Love, Sex, and Death: I’ll (Not Be) See(ing) You in My Dreams
Reviewed by Brooke A. Carlson
Finding and falling in love; folly, courtship, Valentines; marriage…till death do us…part. Love and death. Save for tragedy, love and death are a bad match, especially on the big screen (Woody Allen’s zany Tolstoy parody aside). Brett Haley’s I’ll See You in my Dreams (2015) offers a more mature take on love, and just in time—for your love to cool, that is.
Films on the elderly aren’t new; 1981’s On Golden Pond paired the hoary Henry Fonda with Katherine Hepburn in a septuagenarian character study that was a commercial and critical success. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman made their Bucket List nearly ten years ago. Sarah Polley levelled a steady gaze at Alzheimer’s and an elderly couple coming to terms with love, disease, and death in her 2006 Academy Award-winning Away From Her. There have been a spate of films about growing old as of late. Julianne Moore won an Oscar two years ago for her role as a woman slipping into early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice (2014). This year saw the limited release of Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth (2015), starring Michael Caine, with Caine as a retired orchestra conductor who receives an invitation from the Queen while on vacation. Sorrentino is Italian, and he brought us La Grande Belezza three years ago, a film about a 65 year old man’s attempt to come to terms with his life and self amidst 21st century urban decadence. And even more recently, Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady in the Van (2015) explores the comedy of friendship arising between an elderly man and an elderly woman living on the streets. Hytner’s comedy nods at romance, but romance with more mature couples is a heavier topic, if not taboo.
With Valentine’s Day still in the air, many are in the mood for love, not death. For those, then, I advise against seeing Dreams. Go back to Kar Wai Wong and In the Mood for Love (2000). For those of you of fortitude and in the mood for a more seasoned and mature romance…well, sleep perchance to dream the Dream.
I’ll See You in My Dreams is a film about one woman and her three female friends settling into retirement. The promotional tag is “A widow and former songstress discovers that life can begin anew at any age.” Carol, superbly played by Blythe Danner, is the only one amongst her group still living on her own. The others are enjoying a retirement community existence filled with golf, gourmet dining, bouts of bridge, drinks on the patio, and speed dating. Yes, speed dating. Sallie (Rhea Perlman) convinces Carol to partake and when asked about her interests by man number one, Carol is forced to bounce the question right back. She has none.
Carol’s daughter is all grown up, and her husband passed away some twenty years back. Haley does a terrific job with an opening sequence that establishes Carol as alone, ordinary, and content with her daily routine. The deliberate pace of these sequences suggest a cinema verite that asks the viewer to slow down and pay attention to enjoy the film. But not that far into the film, Carol’s dog dies and the death sets off a series of complications.
This film about elderly women is also a film about whiteness and entitlement. The Bechdel test requires there be at least two named female characters who talk to each about something other than a man. Haley’s film passes the Bechdel test; yet there’s still lots of talk about men. The racial representation, on the other hand, is maddeningly stereotypical and white. The DuVernay test requires minorities with fully realized lives, and this film fails. The only diversity in the picture is on the periphery—pool guys and exterminators at Carol’s house, and the nursing staff in a hospital. In this light, the Dream is a reminder of how closely tied race is to feminism and how poor a job white feminism has done.
The presence of a mouse in her house also throws Carol for a loop. She spends the night outside, where she is discovered the next morning by the pool guy. This particular pool guy, Lloyd, is white. There are two or three others, all Latino, not one of whom Carol speaks to in the same way as she does Lloyd. Lloyd is down on his luck, or more likely, still in search of some. Like Carol, and perhaps what draws them together, he seems somewhat off-put and dissatisfied, yet reluctant to change. Over a few glasses of wine, they become “drinking buddies,” and Lloyd notices a picture of Carol in her youth—singing. Lloyd wants to write or make music (like so many people in Los Angeles), but has nothing to show for his passion. He yearns to hear Carol’s story of what he takes to be real success based on the image, and the two eventually wind up singing karaoke at small bar. Lloyd’s silly singing of a pop song pales in comparison to Carol’s crooning of a “Cry Me a River.” And while Carol and Lloyd enjoy talking and spending time in each other’s presence, Lloyd is half her age, if not two-third’s. Moreover, although Carol clearly enjoys Lloyd’s company, she doesn’t want a man. She’s happy. So what does it mean for she and Loyd to hit it off?
Frazzled by the death of her dog and the intrusion of the mouse, confused by her delight in Lloyd, Carol is then hit on by one of the men at the retirement community. Bill (Sam Elliott), a mustached heartthrob still, gets Carol to commit to a date, and after a couple, they wind up in bed. Haley stays out of the bedroom, for the most part, and gives the sex a light treatment. Although not enthused about the sex, Carol does seem to be falling for Bill. The morning after, Lloyd drops by unannounced, and Bill, the gentlemen, eventually comes to the door and invites him in to join them for breakfast. Carol is confused, perhaps by men her age who still, even at her age, want so badly to get in her pants. One of her speed daters, for example, “cuts right to the chase,” undeterred by herpes (if she has it, but he doesn’t). While she enjoys time with Bill, she also enjoys time with Lloyd, and unlike Bill, Loyd isn’t continually pushing for more. But then Bill suddenly passes away. He has no family, and she isn’t family, so when she tries to see him in the hospital, she’s not allowed entry. Carol’s daughter arrives and offers consolation, but Carol is insistent upon her self and her singleness. And she is dissatisfied visibly, even as much as she insists she is not. Lloyd soon shows up to apologize for having come buy unannounced, and they seem to fall back into step. Lloyd sings Carol a song he wrote and Carol is moved; so much so that she gives him both a hug and a kiss on the forehead. The film ends there, but that hug and kiss suggest the promise in the tag: “that life can begin anew at any age.”
For a film allegedly about starting over, Carol merely grinds roughly, painfully from discomfort to displeasure, through irritation and on. We don’t get enough of Bill to know how different coming to terms with mortality all by one’s self is, and he dies too quickly. The male speed daters afford us another glimpse into men at this stage, but it’s hard not to feel like Haley is merely mocking them. Bill’s death might be read then as the death of the white, stereotypical masculine ideal. Read against those speed dating clowns and against the more sensitive, younger Lloyd, Bill’s Marlboro man cowboy-warrior archetype is the end of an era. But Carol, because that’s who this film is about, isn’t happy. Nor is she terribly sad. Bill’s death allows her to return to a safe relationship with Lloyd, a man she can keep at a distance because of his age. She’s a widow after all, and what Haley does succeed in showing in Dream is the choice to have loved the big love…once. Behind the picture then the patriarchal shadow looms large. Single women, even widows, can’t really be happy; that dark silhouette shakes its head and exits.
After all, as the great tragedies show us, such timeless love only exists when couples die together: Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, and so on. Orphee may be the male counterpart to Carol, but his demise is furious and fantastic. Carol’s, on the other hand, is frustrating (for her daughter in the film, and for the viewer without). And she doesn’t actually die. Rather, she opts to see Lloyd again, and to choose a kind of love, a flirtation with someone she likes, that maybe, just maybe, makes that imminent death to come (alone) a little less devastating.
Brooke A. Carlson, Ph.D., Department of English, Chaminade University