Mentioned on Sang Bleu over a year ago, Bruce La Bruce’s latest film, Gerontophilia, premiered at the Venice Film Festival. The film follows Lake, an 18-year-old man whose brief stint working at Coup de Coeur nursing home helps uncover his underlying sexual fetish. As Lake (Pier-Gabriel Lajoie), begins to discover his sexual attraction to the elderly, he strikes up a romantic relationship with one of the geriatric men he cares for, the 81-year-old Mr. Melvyn Peabody (Walter Borden).
Gerontophilia is, in general terms, a sexual preference for the elderly, drawn from the Greek words geron (“old man/woman”) and phillie (“love”). A quick scour of the internet finds many forums dedicated to self-identified “gerontophiles,” though the fetish, like all sexual preferences, varies in terms of extremity and stipulation. First identified in psychoanalytical literature by Robert Von Kraft-Ebbing, and vaguely deemed as an “erotic age orientation,” gerontophilia, like much of the sexual theory during the early 1900s, was sometimes linked to an Oepidus complex. Recent studies surrounding the history, causes and practices of the fetish (which seem sparse compared to others), are less defined in their conclusions, possibly due to differing definitions amoung gerontophiles themselves. For example, our understandings of age depend not only on our personal histories but societal views of what is “elderly” and what is “young,” creating loopholes in what the mainstream may imagine as gerontophilic. Though the opinion of most involved in the online community is that a gerontophile is sexually aroused and romantically interested in those who are much older than him or her, with the object of affection often in the 65+ age range. Wrinkles, sagging skin and grey or white hair are physical attributes which are found to be sexually stimulating to most gerontophiles. In this way perhaps the fetish is also about the only way we have to measure time – the way it looks on our bodies.
In LaBruce’s film, Lake’s fetish causes him a certain amount of confusion and anxiety, as his budding sexual interest comes as a surprise to everyone, including himself, culminating in what may be one of the most compelling moments of the film. Lake rescues an elderly man who has drowned in a public pool, and is humiliated when he has an erection while giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Lake’s girlfriend Desiree (Katie Boland) finds clues pointing to her boyfriend’s interest in much older men, including delicately-rendered sketches of elderly nude bodies, forcing Lake to come to terms with the true nature of his fetish as well as the fluidity of his gender preference. This all happens in a very sincere, experiential manner, though at times it is difficult to grasp the full emotional intensity of Lake’s feelings for Mr. Peabody, perhaps because of the reticence, or stiffness, in Lajoie’s portrayal of the character.
Critics have noted the tame nature of the film, observing that LaBruce has steered away from his usual use of sexually graphic imagery, a signature that has come to define many of his movies. LaBruce’s usual gay-campyness is traded in here for a story that somehow seems more intimate than political. Lake becomes jealous and passive-aggressive when Mr. Peabody flirts with other men, giving the weight of his sexual desire a romantic component that goes beyond the physical qualities of their relationship. A playful, ironically innocent humor is the driving force behind Gerontophilia, as Lake’s plan to free Mr. Peabody from Coup de Coeur propels the two men into a Thelma and Louise-type road-trip across Canada.
The irony of the life-sized Mahatma Gandi poster that hangs on the wall of Lake’s bedroom is not lost.
It’s safe to say LaBruce is aware of the influence of both Harold and Maude and Nabokov’s Lolita on the nature of the characters’ personalities in this new film, though the inclusion of a gay partnership and elderly sexuality veer from our conventional ideas about right/wrong and even criminality in sexual and romantic relationships that challenge age binaries. LaBruce has spoken openly about the wide-spread abuse in recent years in retirement and senior’s homes; citing overly-prescribed and administered medication and repression of sexual desire or, most frighteningly, sexual abuse, being some of the most substantial issues. Acknowledging that homophobia inside elderly-care facilities has also been a consistent problem, LaBruce has made a film that attempts to liberate seniors, while challenging our usual dismissal of elderly beauty, sexuality and appreciation.
Thinking of the popularity of the MILF, cougar, daddy and elderly genres of mainstream pornography, the full spectrum of the gerontophilia fetish may be diminished by a strict focus on these “taboo” sexual acts. Though gerontophilia is a term that indeed relates to sexual preference, LaBruce seems to build on the definition of the fetish, creating a kind of gay romantic-comedy by highlighting a tenderness in the relationship between Lake and Mr. Peabody that encompasses a larger emotional connection than just the kinkyness of their attraction. The supposedly-taboo pederastic relationship is shown to be not only a sexual one, but also one of mentorship, admiration and love.