Thu October 18, 2012
Aging Gracefully By Sticking 'All Together'
Like the characters in this year's indie feel-good The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — British pensioners who decide to spend their autumn years living communally and on the cheap in India — the French seniors of the charming yet melancholy All Together face aging in a time of banking crises and austerity measures.
The ensemble dramedy, about five longtime friends struggling with difficult economic, physical and mental realities, opens with the telltale sound of a swift and persistent ticking clock. The message is clear: Time is precious, and resources of all kinds are dwindling.
Now in their 70s, the five are trying to keep their lives in balance, despite the diminishments of age. Jean (Guy Bedos), an ardent activist who's protested with the best of them, now can't get arrested, not even for leading a demonstration and hurling more than epithets at riot police. At home, his patient wife, Annie (Geraldine Chaplin), wants to see more of their grandkids, but Jean refuses on principle to put in a pool.
Their intellectual friend Jeanne (Jane Fonda), otherwise effervescent, despairs only momentarily when she receives a dire health prognosis; she doesn't have the heart to tell her playful husband, Albert (Pierre Richard), whose moments of forgetfulness are becoming more frequent and problematic.
The two couples' libertine friend Claude (Claude Rich) seems the only one still keeping up his old habits without too much difficulty. Claude enjoys his time with those prostitutes who are willing to see him, and he develops his nude photographs with youthful energy — until he collapses after a minor cardiac incident. When Claude's son puts him in a managed-care facility that drains his vitality, Jean steps in with a radical idea: Everyone should move in together.
As soon as Jean suggests it, the idea feels inevitable. Each member of the group has needs that complement another's strengths — Jeanne knows she won't be around forever to take care of Albert, and being in the presence of friends like Claude can keep Albert in the present, and stop him from wandering off. And while Jean gets to make a difference in others' lives again, Annie negotiates her pool as part of the deal.
The living situation solves some problems (and, of course, creates some comic ones), but All Together sidesteps the purely cheery prospects built into its fanciful premise to explore the realistic challenges and sacrifices of living communally. The once-private arguments between Jean and Annie are exposed for all to hear; Albert has fewer familiar spaces and routines to help combat his dementia. All of them are closer to each other's secrets, too, and a quiet tension permeates the household when hints of Jeanne's long-ago affair with Claude reveal themselves.
While a more generic version of this film might have focused only on the heartwarming aspects of its characters' struggles, writer-director Stephane Robelin treats aging with humor and grace — but does not shy away from portraying its characters' vulnerability. He balances every victory with a small reminder of that moment's transitory nature: Over a candlelit dinner on their first night in the house together, the group toasts to their project's success. But when the meal is over, Albert asks Jeanne when they're going home.
The film's central performances reflect both its celebration of age and a sense of wistfulness. As Jeanne, Fonda is a bright, charming spirit keeping the others afloat, the kind of person who requests something jollier when shopping for coffins. She also thoroughly debunks the myth of being sexless in old age, as evidenced by Dirk (Daniel Bruhl), an ethnologist interested in elderly community living who's hired as a dog walker and later as an in-house caregiver.
It's Pierre Richard, however, who anchors All Together, portraying Albert as stubbornly happy-go-lucky, a man bent on retaining his jovial disposition even as he's frustrated by what he's forgotten. In keeping a detailed daily journal, Albert accepts that his memory is at stake, but in focusing his writing on what delicious food and wine he's consumed that day, he chooses not to let his condition compromise his identity or how he lives. In such moments, All Together underscores that there will be happiness, and there will be an end, and that they may not come together.