Death be not proud. One hears stories of men on their deathbeds who, lucidity gone, expend their last energy on a vain attempt to masturbate; of Viagra-boosted sex that climaxes in cardiac arrest. This stubbornness of the erotic urge, past physical failing, is the subject of "Venus": Why can't I get one last screw?
"Venus" stars 74-year old Peter O'Toole (has an actor ever sported a more phallic name?), his desiccation considerably advanced by legendary imbibing, as still-working thesp Maurice, a horny geezer fanning the embers of his libido for one last infatuation with his best friend's great-niece/ live-in nurse, Jessie (newcomer Jodie Whittaker), a philistine northern chav with nonexistent manners and a sideboard of an ass you could rest a cocktail on. Cue Pygmalion - O'Toole's done Henry Higgins before, of course. Or does the part call for a Casanova? Like Maurice, O'Toole's still jobbing, having just played that reminiscing lover on the BBC (he's a natural at wrecked beauty: "My God, how handsome you were," says estranged wife Vanessa Redgrave, watching one of Maurice's old film's on TV). Maurice has been skirt-chasing so long that his Don Juanism's become instinctual, but he's clearheaded enough to realize that he can't play seducer anymore (or consummate a conquest), so he digs into his repertoire, trying any tack-intimidation, pity, poetry-that'll expose a little of her skin, let him smell the nape of her neck.
The crux of "Venus" is the delicate bartering that takes place between Maurice and Jessie as they haggle the fine points of their transaction - she's unloved, hard up for someone to humor her ambitions... and she likes to be taken shopping, of course. Meanwhile, Maurice is only begging for another whiff of a little girl in bloom. So: Three kisses on the neck costs a pair of earrings. It isn't noble, but I can't see how "Venus"'s pragmatic chauvinism is more offensive than any number of movies where some sweet young thing falls, no-strings-attached, for a liver-spotted relic (the awful "History Boys" mounts its own pederasty apologia but muffles the implications in glibness).
There are elements familiar from past wasted nights at the movies that might ward a wary viewer off of "Venus": a graying star showcased for the Monday matinee crowd, an Unlikely, Mutually Enriching Friendship - and old folks playing up friskiness is always a trying spectacle; rent "Cocoon" if you don't believe me. What distinguishes "Venus" is that it strips the May-December cliche to the most basic equation, and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi isn't one to take the power of sex lightly ("The only pleasures that are possible as you get older are... under the aegis of death").
There's plenty of enervating comic relief and dross scenes to sit out - I could've happily lived my life without watching O'Toole wiggle around to Corinne Bailey Rae or hamming in St. Paul's Church (where Shaw's Pygmalion opens) with Leslie Phillips, an O.D. of nostalgic Brittania - but the movie survives. It's small-scale, workmanlike filmmaking, bolstered by O'Toole's unabashed perviness; the tone recalls the fragile creepiness of the late-era Kinks masterpiece "Art Lover," about a "connoisseur" ogling chicks in the park: "I've learned to appreciate you the way art lovers do / And I only want to look at you."
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]