ISABELLA Rossellini plucks thoughtfully at the soft folding of her neck skin, which hasn’t been landscaped into cling-wrap tautness. There hasn’t been any tinkering with her eyes and mouth either; their creases reveal decades of generous smiles and still-sexy pouts. It is a face that, in the forthcoming film Late Bloomers, speaks truthfully of love and life.
While it is a relief to see a famous woman so comfortable with time’s work — born in 1952, she’s beautiful not despite her age but partly because of it — it is also reassuring to see the warts-and-all intimate relationship at the film’s heart. Rossellini and an equally aged William Hurt play this central couple with authenticity — wear, tear, joy and tenderness.
Older people in love: well, they’re usually invisible in popular culture. As for young people in love, they get a pretty fraught deal, too, widely represented as impossibly perfect beauties having endlessly hot sex with other faultless, fatless peers. It’s a lot to live up to.
Representations of real love — with deep feeling and commitment — are hard to find. We all know desire sells things and love has been co-opted as a retail tool but the different ages of love — from the first blushes of awkward youth through to the easy elegance of a loving relationship that has endured many decades — get twisted or ignored. Perhaps because they are ‘‘ordinary loves’’ (to misquote singer Sade), full of emotional nuance and imperfections, they get trampled in a giddy rush of manufactured ‘‘passion’’ peddled by slick advertising, celebrity cultism, TV soaps and the pornography-drenched internet.
While the lightweight new-release film Ages of Love falters in exploring how love matures as we age, it has its moment of truth when a nicely weathered Robert De Niro and a now-mellowed Monica Bellucci are on screen: they tenderly accept one another’s shortcomings of character as they embark gently on love.
True human love is very different from romance, writes Jungian analyst Robert Johnson in We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love. Romance, he says, has supplanted religion as something we expect to give us meaning; through it, we expect a partner to provide continual ecstasy and intensity. That is not possible and as we become wearied by the cycles and dead ends of romance, we begin to wonder if real love exists. ‘‘Romance is not a love that is directed at another human being,’’ he writes. ‘‘The passion of romance is always directed at our own projections.’’ Human love, by stark contrast, is a willingness to share simple, unromantic life, ‘‘not to eternally demand a cosmic drama, an entertainment, or an extraordinary intensity in everything’’.
Poet Alicia Sometimes, once partial to such cosmic dramas, says most portrayals of relationships show the swooning beginnings of impassioned love or the tempestuous, hurtful ends of it but never the easygoing middle bits. ‘‘You hardly ever see films where they are happy and not much else,’’ she says. Daily, garden-variety happiness, amid the familiar proceedings of life with her two children and husband Steve Grimwade, director of the Melbourne Writers Festival, is where she has found contentment. She might never pack a dishwasher in the approved manner and he might never get his clothes into the laundry basket but this younger couple know they are there for each other, special and interested.
As a teenager, Sometimes thrived on the idea intimate relationships should burst with earth-shattering dramas. Meeting Grimwade in 1997 at a poetry event was different. ‘‘It was not a feeling of, ‘This love is so immense it’s going to kill me,’ or ‘I can’t breathe.’ This was so calm and I think that was what was different. Every other relationship I’d had was over-the-top, stomach-crampy, I must-get-a-T-shirt-made-of-them.’’
Grimwade impressed with kindness, calmness, humour. ‘‘It doesn’t sound like the makings of true love but ...’’ They married in 2005.
In a new book, The Curious History of Love, French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann says there are many forms of love but his historical research reveals that somewhere along the line, intimate love between couples was hijacked to become a commodity. ‘‘It is tragic because the ‘calculating individual’ model has become so powerful that it is now encroaching upon the private realm,’’ he writes.
‘‘Our choice of conjugal partner, in particular, is increasingly influenced by a consumerist logic [comparing products in order to find out which is best] and that makes commitment very problematic.’’
The paradox, he writes, is that the more this cold cynicism envelops our culture, the more we seek happiness. Genuine lovingness (not hyped ‘‘romance’’) offers this solace and could be ‘‘truly revolutionary’’ for society.
Writers and poets perhaps talk about love with such perceptiveness because expressing its delicate rhythms, using both intuition and careful analysis, has always been their consuming topic. When writers Robert Dessaix and Peter Timms met almost 30 years ago, both had recently emerged from passionate affairs. Drama was not something either of them sought when they encountered each other through an ad Dessaix had placed in a magazine. Contrary to the fabrications of romance, with all its heightened passions and fantasies of perfection, what these two people hoped for was something more earthed.
‘‘In our popular culture — the culture of New Idea and Woman’s Day and Hello — there’s only one kind of falling in love and it’s the same as falling in lust,’’ Dessaix says. ‘‘In real life, for a lot of people, they are not totally separate things but they are rather different things. And I think that you fall in love with someone that you feel you might like to spend most of every day for the rest of your life with differently from the way you fall in love in the sense of being seized with passion and a desire to copulate.’’
Timms says that when he met Dessaix, there was no grand passion; rather, he found the writer interesting, clever and wonderful to converse with and there was a natural attraction. ‘‘It was an alternative for me, something reliable and steady and intellectually stimulating that looked like it was going to last. Then I found that the love grew gradually, after we moved in together, over a period of years.’’
Dessaix, too, surpasses romantic fantasy, observing that living with a partner is, for us all, mostly made of drudgery. Cooking, cleaning, shopping, sitting in a recliner watching TV, walking the dog or weeding. ‘‘For a love relationship to work, you have to have something that transforms that ... and makes it beautiful. If you don’t you are left with just vacuuming and ironing and then everything goes sour and you start to think, ‘If only I could have a weekend with Brad Pitt, I’d feel invigorated.’ What you really need is some kind of shared internal life that redeems all those things.’’
Dessaix describes this shared internal life as a ‘‘secret kingdom’’ with its own history, stories and loves in life. ‘‘After 30 years, I quite often say to Peter, ‘Do you think ...’ and he’ll say, ‘No, I don’t.’ I don’t even have to mention what the topic is.’’
That said, both men say their personalities and opinions have remained quite distinct, even as some of their interests have crossed over. Mutual values, though, are important to them and were part of the attraction.
The shared internal life allows us, Johnson says, to affirm ‘‘the person who is actually there, rather than the ideal we like him or her to be’’. This love causes us to value the person as a total, individual self, with imperfections as well as admirable qualities.
For Dessaix and Timms, this richness comes from careful, conscious communication and employing healthy humour. ‘‘If I am feeling something is going wrong,’’ Dessaix says, ‘‘I will say, ‘I don’t think you should have said that.’ I said that last night but I have the language to say why and Peter has the language to defend himself (quite unreasonably, of course!) and to explain why he said what he said.’’ This is perhaps why they have never had a serious argument or dispute that has left ‘‘either of us feeling bitter or damaged’’.
Dessaix says beauty is of the essence — that ‘‘love’’ means finding someone deeply beautiful to you. ‘‘Life is terribly, terribly short, as I now know, in my 60s, with my 30s feeling like the week before last. You shouldn’t be spending any of those years in a miserable relationship.’’
Timms agrees. ‘‘You won’t find another person beautiful unless you find all sorts of other things beautiful. You have to be able to appreciate the beauty of the landscape or music or whatever it might be — you’ve got to be able to experience the beauty of existence, if that’s not too exalted-sounding. We are talking about love being between two people but it has to be expansive as well.’’
Further along the spectrum of enduring love is romance writer Valerie Parv. With 26 years between her and her husband, Paul (‘‘not that we ever really noticed it’’), they had been together for 38 years before he died in 2008. For this woman, who has written 70 books (50 of them in the romance genre) and clocked up 29million sales, romance is not a fantasy in real life.
‘‘I got so frustrated being told you couldn’t have a romantic relationship like we do in novels that I wrote a [non-fiction] book called I’ll Have What She’s Having. I wanted to say it can be like this, it depends on how much work you are prepared to put into it. Paul and I always used to work at our romance and people used to say, ‘Oh, you sound like newlyweds.’
‘‘I don’t know if they thought it was something I’d put on just to look good professionally but it was exactly how we were, privately and publicly. I am convinced the secretes that you do have to work at it.’’
The essence of her relationship was about retaining the great appeal of their early times together. ‘‘What is a romantic relationship?’’ she asks. ‘‘There are certainly psychologists who say that it’s chemical and that it will wear off and you will settle into this boring, everyday existence. That wasn’t our experience. Perhaps because of what I do, we were more aware of it. This ‘queen of romance’ thing has to be good for something! A lot of it came down to doing the things that you do when you first get together, which is you consider each other, you care about each other, you don’t belittle each other, you don’t try to score points. They are things that sneak in.’’
Like Sometimes, Dessaix and Timms, Parv is wary of high drama in a relationship — interesting for a romance novelist. ‘‘The whole media focus [is] on drama — let’s face it, that’s what sells papers, magazines and online services — but that isn’t the whole of life. The quiet times are as valuable, even more so than the dramas. Drama in fiction — you can resolve it and everyone goes away happy. In real life it’s far more destructive.’’
Her words are so sensible, it is no surprise to discover she has done a counselling diploma in recent years and might one day practise. She would enjoy reading Robert Johnson, too, because he insists an intimate relationship is inseparable from friendship and commitment.
‘‘We can learn that the essence of love is not to use the other to make us happy but to serve and affirm the one we love,’’ he writes. ‘‘And we can discover, to our surprise, that what we have needed more than anything was not so much to be loved, as to love.’’