her marriage to John (Terry Norris) for over 40 years. For Claire, Andreas’s letter is a lifeline, but her willingness to re-engage with Andreas broaches questions of whether she has ever really let go of Andreas’ love, or whether she rather simply suffers from a lack of love in her marriage and is looking to Andreas to fill that void. It is fascinating to observe two people who knew each other intimately getting back together and searching for what they once knew so well. Much time has elapsed since they were last together, yet when they meet decades of personal experiences collapse between them and it is as if they were never apart.
Even so, the straight line of their re-discovered love becomes an angst-ridden triangle once the John’s reaction is included. He treats the news of her acquaintance and sexual liaison with Andreas as a whimsical fantasy and it takes some time for the impact of her “infidelity” to sink in and destabilise the “rock” of his marriage. In a way, John represents the complacency of time tested love and the fear of change so late in life. In adding John’s perspective into the mix the focus of the film becomes his fear that everything he knew so well (life, routine, marriage) can so quickly change, when, presumably, everything at his age should have been long since sorted out.
In John, Innocence comments on the fragility of male security, as he attempts to deal with the failure of his marriage and the very real possibility that he may lose what has been the bedrock of his adult life for so long. It is only when this security is threatened that he feels the need to state his need for Claire. For someone like John a long-term relationship is something that you simply, uncomplicatedly have, rather than something that needs constant care and attention. And this is the film’s real “message,” that love must be cultivated, and that “innocence” is to be cherished, sought out, and protected throughout one’s life.
Innocence offers a brave take on love, fidelity and sexuality that often flies in the face of traditional, age-defined preconceptions of all. The title of this film refers not only to the innocence of youth and the innocence of lost love, but also to the untouchable state of raw passion and need, even in people who, many assume, have long since stopped “needing” such feelings. For Andreas and Claire, this is not some return to innocence, but its re-discovery and the realization that “innocence” is something necessary throughout the course of all of our lives.