What’s most appealing about I’ll See You in My Dreams, which is currently playing at the Landmark Century and the River East 21, is that it doesn’t feel like a movie for retired, upper-middle-class women—it feels like a movie about retired, upper-middle-class women. We’re currently witnessing a wave of films about well-to-do baby boomers learning to grow old gracefully (I wrote about the phenomenon last year when I reviewed the Fanny Ardant vehicle Bright Days Ahead), but most of the ones I’ve seen have been too occupied with flattering their target audience to offer any real insights on the subject. Yet Dreams doesn’t present its heroine, Carol, as an audience-identification figure—the film, a multidimensional character study, encourages a certain critical distance from her. Carol might learn a thing or two about aging by the movie’s end, though all of her problems aren’t eliminated (as is often the case in the boomers-in-retirement subgenre). What matters is that we learn a thing or two about her.
Carol’s husband died in a plane crash when she was about 50. The insurance settlement was big enough for her to take early retirement, and so she entered prematurely into an old widow’s life, cutting many of her ties from public life and taking solace in gardening, golf, her few friends, and the grown daughter with whom she shares a cordial, if superficial, relationship. The movie begins two decades after her husband’s death, her uninspired routine long cemented in place. Early on in Dreams Carol makes a small change to her routine when she befriends Lloyd, the 30-ish failed musician who cleans her pool (Martin Starr). When she sees aspects of herself in Lloyd, she’s practically shocked to realize that she had once been young. Carol’s spent so long practicing at being an old woman that she can’t remember having been anything else.
There are moments when cowriter-director Brett Haley and cowriter Marc Basch expose the tragic undercurrent of their material—namely, during a drunken two-hander between Danner and Starr where the characters acknowledge the emptiness of their lives. Starr’s Lloyd has recently given up on his dream of making music for a living, moving back to LA from Austin and crashing at his mom’s house. (His more or less nonsexual attraction to Carol seems borne out of gratitude at finding a woman his mother’s age who treats him as an equal and not an overgrown child.) It turns out that Carol also gave up dreams of a music career when she was around 30, trading in her cards for a comfortable marriage and a career teaching public school classes “no one else wanted,” like health and home economics. Lloyd asks if she ever wished she’d continued pursuing a career in music, which would have allowed her to “live in the moment.” With unexpected bitterness, she says no. What good is living in the moment? she asks. Transcendence is an illusion. Regardless of how you feel when you’re young, you’re only going to get old and die.
Danner isn’t afraid to make Carol seem bitter or unduly proud here; she sounds defensive, as if mildly appalled by her own pessimism. It’s likely she hasn’t confronted this side of herself in a long time, if ever. And here lies the valuable insight of I’ll See You in My Dreams: a life of haute-bourgeois comfort can insulate you from your own hardness as well as the world’s. Haley and Basch aren’t out to deliver a critique of the bourgeoisie any more than they want to validate Carol’s lifestyle. Rather, they present their insights matter-of-factly, as if they were the conclusions of an anthropological study. It’s the sort of approach I associate with French dramas more than American ones, and Dreams reminds me specifically of Claude Sautet’s final feature, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (1995), which centered on the elusive dynamic between a septuagenarian retired judge and the 25-year-old woman who comes to work for him. Sautet was in his 70s when he made Nelly, while Haley is in his 30s, but I imagine they were drawn to these stories for similar reasons. Looking through the eyes of a different generation can lead you to new revelations about your own—the film is particularly accomplished in its characterization of Lloyd, who might come off in another movie as a caricature hipster but emerges as his own particular brand of coward.
A more provocative act of intergenerational inquiry can be found in André Téchiné’s In the Name of My Daughter, which is currently playing at the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park. (That no one wanted to open the film—one of the best French imports we’re likely to get in 2015—within the Chicago city limits is one of the supreme disappointments of my moviegoing year.) In his latest, the 72-year-old French filmmaker considers the true story of Agnès Le Roux, a twentysomething heiress who disappeared mysteriously in the late 1970s after selling her mother’s casino to an Italian gangster. Much of the film concerns Le Roux’s romance with her mother’s lawyer (Guillaume Canet), a shrewd social climber who’d charmed his way into the family some years earlier. Téchiné depicts the complicated emotional bond between mother (Catherine Deneuve, in her seventh collaboration with the director), daughter, and lawyer as a mystery on par with the daughter’s disappearance—which is to say that Daughter is very much in keeping with the director’s filmography (which includes such masterpieces as Hotel des Amériques, My Favorite Season, and Thieves), one of the formidable bodies of work in cinema on the enigma of human desire.
Why does Agnès fall head over heels for the married, philandering Maurice Agnelet, even though she acknowledges he’s not her type? As in Dreams, the heroine’s self-destructive behavior has something to do with her class identity. It’s clear that Agnès (the remarkable Adèle Haenel, who also stars in the current release Love at First Fight) resents her life of luxury and longs to gain a wider understanding of the world that comes (or so she perceives) through hardship. A key detail is that, before the film begins, she traveled through Africa, getting to know various tribes. In one scene, she performs a ritual dance for Agnelet to a field recording of a native drum circle. She gives herself entirely to the music, losing herself in the dance as she might like to lose herself in another person’s life. Filmed with a mobile camera and in surprising proximity to Agnès, the scene is prime Téchiné—erotic, exciting, and throbbing with psychological pain. You can feel Agnelet’s growing attraction as well as his trepidation.
Agnès’s tragedy is that she can’t transcend her wealthy upbringing—even her notions of independence are rooted in money. What the young woman wants most is access to her share of her father’s inheritance, which her mother Renée (who fears she’ll blow the money too quickly) has withheld from her. Does this motivate Agnès’s desire for Agnelet, who can help her take control of her inheritance? In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Agnès’s seduction of Agnelet might play as an act of revenge or a Freudian love triangle (Agnelet enjoys a flirtatious, albeit chaste relationship with Renée). But Téchiné (adapting a book by Jean-Charles Le Roux, Agnès’s brother, with Cédric Anger) regards Agnès’s passion as a force unto itself, capable of uprooting the bonds of family, class, and even logic.