Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. Australia/France, 2013. Gaumont, Screen Australia, Ciné+, Hopscotch Features, Mon Voisin Productions, France 2 Cinéma, Screen NSW, France Télévisions, Canal+. Story by Christopher Hampton, Anne Fontaine, Screenplay by Anne Fontaine, based on the story The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing. Cinematography by Christophe Beaucarne. Produced by Philippe Carcassonne, Michel Feller, Barbara Gibbs, Andrew Mason. Music by Christopher Gordon. Production Design by Annie Beauchamp, Steven Jones-Evans. Costume Design by Joanna Mae Park. Film Editing by Luc Barnier, Ceinwen Berry.
Naomi Watts and Robin Wright live in their paradise of a coastal Australian town, best friends attached at the hip since childhood. Watts loses her husband in a car accident when her son is young, bringing her closer to her married friend and they raise their boys together. Now in their forties, the women look at their teenaged men, about to embark on their post-secondary careers, and wonder at the power of youth: these fit, handsome boys look like gods…were these women so glorious at that age? The exploration takes a strange turn when Wright has a casual moment with Watts’ son that turns into a full-blown affair, prompting her own son to do the same thing with Watts that becomes an unholy foursome that lasts for years. With changes in life, including moving to the big city for school and meeting women their own age, there are alterations that must happen in their set-up, but this is exactly where this adaptation of Doris Lessing’s The Grandmothers goes into uncharted and fascinating territory. What has up until now been a slyly hilarious and absorbing drama impresses with a mature and wholly poignant follow-up: every possible punishment that could occur to these women for their transgressions is muted by their making sure to stay loyal to each other and to themselves. There are hearts broken and lives damaged, but it never plays into the kind of guilty consequences you might expect. Instead, screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Anne Fontaine very cleverly explore the almost symbiotic relationship between the leads without judging them, creating complex women who are neither passionately in love with these boys or sexually obsessed with them. Their wondering at one point if someone thinks they’re “lezzos” is an indication that having affairs with each other’s sons is a way for them to be together without actually being a couple, and perhaps creating a different intimacy than coupling with each other would provide. The possibility that their boys are living out Oedipal fantasies without committing any actual sins is not thoroughly avoided either, but for some reason this delight of a drama never feels uncomfortable or distasteful (even if it is so righteously naughty). Wright is the film’s most satisfying revelation, giving a masterful performance that avoids the usual doomed beauties she often plays, that dark streak of pessimism that often mars her performances nowhere to be found.