Although in many respects a departure from his earlier work, Gaspar Noé’s latest film, Vortex, remains another of the director’s immersive exercises in sensory cinema. It plunges the viewer into the daily reality of an ageing couple, played by Dario Argento and Françoise Lebrun, as they go about their routines, with the wife gradually succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease and the husband struggling to cope with her deteriorating condition.
In its unflinching, split-screen gaze on the couple’s claustrophobic existence, Vortex offers a particularly intense, distilled and archetypal vision of old age and decline. It also takes its place alongside a range of films centring the experiences of elderly characters – from dramas exploring the painful tensions between ageing parents and children reluctant to care for them, to affirmative comedies emphasising the fun and opportunities still to be grasped in later life.
It’s true that the experiences of older people have traditionally tended to be neglected within youth-focused pop culture discourse, and that the representation of elderly characters in mainstream cinema has sometimes been problematic or patronising. On the other hand, there’s a rich range of films that explore the lives of older people in all their complexity and diversity, focusing, among many other themes, on long marriages, daring journeys, ill health, and new connections and possibilities, as well as the existential questions inevitably arising towards the end of life.
Combining well-known classics and more under-the-radar titles, here are 10 excellent examples of senior citizen representation on the silver screen.
Vortex is in cinemas from 13 May 2022.
Buy tickets for a preview screening of Vortex with an intro with Gaspar Noé at BFI Southbank on 10 May.
Buy tickets for Gaspar Noé in conversation at BFI Southbank on 10 May.
Explore the season Cruel Flesh: Films of the New French Extremity, including a focus on Gaspar Noé, at BFI Southbank in May.
Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
Director: Leo McCarey
“A sense of misery and inhumanity is left vibrating in the nerves,” wrote Graham Greene of the emotional impact of Leo McCarey’s drama, which looks family tensions and the Depression-era generation gap squarely in the face. Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore play an elderly couple in financial difficulties who lose their home to foreclosure, and end up being shunted between, and separated by, their unsympathetic or indifferent offspring, who really don’t want to be bothered with their parents’ care.
Sharply insightful on family dynamics and attentive to its various class contexts, Make Way for Tomorrow doesn’t offer traditional Hollywood soft soap in terms of the difficult issues it explores; in fact, the director refused the studio’s appeals for a cosier conclusion. “It would make a stone cry,” said Orson Welles, and McCarey’s film undoubtedly stands as one of Hollywood’s greatest, truest tearjerkers.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
If the premise of Make Way for Tomorrow sounds familiar it may be because the film provided the inspiration for Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Indeed, Japanese cinema has often shown notable intelligence and sensitivity in its presentation of older characters. Released a year before Tokyo Story, another classic of Japanese elder representation is Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa’s beautiful drama inspired by Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych.
Takashi Shimura plays a widowed civil servant, Kanji Watanabe, who learns that he’s dying of cancer. Living with a son and daughter-in-law who are less concerned with his well-being than with their future inheritance, Watanabe explores ways of confronting death, ultimately finding purpose as he lobbies to transform a city dump into a children’s playground. With its famed shot of Shimura on a swing in the park, singing to himself as the snow falls, Ikiru remains a profound experience that still resonates today, as evidenced by the new Bill Nighy-starring British remake, Living, directed by Oliver Hermanus, scripted by Kazuo Ishiguro and due for release later this year.
Umberto D. (1952)
Director: Vittorio De Sica
After Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948), it was Vittorio De Sica’s intention to turn his attention to an older protagonist, and this neorealist jewel, described by Ingmar Bergman as “the movie I may love most of all,” was the result. Umberto D. focuses on the trials of a retired government worker and his dog, struggling to survive the poverty and alienation of modern Rome.
Desperately trying to hold on to his rented room, from which he’s faced with eviction by an avaricious landlady, Umberto Domenico Ferrari’s challenges are his own stubbornness and pride, too. As brilliantly played by the 70-year-old Carlo Battisti (a university lecturer who had never acted before), Umberto wins our affection and respect by honest means, the film avoiding the sentimentality often associated with films involving the elderly and animals. As a social critique highlighting an older generation left behind in postwar Italy, the film is infused with clear-eyed compassion and humanity, expressing what De Sica’s co-writer Cesare Zavattini called “the love of reality”.
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Director: Robert Aldrich
Hagsploitation, psycho-biddy, grande dame guignol… Whichever label you favour, there’s no denying that, for better or worse, Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? inaugurated a subgenre of 60s and 70s horror cinema, in which the spectacle of ageing womanhood provided an intermingled source of terror, pity and camp comedy for audiences, and in which Hollywood golden-age stars could again claim their rightful place centre screen.
As the sisters occupying the same mansion, the one controlling and tormenting the other, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis serve up velvet-voiced victimhood and shrieky malevolence (plus the occasional rat) in a claustrophobic battle of wills that both reflects and embodies contemporary anxieties about ageing women’s social position. Much of the film’s enduring (if problematic) appeal comes from the life-imitating-art aspect, and the often-rehashed stories of the stars’ off-screen antipathy, the subject of recent dramatisations including Anton Burge’s 2014 play Bette & Joan and Ryan Murphy’s series Feud (2017).
The Trip to Bountiful (1985)
Director: Peter Masterson
Older characters in popular 1980s American cinema tended to appear for cheeky, wise-cracking charm and/or mushy sentiment, in films representing what Pauline Kael, in her scathing review of the much-loved On Golden Pond (1981), identified as “a regression to movies with cute and wise old codgers”.
Sensitively adapting Horton Foote’s play to the screen, Peter Masterson’s The Trip to Bountiful avoids those pitfalls, helped by Geraldine Page’s vibrant, unpredictable, Oscar-winning performance as Carrie Watts, a widow who escapes the cramped Houston apartment she awkwardly shares with her son and daughter-in-law to make a journey to her childhood home of Bountiful near the Texas Gulf coast, striking up a friendship with Rebecca De Mornay’s fellow traveller along the way. A 2014 TV movie version, with Cicely Tyson taking on the role of Carrie, proved equally affecting.
Prospero’s Books (1991)
Director: Peter Greenaway
“It was a great experience and I feel very lucky to be given the opportunity when I am so senior!” said John Gielgud about his time collaborating with Peter Greenaway on their film adaptation of The Tempest. For sure, Gielgud’s luck was also Greenaway’s, and the audience’s too. The actor’s unmistakable voice, virtuosic verse-speaking and vivid presence offer a welcome entry point into the director’s characteristically dense and idiosyncratic take on Shakespeare’s late masterpiece, with its teeming frames, ornate design and superimposed images.
Structured around the 24 texts taken by Prospero into exile, from which he gains the magic arts and knowledge to enact his revenge upon those who’ve wronged him, Prospero’s Books provides a potent portrait of elder power, with Gielgud delivering the dialogue of all the other characters and clearly presented as a Shakespeare-like authorial figure. As such, one of the most unique play-to-film adaptations is also a loving tribute to one of our greatest actors.
Unhook the Stars (1996)
Director: Nick Cassavetes
With his directorial debut, Unhook the Stars, Nick Cassavetes gave a gift of a role to his mother Gena Rowlands. Cassavetes’s film may lack the raw, experimental edge of his father John’s work, but it makes up for it in humane insight. Rowlands plays Mildred, a widow with two grown children. The arrival of Marisa Tomei’s volatile neighbour Monica brings some excitement and fresh purpose to Mildred’s life, especially when she’s charged with looking after Monica’s son J.J. (Jake Lloyd), with whom she forms a strong bond. But when J.J.’s absent dad is unexpectedly welcomed back into the family fold, Mildred finds herself rejected, and is challenged to envision a life for herself beyond the caretaking roles that have always defined her.
With the radiant Rowlands capturing every shade of the character’s conflicts, disappointments and hopes, Unhook the Stars offers a lovely, affirmative but ultimately unsentimental portrait of an older woman belatedly finding a way to make her life on her own terms.
The Straight Story (1999)
Director: David Lynch
From Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) to the aforementioned The Trip to Bountiful, a subset of films enjoy sending their elderly protagonists on road trips that confront them with their pasts. Perhaps the oddest odyssey of the lot (though based on true events) is David Lynch’s The Straight Story, in which Richard Farnsworth’s Alvin Straight takes to the highway on a 240-mile journey from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his ailing, estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton) who has had a stroke. Since Alvin’s own health problems prohibit him from receiving a driver’s license, his vehicle of choice is his John Deere lawnmower.
Even more of an outlier in Lynch’s filmography than Vortex is in Gaspar Noé’s, this slice of Americana – a tender tribute to reconciliation and to travelling in the slow lane – is notable for its emotional sincerity and niceness, and for Farnsworth’s beautiful, deeply felt performance.
Director: Pete Docter
By far the most economical, yet also one of the most poignant, evocations of ageing in cinema comes courtesy of the prologue in Pixar’s Up, which sketches the history of a long marriage through a sequence of bravura, dialogue-free visual storytelling. Voiced by Ed Asner, the protagonist of Pete Docter’s film is the Spencer Tracy-inspired Carl Fredricksen, a resourceful retired balloon salesman who flees his retirement home fate by taking to the sky. Carl turns his house into a balloon-powered floating craft and sets off to Paradise Falls, the South American location that he and his beloved late wife Ellie always dreamed of visiting but never made it to.
Aided by an adorably eager eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer, Russell, who’s keen to attain his ‘Assisting the Elderly’ badge, Carl encounters colourful birds, chatty dogs – and a decidedly disillusioning childhood hero. The journey offers thrills and laughs aplenty, but the sweetness and profundity of Up lies in the intelligence with which the film also locates “the spirit of adventure” in daily life and close relationships, not least the cross-generational bond at the story’s heart.
Director: Tom Browne
Alongside the spate of essentially comic “elderly ensemble” films ushered in by the huge box office success of John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), the 2010s also saw the release of several intimate, sober chamber dramas about couples at the end of long marriages: Michael Haneke’s devastating Amour (2012) and Andrew Haigh’s slyly subversive 45 Years (2015) are among the most memorable.
Less seen but equally powerful is Tom Browne’s debut feature Radiator, which casts Gemma Jones and Richard Johnson as a couple struggling with his declining health (and tyrannical tendencies) in a run-down Cumbrian cottage where they’re visited by their son (Daniel Cerqueira, who collaborated on the screenplay with Browne). Filmed in the house of the director’s own parents, Radiator is a deeply personal project that tenderly touches raw nerves, drawing the viewer into intimacy with its three protagonists via a series of spare but richly textured domestic scenes. Jones and Johnson are superb together, with every glance, hurtful remark or recalled joke bespeaking their characters’ complicated shared history.