Old age. It used to be a subject people tried to avoid, but now, as Japan hurtles toward a super-aged society where almost 15 percent of the populace is over 75 years old, the general feeling is that we had better deal with it.
The response, according to British filmmaker Michael Radford (“Il Postino,” “Flawless”), is not to increase public health care and senior citizens’ facilities per se, but, he says, to “get older people interested in life and art — one of the best ways to do that is to have them go to the movies.”
Radford’s latest film, “Elsa and Fred,” is a relationship story starring 80-year-old Shirley MacLaine (Elsa) and 85-year-old Christopher Plummer (Fred). At their advanced age, it’s hard to imagine the characters the film starting a relationship, going out to dinner and acting like teenagers in love — but that’s exactly what happens here. The film’s raison d’etre seems to be to convey all the things that seniors are capable of doing; to show that they have a right to date and love, like everyone else.
“It’s so hard for seniors to find emotional happiness, and I think the key to keep going is to have an active mind,” Radford tells The Japan Times. “Go to the cinema, fall in love — I mean, why not? Older people are familiar with going to movie theaters anyway — they did that all the time when they were younger. Going to the cinema meant going with a date, and then conversing about the film over coffee or drinks. They did it back in the day, and they can do it now.”
Radford makes that bygone era sound so civilized and elegant.
“Yes, nowadays people turn to their phones for everything: entertainment, love, romance. They just don’t have time to go to the theater and they go on the Net instead. But they’re looking for romance, just like everyone else,” he says.
“Elsa and Fred” is a remake of a 2005 film of the same name by Argentinian director Marcos Carnevale. Instead of Madrid, the backdrop is New Orleans, and Radford assembled an intriguing cast including Marcia Gay Harden and Scott Bakula (playing Fred and Elsa’s daughter and son, respectively) who all seem to be having a ball just being on the set. Some of the original story has been changed, but Radford — working on the script with longtime collaborator Anna Pavignano — kept Elsa’s obsession with her past, her penchant for fibbing and her love for Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” In Carnevale’s film and in this one, Elsa has a thing for vintage movies, living spaces, clothing and sentiment.
“With Elsa the way she was, we needed to shoot in New Orleans,” Radford says. “It’s hard to find a place like that — with genuine atmosphere, not fabricated or artificial. We were all thrilled to be there.”
MacLaine and Plummer seem right in their element, especially MacLaine, whose character is a woman used to having atmosphere all around her, and who makes some when none is available.
In the film, she claims that she looked exactly like Anita Ekberg when she was young and that Picasso was so taken with her that he painted her portrait.
Elsa’s been sitting on the same dream for the past 60 years: to go to Italy and reenact the scene in “La Dolce Vita” when Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni frolic at Rome’s Trevi Fountain. Elsa has waited all her life for Marcello’s real-life equivalent to show up at her doorstep, and she spots potential in her new neighbor, Fred (Plummer).
“The great thing about working with Shirley and Christopher is that they’re movie stars,” Radford says. “They are the genuine article — the real thing. They may be in their 80s but they are so professional. They’ve been actors for so long they each have an image of themselves which they curate and update all the time.
“Naturally, they tire easily and you can’t push them too much — making a film is exhausting business — but they can memorize their lines faster and better than anyone else and they can create a beautiful scene out of thin air. They look at me like I’m just a young whippersnapper.
“It was a real pleasure to work with them, and I have to tell you: All the young women on the staff couldn’t take their eyes off Christopher. They kept saying how hot he was.” (Which is true — Plummer as Fred is kind of sexy, even though he spends the first 15 minutes of the story being dull and hating life.)
Fred has always lived by the rules, but after the death of his wife, he’s no longer sure what the rules are and why they had been so important, and he decides to spend the rest of his life waiting to die.
“The person who comes along and shakes him out of that rut is Elsa,” Radford explains. “Her only wish is to have a vibrant, imaginative life and, in many ways, she’s a pain in the ass. But finally, she gets to him and he realizes that at his age, he still has a chance to try something new and experience a sense of starting over.”
Perhaps this latent potential of the elderly is something the local film industry should pay attention to. Japan has a tradition of revering older performers and filmmakers, but the stories being released mostly revolve around youth and the young.
“It’s the same in the U.K.,” Radford says. “But England also reveres and adores older performers — you can see them all on ‘Downton Abbey’! — and there are more films about older people, particularly in the last decade. We’re starting to see more older people sitting in movie theaters. So there’s a definite need, in whatever country, for movies about older people that are fun and romantic and don’t rob them of their dignity.”