We hear an awful lot about “cougars” but these days I’m just as likely to ogle Gandalf as I am Legolas. So I confess to having a little streak of gerontophilia, though this tendency didn’t kick in until I was old enough to qualify as somebody else’s predatory feline.
Issues surrounding disparate ages and sex are extraordinarily charged, even if all involved parties have reached the age of legal consent. We’re used to pondering the older man-younger woman “thang” with mixed feelings of envy and resentment, and of course corresponding partnerships formed among same sex partners may also be viewed with suspicion.
Adult lovers of disparate ages invariably conjure scenarios involving lust, predation, exploitation, and/or Oedipal complexes, none of which are necessarily the case. We feel completely justified in scrutinizing and questioning the motivations of people involved in “May-December” relationships, inevitably pathologizing them. For the younger adult, the motivation must be money or security or an Oedipal element. For the older, we assume the motivation is an unseemly lust for younger bodies, the result of a mid-life crisis, or a blatant disregard of social standards. And so on. That two adults, no matter how far apart in age, may simply find each other attractive and desirable just does not seem to collectively compute.
Colette, the author of Cheri and The Last of Cheri, died at the dawning of our present graceless era. After surviving two grim marriages, at the age of fifty-two, Colette met Maurice Goudeket, age thirty-five. At the beginning of their affair she described him as “a rotter and a this and a that and even a chic type with a skin of satin.” And then she admitted, “that’s how deep in it I am...” However deep in she was, she may not have guessed that with Maurice she was in for thirty years of prosperous love, lasting until her death.
In the 2009 movie of Cheri, the role of Lea, the aging courtesan, is played by Michelle Pfieffer. Cheri is Lea’s very young lover. Lea dotes on Cheri, but he is equally smitten.
Here’s Cheri, in the book, frankly celebrating Lea’s charms: “Old boy, there’s never been a skin like hers... Take one look at that cabochon sapphire of yours, and then hide it away forever, because no light can turn the blue of her eyes to grey!”
Pfieffer is charming but the movie is a superficial treatment of Colette’s complex and nuanced story. In the movie, Lea lacks the surgical self-assessment that the literary Lea turns upon herself in the middle of her own sensual bliss.