Canada’s Bruce LaBruce has been one of the more notable cinematic provocateurs of the last couple of decades. Starting off in Toronto’s queercore scene, he’s won acclaim on the festival circuit thanks to the taboo-busting, sexually explicit likes of “The Raspberry Reich,” “Otto, Or Up With Dead People,” and “L.A. Zombie” (the latter of which was banned from the Melbourne Film Festival). So when his latest film, “Gerontophilia,” opens with a blank screen over which we seem to hear a woman nearing orgasm as she recites the names of “female revolutionaries” including Lizzie Borden and Winona Ryder, you’d be forgiven for expecting more of the same envelope pushing.
But as it turns out, LaBruce is having a sly play with the expectations of those who know his previous work, because when he fades in, there’s nothing more than kissing — albeit enthusiastically received kissing — going on, between French-Canadian teen Lake (Pier-Gabriele LaJoie) and his girlfriend Desiree (Katie Boland, the exact midpoint of Emma Stone and Carey Mulligan). They’re just done with high school, on their gap years, and seem to be in the first flush of love, or something like it.
Except Lake isn’t entirely present, and as a very funny slo-mo shot of him admiring a crossing guard makes clear, it’s because he leans towards the sexual preference of the title — namely, he’s attracted to the elderly, and more specifically, elderly men. And when his mother (Marie-Helene Thibault) gets him a job in the retirement home where she works, he meets Mr. Peabody (stage vet Walter Borden), developing a friendship that rapidly turns into something else.
As it might sound, the premise is a fairly conscious nod to Hal Ashby‘s classic “Harold and Maude,” and for all his out-to-shock past form, LaBruce keeps things relatively family friendly — there’s some frontal nudity, but it’s fairly mild, and when he doesn’t skip over the sex altogether, as he does in most cases, it trades explicit images for a gentle and even touching sensuality. The relationship between Lake and Mr. Peabody unfolds carefully and organically, and it doesn’t sugarcoat or idealise their affair — once an incorrigible old flirt, always an incorrigible old flirt.
It’s sweet stuff, sure, but hampered by the performances. Borden is decent, especially when given good material to work with, but there’s little continuity between the bedridden old man and the cravat-wearing man-about-town. Still, it’s masterful next to Lajoie, who’s something of a vacuum of screen presence. He seems to be a touch hamstrung by the bilingual nature of the part, but that shouldn’t excuse how flat his line-readings are, or how little there seems to be to the character.
Boland feels much more at home on camera, but she’s left at sea by LaBruce’s attitude to his female characters, which is, at best, condescending, and, at worst, actively hostile. Desiree mostly exists to be mocked for her obsession with her revolutionary role models or to go through her own half-formed sexual awakening, while Lake’s mother is a figure for pity, who gets pushed down the stairs in a scene designed for laughs. LaBruce’s world might have room for all kinds of sexual tastes, but there’s no real place for women.
That aside, there is genuine warmth and heart to the central relationship, and the script is occasionally funny, though it draws smiles more than laughs. But it’s hard to see, beyond the gender swap, what LaBruce is saying here that Hal Ashby didn’t cover more definitively four decades ago. It may be that, in self-consciously targeting a wider audience (as LaBruce has happily confessed was his aim here), the director’s lost a little of his edge in the process. [C]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Venice Film Festival.