The Mother (2003) and staging age

I am back from holidays. I like doing my serious reading when there are no interruptions of trivial chores, visits to the doctor, hospital, podiatrist, optician and hearing specialist or social and family activities.

After my post on The Mother, Leni Marshall commented : E. Ann Kaplan’s analysis of The Mother might be of interest: “The Unconscious of Age: Performances that Challenge Cultural Norms,” in Staging Age: The Performance of Age in Theatre, Dance, and Film.

I read this chapter and I admired Kaplan’s analysis of Michell’s cinematographic mastery  but could not possibly agree with her interpretation of the film and conclusion that it challenges stereotypes and might change attitudes.

As her text is based on psychoanalytical work I will state my own position. I am an OFN (Older Feminist Network)  member. I attended over 10 years ago the residential week of Growing Old Disgracefully and joined the association. I have been running a film group on the representation of old women in the cinema for the University of the Third Age in Brent. I have socialised with a lot of old women and have taken part in numerous workshops on different aspects of ageing. These are my observations about old women and sex and sexuality, even though I am aware that they will not have ‘academic rigour’.  Old women do talk about sex. They do so in different modes: in a matter of fact way,  nostalgically about past youth, sadly about not having a partner, or  jokingly and bawdily. We do react with desire expressed as the ‘wow’ response to the sight of a fit (the word used nowadays to express, sexy or desirable)  young man or woman. We have our  cinematic objects of desire. We also act on this desire.   It is true that intimate revelations are rare but they do happen in small, safe groups.  I  know of purely  sexual relationships or relationships ending  with sexual expression between old women (in their sixties) and much younger men. These, it seems to me, occur on holidays abroad, on cruise ships, but also during study or nature tours for the retired. But also I have heard friends who say frankly  in spite of the pressure of the many ‘still doing it’ campaigns that although very sexually active in their youth they had lost all interest in sexual activity  but that they crave or enjoy the comforting loving touch. Also we have discussed and deplored the objectification of women in the media, the ageism that pervades the media and the growth of pornography. Talking with people  about the representation of old women in the media I noticed that it is usually the younger women in the 40-60 range who complain about the lack of mentions of sexuality of the old. The old women complain about the gender difference in representation and the ignorance of the contribution that old women  make to society in general.

Of course I am not qualified to consider whether part of the Kureishi/Michell film can be used to illustrate some aspects of psychoanalytical theory but I feel that I should voice my disagreement with Kaplan. There are two fundamental points that I explore in detail, but a detailed analysis of this whole seductive film so expertly directed would wield many more.

The points are the framing and assumptions made about the ‘viewers’.   “ In the case of  The Mother it is not so much the class (although that figures somewhat) that troubles viewers  as it is the ages of the lovers and their contexts”.   I do not think that what troubles viewers (which viewers?)  can be generalised in this fashion.   We have only the critics, mostly male to rely upon and to my knowledge there are no studies of  how  this film was received by the general public. However in the BFI guide (see resources page) responses of 24 old women and 3 old men were recorded and in my previous post I noted the responses of an old  feminist group.  The general impression is that  what troubled the viewers in both groups is not the age difference or the explicit sex but rather the poor narrative, the superficial characterisation of May, the nature of the relationships between all the protagonists. Viewers are used to explicit sex scenes and Michell avoids any shots or close-ups of May’s body as mentioned by Kaplan or any shots contrasting the young male body with the old woman’s. (as so effectively done by Eyre in Notes on a Scandal)

Advanced age is staged as entailing passivity, depression and indeed even though  May and her husband Toots are a couple, loneliness”.   Therefore this is a culture image –  part of the unconscious framing – rather than necessarily a stereotype about older people”.   Kaplan states again later ” We see here how older age is staged as a period of passivity, emptiness, lack of motivation or activity rather than as a new beginning as we might now want to conceive it. ”  But it is precisely this unconscious framing , this  staging of age that makes me,  the U3A  respondents and some of the critics resistant to the credibility of May as a character. Personally I think that there is also another unconscious framing not mentioned by Kaplan.  The desiring old woman is set in a family environment and is THE MOTHER.  Isn’t this view of the old woman a stereotype?

On page 45 we read :” One reason more women do not resist like May is that it takes guts, if not a stubborn selfishness many cannot muster. It may also involve imposing oneself as May proceeds to do on the young family an especially awkward move given how distant May has been as a grandmother and (as we will learn)  parent.”  What is meant here? what should old women resist?  Is there any evidence that women in their sixties, who have been working as May has and who have the means to live independently specially if they are physically fit as May is, are incapable to live as widows? that they would prefer to live with their children even though they have no close connections with them?   that  they are forced to go into care homes against their will?  This does not correspond to my experience of life and neither does it to the many women who have commented on the film. Is it guts that make May impose herself on her son’s family  or a device used by the writer/director to put the old woman’s desire in the traditional role of mother ?  In this film, the mother/daughter conflict and son and mother relationship does not in any way break stereotypes. Instead of using the usual stereotypes of the controlling, oppressive mother, and the neurotic daughter,   K/M use sex as the callous, insensitive way of pitting the two women against each other. And the displaced incest taboo is clearly  present in the images that they use in the scenes of friendship between Darren and Bobby and Bobby’s reaction to his mother’s affair.  I will venture to suggest that the initiating event of May demanding to move in with her children expresses  the unconscious fear of the writer and the director to see their mother or mother-in-law land  on their doorstep.

What is curious is how the film downplays the betrayal of May’s daughter. …Given prevailing cultural codes we should not expect a sixty plus widowed woman to feel such powerful desire especially for a man nearly half her age and if so certainly not to act on it. Yet Mitchell and scriptwriter Kureishi manage to make this seem absolutely normal. That is, in presenting this performance of age and sexuality the team challenges prevailing concepts of what is appropriate or whom at what chronological age without making it grotesque.  This does not mean that viewers accept or like what they see, cultural codes they bring to the film may prevent them from valuing what K and  M are doing. If cultural codes prevent the viewers quoted from valuing what K and M are doing, the writer and director are obviously failing. I thought that challenging stereotypes involves the breaking of cultural codes. And I do not think that the ‘viewers’ do not like what they see because of internalised cultural codes. It seems to me that they do not like what they see because they are presented with unpleasant characters acting in an unlikely narrative, in a ‘me me me’ culture.   Michell cinematography positions the viewer as an observer. It is impossible to see  May’s actions with any sympathy.  Yes the sex scenes are treated with a light touch and seem natural enough but May’s  sexual fulfilment is dependent on an ever so tenuous relationship with Darren and it involves  deception, humiliation, drug taking, money offer, betrayal of Darren’s wife, of Paula. This is not breaking a stereotype. I really see no difference between May begging for Darren to go away with her and Norma Desmond pursuing Joe Gillis.

The scenes between the mother and daughter after the discovery of the betrayal are  savagely sexist. I would call the staging of the sexual ineptitude of  Bruce, an old man,  ageist to the extreme.  It is impossible to isolate May’s sexual liberation from the  last 40 minutes of the film and suspend all judgement. What Kaplan  names ‘misreadings’ by the reviewers  is simply reading different aspects of the film that are there on-screen. It is very instructive to also read the reactions of older women viewers whose voice should be important.  (see resources page for link to the BFI  guide : Older Women in Feature Films.)

Finally Kaplan understanding of May leaving her house as a progressive ending is not based on anything that we have seen in the previous 110 minutes.

As I said at the beginning of this blog, it is possible to look at The Mother as a case study to demonstrate psychoanalytical theory. But this does not help viewers to  enrich their perceptions of older women’s sexuality.

On the subject of an older woman’s passionate desire for a young man I recall Racine’s Phedre (recently performed at the National Theatre). On the subject of a relationship between an  old woman and a young  man I recall Fear Eats the Soul. In neither work of art does the desiring old woman appears grotesque.  

good fiction provoke our prior conceptions and values with images that challenge stereotypes.”  The Mother is not good fiction. In cinematic terms it is a superbly directed, beautiful film to look at but its narrative is questionable, its characterisation shallow. Above all it does not challenge stereotypes but reinforces prejudices.

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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3 Responses to The Mother (2003) and staging age

  1. Glenda Hemken says:

    After the miseries of Mother and the frivolity of The Marigold Hotel, we have the Quartet – no bleak Yorkshire moors as in Last Tango in Halifax – but a home counties idyllic setting for a retirement home more Downton Abbey than Reading Council. I had left the NADFAS lecture at the idyllic Phyllis Court Country Club- almost a retirement home – and joined all the other Henley on Thames pensioners for Quartet [only the front row was empty].
    There was plenty of rueful laughter about forgetfulness from an audience enjoying a well acted love story. My middle aged daughter chauffering us in the dark wouldn’t have chosen to see it on her own initiative, but felt a younger audience would have enjoyed it. She was easily the youngest there.
    Diana Athill says she stays in a lovely enviable community; are we in danger of being constantly horrified by programmes on elder abuse without realising that many old people – men and women – are still the people they have always been and still have much to enjoy in retirement?

  2. rinaross says:

    Yes we are in danger of seeing old age as burden, deterioration and decline in the predominance of our youth culture. That is why It is important to make our voice heard and demand in our old age the same facilities as these wonderful musicians enjoy in this intelligent feel good film. Directed and acted by the old it gives the impression of lived experiences.

  3. Piracetam says:

    A study by the International Federation of Actors [3] found that women’s careers do not last as long as men’s and that they do not earn as much or as consistently as men across age categories. Women do not see their gender and age represented realistically, in contrast to a large majority of men who do. Unlike men, women consider their gender to be a disadvantage in terms of access to, number and variety of roles. This means limited employment for women actors, as well as limited representation of women to the viewing public.

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