I found a VHS subtitled copy of The Old Woman Who Walked in the Sea. I had seen the film ages ago but must have decided not to show it to the film group because of its language. Now when the sexuality of the old woman in films is more talked about, when the platitudes of ‘still doing it’ and ‘positive ageing’ are rife it is time for me to look at the film again.
It is not a film I would recommend to non-French speaking people but I think it is an important film to view. I would not recommend it because I do not think that the filthy, obscene language that the old couple, Mrs M. and Pontilius use to communicate with each other translates well. But in Jeanne Moreau’s distinctive voice and delivery it acquires sometimes humour, sometimes despair and as one French critic said this language becomes poetic.
To quote Gillis in Sunset Boulevard,”a very simple setup an older woman well to do and a younger man who is not doing so well.” Mrs. M. (Moreau aged 63 but playing an older woman) and Pontilius (Serrault also 63 and looking older) are a couple of ageing con artists who have made a fortune by blackmailing and robbing the rich. They communicate by hurling inventive insults at each other. These are obscene or cruelly ageist with their copious referrals to male and female genitalia, sexual activity or the ageing body.
Under the cover of the narrative of theft and blackmail of the rich in their leisure grounds – Guadeloupe, the French Riviera, Paris – under the unsavoury language there is a touching story with some cruel threads of a developing relationship between an old woman and a sexually attractive young man.
Lord don’t you ever tire of me a sinner whose ass has been plucked 100,000 times. Dear God never let me give up. Keep alive in me forever this desire for love, this throb that saves me from death – this hellish hope that makes my heart beat faster. This lamentable longing for young flesh. I am an old bitch. Dear God of Infinite Goodness.
These are the pre titles words that open the film over a scene where Mrs. M is looking in the mirror: an over made-up face, a wig, she is adjusting a smart hat over her red hair. There is no doubt that the film is going to be about the sexual desire of this old woman.
I have tried to analyse this very complex film and found such depth in it that I decided that I could not do it justice without considering all its aspects (including the language) and without engaging in extensive research. This would take too much of my time to the detriment of preparing my film group programme.
I do think it is an important film. It challenges all other film expositions of desire and love of the old woman for a young man and also counteracts the tragic ending of Racine’s Phèdre.