From The Idea of You to A Family Affair: the summer of age-gap romances

Estimated read time 5 min read

A Family Affair, a new romcom from Netflix, knows the precisely calibrated fantasy it’s offering: a romance between a celebrity and a normal person, a titillating but not scandalous age gap, some movie-star chemistry threatened by a mild and ultimately surmountable amount of disapproval. The twist? The woman in this pairing, a 50-year-old writer played by 57-year-old Nicole Kidman, is the elder of the pair. A widow with a few books under her belt and an enviable closet of cast-off designer gowns, Brooke summarily charms (and mounts) actor Chris (34-year-old Zac Efron), who in the film is 16 years her junior – and also her 24-year-old daughter Zara’s (Joey King) exacting, aloof boss.

The film, written by Carrie Solomon and directed by Richard LaGravenese, shares with its Netflix romcom brethren a certain aesthetic, for better and often for worse: the made-for-streaming sheen, just-past-current needle drops, cavernous yet lifeless showroom mansions. Unusually for many a romcom these days, it does contain an actual sex scene, albeit one without nudity. But the hijinks-filled romance between two consenting adults is more interesting than it otherwise would be for depicting a notably older woman in a functional pairing, or even still just showing a woman over 40 with any sexual desire at all.

A Family Affair is, notably, the second such film this year to wade ever-so slightly into the increasingly fraught age-gap discourse with this fantasy aimed particularly at middle-aged women, and the first of two starring Kidman; in A24’s hotly anticipated Babygirl, out this December, she’ll play a high-powered CEO in a forbidden romance with a much younger intern, played by Harris Dickinson. This spring, Amazon’s The Idea of You skewed a bit younger; Anne Hathaway plays 40-year-old Solène, a divorced art gallerist pursued by boybander Hayes (Nicholas Galitzine) after a chance meeting at Coachella with her teenage daughter. That film, directed by Michael Showalter from the novel by Robinne Lee, gives barely disguised Harry Styles fan fiction the most deluxe treatment one could hope for, complete with a decent One Direction knock-off soundtrack and a full-charisma performance from Hathaway, giving her best Julia Roberts smile and meme-able shriek when she opens her laptop to the TMZ headline: “Cougar!! What’s he thinking??”

A movie still showing a white man and a white woman holding hands as they walk along a nighttime cobblestone street below streetlights.View image in fullscreen

These two films make light of a longstanding fixation with the figure of the cougar, heretofore usually seen from the perspective of the lusting boy (think the song Stacy’s Mom) or at the expense of the older woman. The cougar is desperate, lascivious, wrong, pitiable, objectified, a joke at Milf Manor – or, in the subgenre of psychological dramas of women pursuing minors, a subject of transgressive, perverse fascination. The women of the Cate Blanchett/Judi Dench classic Notes on a Scandal, the FX series A Teacher, or Todd Haynes’s recent feature May December, and even the women of the legal-yet-still-insane quadrangle in Naomi Watts-starrer Adore, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, and Todd Field’s Tár are all strange, self-delusional, at times monstrous creatures.

Such films engage more deeply, though (thankfully) not moralistically, with the power dynamics of an age gap when the older partner is in a position of authority, often trained less on the trauma of the younger person (or minor) than the baffling psychology of the perpetrator. It’s not always brutally dark; Haynes caused a stir last year with the camp elements of May December, which drops in two decades after a tabloid frenzy over a sexual relationship between 36-year-old teacher Gracie (Julianne Moore) and her 12-year-old student Joe (played as an adult by Charles Melton). Though handling a real-life tabloid story – the film is based on the Mary Kay Letourneau scandal — May December runs curiously, fastidiously cold, lightly prodding at both Joe’s stifled, stunted adulthood and Gracie’s brittle denial.

A similarly cool, double-pronged concern courses through Last Summer, another age-gap film this year from French auteur Catherine Breillat, in which middle-aged lawyer Anne (Léa Drucker) engages in a clandestine affair with her 17-year-old stepson Théo (Samuel Kircher, crucially looking not a day over 17). The 75-year-old director, adapting the Danish drama Queen of Hearts, imbues an arc we’ve seen before – surprise attraction, illicit physical contact, accidental exposure, bitter aftermath – with sensitivity and a dash of mystique. The three sex scenes between the couple focus almost entirely on their faces – his, then hers – revealing the characters’ ecstatic, heightened emotions without tipping into the outright erotic. It’s never clear why, exactly, Anne seduces Théo, other than she can, but the character that emerges in a final-act battle of wills is, fascinatingly, at once cruel and vulnerable, unknowable and seen.

A color movie still of a young white man with an older white woman sitting behind him with her arms around his waist, as if they are on a bicycle in front of green leaves.View image in fullscreen

The fear of judgment underscores every portrait of this flip of the gender script, be it for legitimate legal consequences or just societal disapproval. The fantasy in The Idea of You and A Family Affair, of course, hinges on the younger party in question being undeniably of age and interested; perhaps to circumvent any potential age-gap criticism on social media, The Idea of You ages the on-screen Hayes up by four years, from 20 to 24. Both films are successfully light fare, trying to entertain and move without too much prodding. Still, both feature intense disapproval from the women’s daughters and, in the case of Solène, a prying public (reminiscent of the scorn to outright hate Olivia Wilde received when dating a 10-years-younger Styles).

These depictions of so-called cougars aren’t upending stereotypes, or even really changing the vision of who we see on-screen; everyone here, at least in the Hollywood productions, still looks like a celebrity. But it’s one of the more interesting forays into courting female viewers, and expanding the palette of women’s stories to the still-dreaded middle age. Whether in cahoots with a boyband member or in a deeply troubling tryst, we could do worse than have a “cougar” as a character of the summer.


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