The new film 45 Years features an explicit scene involving older actors – why is this so rare? Emma Jones investigates one of cinema’s last taboos.

By Emma Jones POST ON BBC

A married couple are in crisis when news of the husband’s ex-girlfriend surfaces unexpectedly. Trying to put the matter behind them, they drink wine and chat. When they go upstairs later, the husband suggests making love, which they haven’t done in a while. Sex follows.

The scenario is from director Andrew Haigh’s new film 45 Years, whose stars won the Silver Bear acting prizes at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. What makes this sex scene unusual is that the couple, played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, are in their late sixties and early seventies.

This scene “is absolutely pivotal to the film,” says Andrew Haigh. “But it’s been funny watching it in awkward silence at screenings because audiences do think that when Charlotte’s character Kate shuts the bedroom door, that that is the end of it. But no, we carry on. The concept that as we grow older we no longer have sexual feelings is to me, a man of 42 years old, a sad state of affairs.”

Still from 45 Years (Credit: The Bureau)

In 45 Years, Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling play a couple preparing to mark a significant wedding anniversary (Credit: The Bureau)

The scene is what makes 45 Years an anomaly, because when it comes to the bedroom habits of people of pensionable age, film-makers have tended to keep the door shut. Until a few years ago, mainstream films featuring elderly people having relationships at all were rare – then came Michel Haneke’s Oscar and Palme d’Or winner Amourin 2012. At the same time there were crowd-pleasers like The Best Exotic Marigold Hoteland Quartet.    However, though love might blossom among septuagenarians, the cameras never intruded on any consummation – the message seeming to be that none was possible.

No laughing matter

Sex between older people on screen is a taboo because it’s so rare – Wendy Mitchell

“45 Years is a marvellous film and it shows this older couple as interesting individuals, engaged with the world, with active social lives, and so it follows that they might be sexually active as well,” Wendy Mitchell, contributing editor to trade daily Screen International, points out. “It’s important that the sex scene is realistic, it’s not fake and glossy, it’s Tom Courtenay’s ageing body in his underpants. But it’s not played for laughs, and that’s crucial, because older people having sex shouldn’t be a joke.”

Yet comedy is often the way Hollywood deals with older lovers. 2003’s Something’s Gotta Givedoes actually include a sex scene between the protagonists, played by Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, but the joke is that Nicholson’s character, ordinarily only interested in younger women, has to use Viagra.

Another comedy, It’s Complicated (2009) keeps the rejuvenated sex life a pair of ex-spouses, played Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, almost entirely off-screen. But Baldwin and Streep were only in their fifties at the time of filming – as was Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give: hardly elderly.