From Iceland — Growing Old, French Style

Growing Old, French Style

Growing Old, French Style

Published February 4, 2013

The magic is gone, but once upon a time things were better. Perhaps this is a natural conclusion for filmmakers describing an aging society in perpetual economic distress.
One of the fun things about the annual French film festival is to try to spot what seems to be the hot topics in that cornerstone of Europe. Last year, almost every film seemed to deal with financial problems in one way or another, the main character in period piece ‘The Artist’ even losing all his savings in the crash of ’29. This year, in the 13th edition, the Euro crisis was less apparent. Instead, health and age seemed to be the major issues.
Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour’ (“Love”), already hailed by some as the best film of the decade, deals with an elderly man who has to come to terms with his wife’s Alzheimer and eventual withering away. Despite some beautiful scenes, the film did not really live up to the hype. Forgive me for sounding a tad nationalistic, but this theme has been broached before (and better) by Icelandic directors such as in Rúnar Rúnarsson in ‘Volcano’ or even Friðrik Þór Friðrikson in ‘Mama Gógó.’ Having a movie long and serious enough might be enough for awards committees, but in itself is no guarantee of a powerful cinema experience.
Dying in slow motion
More fun, and perhaps more thought provoking, was ‘Adieu Berthe’ (“Grandma’s Funeral”), which showed a lighter side of death. Both this and ‘Amour’ even feature the same joke, that of very slow electrical coffins taking the place of pallbearers in getting people to their final destination. Scenes such as those that show the protagonist accidentally fitting himself into coffins in a virtual reality funeral parlour, or hiding behind a picture of a much younger self, tell us as much about what awaits us all as endless shots of people in their death beds do.
Aging and mortality are also omnipresent in ‘La familie Wolberg’ (“The Wolberg Family”), be it in the small town mayor’s lung cancer, his wife’s menopause or visits to the family cemetery. This focus on age is probably not coincidental. With the baby boomers slipping into old age, diseases like Alzheimer are becoming far more prevalent and hence finding their way into popular culture. It also says something that the protagonist in ‘Adieu Berthe’ is a man in his 40s who is coming to terms with the death of his grandmother, rather than mother. People are reaching a greater age than before and death becomes more distant, even as the number of pensioners increases.
Magical nostalgia
The grandmother in question was once an assistant to an illusionist, a theme repeated in the film ‘L’Illusionniste’ (“The Illusionist”). This is set in the ’50s, but even here we find a society where magic is coming out of vogue. The point in both cases seems to be clear. The magic is gone, but once upon a time things were better. Perhaps this is a natural conclusion for filmmakers describing an aging society in perpetual economic distress.
Nostalgia is also the order of the day in ‘La clé des champs’ (“Sanctuary”), about a young boy who discovers the magical (to use the word again) insect life around a pond. The film seems to wish itself back to the innocence of both youth and an untouched nature, while the voice of wisdom comes from an old man who still remembers the way things were back when.
Living life to the full
The best film, however, was the opener ‘De Rouille et D’os’ (“Rust and Bones”). Here, sickness and health are also paramount, with a young woman losing both her legs in an accident and then learning to enjoy life again with the aid of prosthetics and a young, virile boxer. Perhaps it really is time modern society got back in its legs too, despite all the obstacles.
The French film festival is a joy like always, the major flaw being that out of nine movies shown, only the four were screened every evening, leaving little opportunity to see the other five. Also, where were the Canadians? We miss having a bit of Québécoise thrown in for variety.

The French Film Festival took place at Háskólabíó from January 11—25.

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