June 3rd 2010
What are the factors that affect the reception of films? The literature on the subject is sparse. Stuart Hall’s model of dominant, negotiated and oppositional decoding of texts has often explained my personal reactions. Being aware of the sexism and ageism of films in general I take an oppositional point of view.
I have often been at odds with reviewers and sometimes with the U3A audience who are in the majority female and over 60 and it was easy to find the reasons for the difference of opinions. But the reactions to this film baffle me.
It is impossible to understand the praise that reviewers, English speaking as well as French, have lavished on Cloud 9. When I saw it at the London Film Festival in 2008, I found it unending, tedious and irritating. The thought of presenting it at the Lexi filled me with apprehension. Could I bear to see it again and could I subject the U3A audience to this experience? Will they be offended by the graphic sex scenes? I decided to show it as I felt it is important for older people to see the way they are represented in films and not let my personal opinions censor my programming .
I am glad to say that the audience agreed with me. Their comments were enlightening.
Cloud 9 is the tale of an over 60 years old married woman, Inge, who falls in love with 76 years old Karl. He is more exciting than her husband Werner, also in his 70s. When Inge leaves Werner, he commits suicide. This common theme in life as in the cinema usually involves young people and the dramatic impact results from the emotional conflicts of the protagonists. An excellent film, Innocence, directed by Paul Cox, deals with the subject of the breakup of a long standing marriage. The sexual drive of the older woman is also explored by Fassbinder in Fear Eats The Soul, and Michell/Kureishi in The Mother. The director, Andreas Dresen seems to be unaware of these films. He says in an interview: “I wanted to tell this love story as if they were young people because I was under the impression that this simply didn’t exist in film” and “After all it’s a film about love, not sex”.
Is it really? A brief analysis might prove otherwise.
There is nothing in the way the story is told that gives the viewer the impression that Inge has fallen so desperately in love with Karl that she risks her marriage.
The long pre-title sequences show a woman, Inge, leaving her ironing and making her way to the flat of a man, Karl. The numerous close-ups of the face of the woman and the long detailed takes of the journey do not permit the viewer to have any expectations of what is to follow and why.
The audience is then subjected to a long sequence of preparation for and explicit sex between two old bodies. There is no dialogue between these two people. This sets the mood of the film which seems to be structured around sex and bodies.
There are further protracted sexual scenes throughout the film: Inge with her husband, with her lover more than once and as she masturbates in the bath. How much sexual activity does the director need to show us to convince us that Inge over 6o years of age is sexually active?
There is very little development in the emotional relationship between Inge and Karl. Some cinematic cliches: shots of looks across a track during a bicycle race, running in the rain, the kiss in the car with misty windows, a skinny dip in a lake are the signs of their romance. She does tell her daughter that she keeps thinking of Karl but their dialogue there is bland. The only strong feelings are expressed by Werner in the melodramatic climax, well into the middle of the film, when a whingeing, crying Inge announces her betrayal. Her confession occurs off screen and we see the consequent explosive row that characterises the break up of relationships.
Eventually Inge leaves Werner and it is then in the last minutes of the film that we are given the information that Inge and Karl ‘fancied’ each other on their first meeting. A phone call in the middle of the night announces the suicide of Werner and the film ends on the embrace of Inge and Karl after the funeral.
It is this withholding of the information about the first meeting and what some reviewers have called the “coup de foudre” or “love at first sight” that in some way concentrates the attention on the sexual elements of this melodrama. The reviewers talk of ”coup de foudre” “falling in love” “romantic love”. Unfortunately we are denied this moment of wild desire at first sight that sets off an unstoppable chain of events leading to the breakup of a marriage and death of the betrayed husband.
Instead of the device of withholding information having the effect of producing tension and questions, it simply renders Inge’s behaviour incomprehensible. The slight development of the relationship is interrupted by superfluous long takes of Inge walking in the streets, taking the train, climbing stairs, of Werner in the flat, of Karl in the open air. The whole narrative is punctuated by long takes and panning shots of older women singing in the choir that Inge belongs to.
Of course the poor characterisation of the three protagonists does not help either.
Unconnected scenes show us that Werner has a demented father in an institution, and a son that he visits on his own. Inge has a daughter and granchildren that the couple are close to.
Werner, a retired railway worker is taciturn but kind, caring and considerate. Rather serious, he is so interested in engines and the railways that he enjoys listening to their registered sounds and taking train rides for no particular destination. We see him mainly in the confines of the poorly lit flat where he sits naked at a desk crammed with books. Of Karl we know nothing except that at 76 he is fit, cycles a lot and goes swimming. We see him in nature bathed in the summer light or in bed…
Alas Inge is no Andromaque in the grips of a sexual passion, nor is she Emma Bovary well anchored socially and psychologically; she is no Laura of Brief Encounter or even May of The Mother. Inge appears as a bored housewife with no personality of her own. She is only present when connected to the two men, or briefly with her daughter and grandchildren. The numerous, dwelling close-ups of her face, her naked body in front of the mirror, her long walks do not convey any inner life in the absence of other clues as to her character and conflicting emotions. Even her shout of frustration in the dark rainy night does not ring true. She does seem to have more fun with Karl than Werner and the expression on her face changes accordingly.
The dialogue -improvised we are told – lacks the depth and poignancy attained by actors who are given complex characters and relationships to work with. Walter is the only person who voices his pain, anger and resentment in an effective way. Inge responses are limp and repetitive. Her blubbering ‘it just happened’ ‘I did not want it to happen’ ‘I could not help it’ have no dramatic force and sound rather self pitying. ‘I like sleeping with you’ she says to Karl is as passionate as she gets.
With a flawed narrative, poor characterisation, pedestrian dialogue and a slow, very slow pace this melodrama seems to have seduced the majority of reviewers but was derided by our U3A audience.
The film has won many awards including the Cannes Un Certain Regard – Jury Coup de Coeur 2008. Except for Sight and Sound’s Tony Rains, the big majority of reviewers were effusive in their praises: “performances quietly effective, the power of love, quietly powerful film grappling with real emotions, unjudgemental, well worth your time, this is a deeply moving film, immaculately acted, rare emotional power, remarkable lead performance and strong direction, intelligent and rewarding”. Some mentioned the sex scenes and nudity to point out the scarcity of these images on the big screen. A few found them gratuitous: ‘needlessly graphic sex scenes, the sex scenes are arguably pedantic and even crude, but Cloud 9 is raw human drama, well acted”.
At the Lexi, the first comment from the floor was “the woman had an overdose of HRT”. Further contributions went from “her husband should have pushed her under a train” to “not all sports are spectator sports”. ‘The sex scenes were not erotic’, ‘the sex scenes did not work”, ‘the sex scenes were certainly too long’, the joke about sex and the 80 old year couple was tasteless’ , ‘the sex scenes were not shocking but boring’ “not another sex scene” “I felt like a voyeur”, “I kept thinking of the cameraman” .
Other comments were that the shots of the choir were patronising, that the woman cried too much, what could she expect, and that this is a film not to be seen again. On the positive side, the sound track was described as excellent.
One viewer expressed the effect of the first scene where we are presented with an uninvolving sexual encounter between two unpersonalised bodies: ‘I thought she was a prostitute”.
It is said that in a porn film, sex is the focus of the story and psychological/philosophical issues cannot interfere. Google ‘Cloud 9’ or its French translation ‘7eme ciel’ and what you get is a profusion of porn sites. I would not say that the Dresen film is soft porn but sex – be it in old people- is its focus. Dresen says in the production notes: “I wanted to tell this love story as if they were young people”. I think personally that the problem with this film is this ageist project. Dresen conveys that old people have a sex drive by exhibiting two old people in the sex act more than once. But what young people is he thinking about and how do young people love? How do old people love?
This misconceived and poorly executed project however does not explain the sharp division between the reviewers and the Brent U3A audience. As the bulk of the reviewers are male and the audience mainly female, the difference, it can be assumed, resides in the non engagement with the female character, and an age/gender approach is helpful in this context. The same cinematic gender stereotypes prevail: the age difference between Inge and the two men follows the usual pattern. Inge is just over 60, Karl and Werner well over 70 and their physical appearances do confirm this difference. As in usual melodrama, the sexual drive of the woman turns out to be destructive, and the woman is punished by the suicide of her husband of 30 years.
I would like to propose that the film allays men’s fear of getting old and fails to present us with a credible woman of 60. We have in Werner and Karl two portrayals of old men. Werner is the quiet, considerate, home-loving caring man with a hobby to occupy his retirement. He takes care of his father, visits his son, and enjoys the company of his step grandchildren. He is content in the comfort and security of his marriage and has a sexual relationship with his wife. Karl embodies the idea of healthy old age. He is athletic, physically active and ‘good in bed’. Both men are desirable. The two men merged together give an amalgam of ideal ageing.
How does the ageing Inge appear? Although she initiates the love affair, I would say she is passive. Is she the bored housewife or the woman who lives for the moment as described by Werner? We do not know. Her too often repeated excuses for her betrayal display a singular shirking of her responsibilities. Her character, psychologically shallow did not elicit sympathy or recognition in the audience.
The film and the general praise it received is another example of the deep sexist/ageist attitudes of the media.
I will finish with two comments from our viewers:
“The only point of interest in Cloud 9 was that older people are capable of both loving and lusting. I’m not a prude either in real life or cinema about sex, in fact I think it can be wonderful but I did find it very voyeurish in this film.” S.W.
“It fails on so many fronts to engage the audience in the characters, or to debate the dynamic between Inge, her husband, her lover and her daughter. Instead we have a succession of clinical examinations of ageing bodies, and sexual encounters too numerous to take seriously. Was it shocking? No. Was it embarrassing? No. Was it titillating? No. Was it interesting? No. Was it boring? Yes, it was. D.B