“Gerontophilia” is not the typical radical, pornographic film experience offered up by Canadian enfant terrible Bruce LaBruce. This unexpectedly sweet film depicts the unconventional love affair between a handsome recent college grad, Lake (Pier-Gabriel Lajoie), and Mr. Peabody (Walter Borden), an 81-year-old African-American resident of an old age home.
LaBruce spoke via Skype with Gay City News about his thoughtful romance, the titular fetish, and aging.
GARY M. KRAMER: Why did you choose to make a sweet romantic film about this taboo subject? We’re you out to shock?
BRUCE LABRUCE: Yes, absolutely! That was the strategy. The idea was do something shockingly kind and gentle because I’ve done many shocking and often pornographic films. You feel stuck in a rut and reaching the same audience at times, so I wanted to choose a subject that was a transgression of a sexual taboo or treating a fetish romantically, but not to make it explicit this time. I expected more of a resistance to me making this kind of film, but people don’t seem too pissed off that I’m trying something completely different.
GMK: Lake gets an unexpected erection giving mouth-to-mouth on to a senior in the pool where he works as a lifeguard. What prompted you to tell this story of a young man falling in love with someone closer to death?
BLB: One thing that I didn’t do consciously was that there was a whole imagery of death in the film. Lake sees a dead bird and gives a sponge bath and [tends to] the man in the pool; they are like corpses. The way he cleans Peabody’s body in the sponge bath is like how they clean corpses. The closer to death the person is the more erotically charged it is for the gerontophile. Being old and close to death is part of the sexual fetish. But it connects with all the signifiers of aging being sexualized — wrinkles, stooped posture, etcetera. The pool was a way of demonstrating that the fetish is coming from a place you can’t define. It is as mysterious for the boy as for the audience. These are traditionally places pedophiles would hang out, e.g., crossing guards, pools, etcetera. But it’s a reversal of that urge, so it’s ironic. Everything is reversed. It’s the reverse “Lolita,” with the old man as the sex object.
GMK: Have you ever suddenly found yourself aroused by something unexpected
BLB: Yeah. I think we censor ourselves a lot and we all have fantasies that come out of nowhere and are shocking. You might even be disturbed by a sexual reaction you have to something. It’s a way of working out darker fantasies. Almost everyone has some kind of fetish, whether it’s acknowledged or not.
GMK: You make the scene where Lake gives Mr. Peabody a sponge bath erotic. And the handsome Lake is seen naked only briefly in the hospital room. Why did you take this approach to depicting the sex between men in the film?
BLB: I really wanted to make it apparent that what was going on in the hospital was sexual. I didn’t want to justify it. It’s the same reason I chose to show the condom in the hotel. I didn’t want people to think Lake was just being “affectionate” with these older men. I wanted it to be abundantly clear there was sex going on. Showing them having sex would have been a completely different movie. I wanted this to have a larger budget and be more accessible. I could have made a porn film…
I was playing with conventions of romantic comedies, playing within those rom-com conventions and stretching them as far as possible. For Lake, part of the joke is to cast someone so beautiful that the irony is that he isn’t the sex object. He is to an extent, but not in the narrative.
GMK: How did you work with the actors? Did they have any concerns about the script?
BLB: Casting was crucial, and it was written for an 18- and 81-year-old, and I wanted to cast as close to that, and I did. I did go through more conventional casting agencies, which I’ve never done before. We looked at 25 to 30 people for each role. We cast Walter, who was a gay and black activist since the 1960s. I knew he would be generous with showing his body, which a more well known actor would shy away from.
Lake, I lucked out with. He’s a straight boy and never heard of gerontophilia or what the fetish was, but he had an innocence and was open-minded. It was tough for him to make out with an 81-year-old guy, but I was really proud of him that he took it on and had absolutely no compunction. They had a great chemistry and became good friends off screen.
GMK: Lake tells his girlfriend Desiree (Katie Boland) that he thinks there is something wrong with him because he has this fetish. How do you think your film punctures this taboo? And why are fetishes wrong?
BLB: I think especially for a kid exploring his own sexuality that it’s difficult not to be completely uninfluenced by society, and that he would question it up to a point. But according to Desiree, the revolutionary thing is that he pursues it anyway against the disapproval of his mother and people at the hospital. I think there is a misconception that fetishes are nasty, or something to be ashamed of, but I’ve found there is often a great appreciation for the object of the fetish — that a foot fetishist appreciates the foot and the form of the foot. There’s an aspect of that. Lake’s sexual connection to the elderly starts with empathy.
GMK: Did you make “Gerontophilia” in response to your own aging?
BLB: It occurred to me writing it I am halfway between the young boy and the old man, so I found myself identifying with both —remembering how it was to be 18 and sexually desirable, and projecting into future, wondering if I can sustain desirability into old age, so it was looking at it from both sides.
GERONTOPHILIA | Directed by Bruce LaBruce | Strand Releasing | Opens May 1 | City Cinemas Village East 7, 189 Second Ave. at 12th St.; citycinemas.com