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Hungry Heart

Born in the 19th century, my grandmother was in her 50s when I was born, so she was always "old" to me. Raised in small-town Louisiana, she was a lifelong churchgoer and teetotaler. She and my grandfather related to each other in banter, a kind of parody of ill humor that no doubt took the edge off a life of hard work on both their parts. They were not physically affectionate with each other, at least in front of others, but they had three daughters, including my mother. Still, as is true of most grandchildren in thinking of their grandparents, I could not imagine them as sexual creatures. I foolishly assumed that whatever sex life they enjoyed together dried up in early middle age.

But my grandmother, who became increasingly frank as she grew older, was 85 and not long recovered from cancer surgery when she answered my query as to the best thing about being home from the hospital by saying, "Being able to make love in my own bed." Given this revelation, it is not surprising that my grandmother came immediately to mind when I saw writer/director Paul Cox's Innocence.

Set in contemporary Australia, Innocence is the story of a love affair that rekindles late in life. At age 70, retired music teacher Andreas (Charles Tingwell), a widower for 30 years, reunites with an old girlfriend, Claire (Julia Blake), a housewife who has been married to her husband John (Terry Norris) for 45 years. Andreas and Claire were lovers long ago when they were young (the film says 40 years ago, but obviously means 50). This point is not made explicitly, but we might conclude that they surrendered their virginity to one another.

Flashback scenes from the point of view of both Andreas and Claire establish that each cherishes recollections of their time together. These memories seem particularly powerful for Claire because they recall a passion that has been largely missing from her married life. She and John have not had sex in two decades, and though their marriage has been free of acrimony, John has been guilty in many ways of what one might term polite neglect. For Andreas because he has been alone so long, and for Claire because she has been so lonely inside her marriage, their reunion represents one last chance to explore feelings they've both held in check. They don't let the opportunity pass -- much to John's astonished embarrassment, outrage and frustration.

Because of its fundamental gentleness and benevolence of intent, Innocence is a film I wanted to like a bit more than I quite managed. The casting didn't work for me, even though the acting itself was affecting. I don't know the actual ages of the performers, but the characters are all supposed to be the same age while Claire looks and carries herself like a person a decade younger than the two men in her life. Throughout, the picture yearns too openly for profundity, and I grew weary of the characters' habit of speaking in aphorisms. Andreas says, "What really matters in life is love. Everything else is rubbish." Claire muses, "Too much love can be as bad as no love at all." Andreas opines, "Love becomes more real the closer it comes to death," and later, "To be in love is to be in touch with eternity." In the end, Claire offers the benediction, "The only way to be happy is to love everybody and everything. To love the world." I don't disagree with these sentiments, but I don't believe the characters when they express them, and I fault director Cox for using his characters as ventriloquist dummies.

In addition, the film's narrative frustrates as often as it satisfies. We never learn why Andreas and Claire broke up, for instance. We don't quite believe, as we're supposed to, that Claire can have been so repressed inside her marriage and be so suddenly liberated by her relationship with Andreas. And we don't know how we're supposed to understand Andreas' relationship with his departed wife. At one point, he says he loved her very much; at another, he says he's only been in love twice, both times with the same woman. In the end, we regret Cox's decision to wield sickness and death as a tool for manipulating emotions.

Still, Innocence explores quite nicely the ways in which the human spirit remains youthful even as the human body surrenders to the ravages of aging. A scene in which Claire thinks of her teenage days with Andreas and begins to masturbate is at once sensitively executed and tastefully erotic. And though Cox overworks the technique, his core idea of having his characters look in the mirror and see themselves as they were in their prime is a good one. Spawned by love, the urge for physical connection is not defeated by time. And that's the same lesson my grandmother wanted me to learn in the middle of her ninth decade.

click to enlarge Separated by the expanse of time and their life decisions, Andreas (Charles Tingwell) and Claire (Julia Blake) rekindle a long-ago romance in Innocence.
  • Separated by the expanse of time and their life decisions, Andreas (Charles Tingwell) and Claire (Julia Blake) rekindle a long-ago romance in Innocence.
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