Andrew Haigh’s modern classic ‘45 Years’ featured sex between a couple, played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, who were in their late sixties and early seventies. The scene is what made ‘45 Years’ an anomaly - because when it comes to the bedroom habits of people of pensionable age, filmmakers have tended to keep the door shut. Until a few years ago, mainstream films featuring elderly people having relationships at all were rare (see: ‘Harold and Maude’).
Dr Rebecca Jones, a lecturer specialising in older sexuality at the Open University in the UK, suggests that humans have what she calls "a psychological glitch - which is almost always down to us thinking about our parents or grandparents having sex. We make the mental association and we can recoil from it. You’d think we’d be smarter about it as nearly all of us are going to be old one day, but of course, we also subscribe to a youthful standard of beauty, and hold up the gold standard of sex as between people in their twenties."
‘Happy Ending’ is a Danish retirement-age comedy that has been described in some film press as the "Nordic 'Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’". I have yet to watch that reputably orientalist British film starring Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, but I have to wonder if it features as many scenes of elderly straight sex, lesbian sex, threesomes, Vaseline being smeared on gnarled hands and mutual masturbation as its Scandinavian counterpart.
For a cold place, Scandinavia is red-hot.
The film follows Helle (Birthe Neumann, ‘Festen’), who has been waiting for her Bob Hawke-lookalike husband, Peter (Kurt Ravn) to retire after a nearly 50 year-long career with long working days. The plan is to enjoy the autumn years of their lives together travelling the world. At a dinner with their lifelong friends, Helle discovers that her 71-year-old husband has invested all of their savings in an Austrian vineyard, Garten Eden, without discussing it with her. The pair split up, setting out on separate journeys.
Peter, after moving in with his daughter, seems to regress into adolescence. He borrows his son-in-law’s clothes, hits the gym and insists his family listen to his dreams about fighting monkeys using hands made of knives (hilariously, this seems to be a riff on the 'Valley of the Twenty-Something Guys' episode of ‘Sex and the City’). He also gets his granddaughter to set him up with a dating app profile, where he proceeds to lie about his age. Helle, who never learned to drive and was the more dependent partner in the relationship, is reluctant to move on. Her girlfriends advise her, among other things, to send Peter some saucy lingerie-selfies, so that his desire for her will be reignited. Luckily, she finds stability and friendship with their joint bank advisor, Trine (Charlotte Sieling), who provides her with a new outlook on life (similar to ‘The Heiresses’). Meanwhile, the network of friends around them is trying to get Helle and Peter to come to their senses. But is there hope for them?
It’s rare to see a film that depicts an older person - particularly an older woman, with so much dignity and tenderness - as someone comfortable with her age, who is sexually active and quite attractive.
According to director Hella Joof, her film is "about a topic that has not been paid much attention in Danish film before: it explores what happens to love when we are retired and realise that life is too short not to live it." The film depicts ageing from the perspective of a cast of 70-somethings as they take stock of their lives. Helle, Peter and their friends don't understand where the years have gone and seem reluctant to acknowledge how old they actually are.
It's all briskly directed by Joof who, together with screenwriter Mette Heeno, has explored adultery in both the TV series ‘Better Signs Than Never’ and the film ‘All Inclusive’. With ‘Happy Ending’, they have assembled an easygoing romantic comedy for adults, with the genre's intrinsic ease intact. Joof has crafted a film that will strike a chord with an older audience, without straying into the ultra-grim territory of Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour’ (or it’s similarly titled sort-of sequel, 'Happy End'). The drama here is played in a humorous way that lightens the conflicts and makes all the characters rather likeable.
Happy Ending’ is really notable in its depiction of sex. European countries are slightly more open with sex scenes involving old people than the Brits or Hollywood, but not by much. It’s rare to see a film that depicts an older person - particularly an older woman, with so much dignity and tenderness - as someone comfortable with her age, who is sexually active and quite attractive. That's dismaying because seniors who age naturally have sexual needs and lives; to omit their reality is to omit part of the human experience.
While it’s refreshing to see a film acknowledge that women still have sex drives after their 60th and 70th birthdays, at the same time the film seems to be hedging its bets by giving some of its characters stereotypical attributes, like a clingy single woman clutching a cat and a randy old dude who can't get it up without Viagra.
‘Happy Ending’ is a somewhat thoughtful meditation on growing older, albeit one couched in sitcom sentimentality. The film may be a slightly insubstantial intermediary between a cheerful sex comedy and a light-hearted drama, but it will keep you entertained while reminding you that emotional life does not end or become less complicated once you reach your autumn years.