Untraditional Age Gaps in Cinema


Canadian auteur Bruce LaBruce’s Gerontophilia opened this weekend. The director is in New York during MoMA’s retrospective of his iconic queer films, but Gerontophilia is LaBruce’s latest — detailing the provocative romance between an ailing man in a nursing home and his young attendant. Know for his sexually explicit canon, Gerontophilia takes a softer approach, yet still offers the sly humor and subversive themes that LaBruce is known for. The age difference between characters is one of the most striking portrayals of relationship age gaps in cinema in recent memory. We explored several others (that aren’t The Graduate), below.

I Am Love

Tilda Swinton plays the unhappy Russian matriarch of wealthy Italian industrial family who falls for her son’s friend, a young chef named Antonio. “Of course they make love. Actresses are often called upon to enact sex in the movies. Swinton does it differently with each character, understanding that sexuality is as distinctive as speech or taste,” writes Roger Ebert in his 2010 review of the film. “Emma is urgent as if a dam has burst, releasing not passion but happiness. Of course this affair threatens her relationship with her husband, her son and her family. But most long-established families have overcome the inconveniences of adultery. Continuity is more important than commitment. The film now observes the ways, not predictable, in which this new sexual act affects Emma’s role.”

La luna

It’s perplexing that Bernardo Bertolucci’s La luna didn’t receive more attention for its provocations than the director’s Last Tango in Paris. The film centers on a troubled teen boy fighting a heroin addiction and his incestuous relationship with his mother who helps him overcome his struggles. Critic Bilge Ebiri writes:

The scandalous nature of the interaction between Catherine and Joe tends to color most viewers’ reactions to the film. But look closer and you’ll see that Bertolucci creates a very subtle back-and-forth here, where the son’s adolescent desperation helps unravel Catherine’s own feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. Bertolucci’s previous films had focused on father figures; in Luna we see how the absence of a father figure sends the respective parts of this family spinning off in their own directions. The man that died in Brooklyn is eventually revealed to not be Joe’s real father; his real dad is that shadowy figure dancing with Catherine in the opening scene. Luna thus turns into a search for a father figure, an attempt to complete this broken nuclear family.


Gertrud’s career in opera is halted after her marriage to a lawyer and politician whose first love is his career. This leads to an affair with a young composer who treats Gertrud more like a conquest than a lover. Keith Phipps writes of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1964 film:

Unhappily married to a politician, she initiates an affair with a bohemian composer shortly before encountering a pining discarded lover from her youth. Gertrud‘s characters speak to each other directly and earnestly, but their eyes seldom meet as if they know too well what they’ll see there. The film’s underlying notion — love may be everything, but it’s often not enough — proves a fitting finale to Dreyer’s career, a tough truth humanely revealed by a director who never shied away from directly confronting the things that really matter.

Death in Venice

In Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, an ailing man entertains a sexual obsession with an adolescent boy during his stay at a desolate Venetian seaside resort in the midst of an epidemic. Roger Ebert discussed the relationship differences as portrayed in the film and Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella:

Visconti also misses, or avoids, the subtlety of the novel’s development of the relationship between the two characters. In the Mann version, the man can never really know what the boy thinks of him; they do not speak, and if the boy favors him sometimes with a look or a smile, he favors many others as well, because that is his nature. It is entirely possible, the way Mann tells the story, that the boy is totally unaware of any homosexual implication — and the man, indeed, may also be in love with an ideal rather than a person. No such possibility exists in the heavy-handed Visconti retelling. The boy’s function in the film, which he performs at least two dozen times, is to self-consciously pose in front of the man, turn slowly, smile sweetly, and turn languorously away. This is almost literally the only physical characteristic the boy has in the movie; and Visconti lays on the turns, looks, and smiles with such a heavy hand that the boy could almost be accused of hustling.

Mädchen in Uniform

A sympathetic portrayal of lesbian romance at an all-girls boarding school between an orphaned student and her teacher, Weimar-era classic Mädchen in Uniform (here, the 1931 version) marked a significant point in the “sexual/political emancipation” of cinematic narrative.

Sunday Bloody Sunday

A repressed wealthy doctor and a disillusioned working woman embark on an affair with a young bisexual artist. Aware of each other’s existence, but desperate not to lose their free-spirited lover, they struggle through their emotions to maintain the relationship. Slant writes:

Is, then, the film’s dolorousness any “fairer” to polyamory or bisexuality than dusty documentaries decrying the latter as illness and the former as immorally indulgent? Perhaps Schlesinger is suggesting instead that there’s no fairness in relationships between any numbers of people. The three-way love story is, aside from indicative of the film’s zeitgeist, symbolic of the manner in which humans can easily turn sex into a silly search for perfection. Every scene and every awkward camera movement appears to be a vague hunt: Just as Daniel presses on the flabby stomach of a patient, Alex desperately kneads the flesh of Bob’s slim shoulders; the camera pans across a grassy field of rugby players, or a kinetic sculpture in Daniel’s garden that sends spectacularly colored water through several glass bulbs. In one mildly comical sequence, Daniel and Alex pass one another in their cars, unaware that they’ve both got their eyes hazardously turned toward Bob’s apartment building above and their minds equally fixed on his unknown whereabouts.

Heading South

The relationship age gap in Laurent Cantet’s Heading South drives the film’s theme about the imbalance of power. Set in Haiti during the late ’70s, the film’s sexual tourism narrative focuses on class, race, and political issues as three older white women explore affairs. Critic J. Hoberman writes:

Periodically, several principals — including Brenda, Ellen, and Albert — share their thoughts with the camera. Legba [Ménothy Cesar’s character] is given no such moment, although he has several crucial scenes in the context of his other life, but this is Cantet’s realism. If the object of desire is conspicuously without a subjective voice it may be because in this ruthless paradise his body is his only capital and his life is worth nothing.

Chris & Don

A documentary about the romance between British writer Christopher Isherwood — whose book The Berlin Stories inspired beloved musical and film Cabaret — and his much younger lover, who became a renowned portrait artist. Chris & Don reveals how the couple inspired one another creatively and coped with being one of the first openly gay couples in Hollywood. From the Village Voice review of the film:

Theirs was an organic, constantly evolving companionship. They quite consciously shaped it, but also allowed it to find its own patterns and path. There was extraordinary vulnerability in their union (“Don might leave me,” Isherwood is quoted as saying, “but I could never leave him. Not unless he ceased to need me”), only matched by extraordinary faith in their bond. The relationship contained elements of the parent/child hierarchy (with the roles flip-flopping back and forth over time), but it was also an erotic quest that expanded to include other lovers—especially as Bachardy matured into his own man—and then retreated back to monogamous form again, at least emotionally. And as Bachardy grew into his own creativity, theirs became a conversation between artists, too. With the most delicate of hands, directors Mascara and Santi shape their investigative film into the revelation that all of this constituted Chris and Don’s love story.