Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Maggie 2010: An Emphatic Recommendation

#85. Venus

I have such a tremendous backlog of films to write up, but it keeps getting pushed aside by the occasional piece I watch that elicits more immediate, passionate response in me, negative or positive.

Venus elicits the latter. Oh heavens, does it ever. I have passed this film week in and week out at Gen X for years now, wanting to take the plunge but always hesitating at the last. The pull? An usual relationship between an elderly actor and the great-niece of his friend. Rare is the film that navigates more complex human relationships with compassion, understanding, and wisdom, but something about this work seemed to promise all three. The hesitation? The apprehensive way this relationship was coddled in all promotional material. Strenuously labelled as the story of a friendship developed between two people at different points in their lives, I feared that for all this film's promise of complexity it would ultimately descend into a saccharine, superficial wash.

However, while older-male, younger-female love affairs are still fairly common in contemporary cinema, I can happily confirm Venus offers something more nuanced and diversified than either the terms "love" or "friendship" can adequately describe. It helps especially that the central interaction, between Peter O'Toole as Maurice and Jodie Whittaker as Jessie/Venus, is by no means the only one: in strokes varying from elaborate to light and deft, Venus also traverses the strange intimacy of a marriage long fallen from grace, and the tenuous fealty upon which lifetime friendships are, in the course of late-stage elderly care, occasionally forced to hang.

To give some comparison, I'd easily place this film in the vein of Once, Paris, Texas, and Away From Her, all of which test the breadth, depth, and even use of intimacy in human affairs. (Obviously the aforementioned films are very different in subject, genre, and execution, but their unusual treatment of central relationships is still a uniting thread.) However, even as I write this I feel I should emphasize that, of all things, this English film from 2006 is a comedy, and merits that title absolutely. For every familiar gesture there is an uncommon follow-up; for ever anticipated outcome there is a markedly slapstick dashing of expectations. And while this film's characters ultimately negotiate an intricate balance between hurt and pleasure, and so come to haunt you long before the last scene is through, opportunities for laughter crop up where least expected. That, after all, is just what happens in real life.

A final word must also be set down for director Roger Michell, whose use of light and dark is at times in this film truly inspired, helping in early scenes to create experiential complexity where lesser hands would go for easy objectification, and providing such delicate theatricality in later scenes where more blatant meaning might otherwise have been infused. Venus is a swan song for human frailty, and for the immensity of lived experience necessarily endured by any of us who have both the pleasure and misfortune of walking this strange, tired earth. I heartily recommend it for anyone seeking truly humanistic fare.

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