Still from 'A Family Affair'
R.I.P. 08 Jul 2024 8 MIN

Is Hollywood ready to retire the ‘cougar’?

A rom-com renaissance is taking shape, flipping the age gap relationship with older woman-younger man as leads

Early on in Richard LaGravenese’s A Family Affair (Netflix), Brooke Harwood’s (Nicole Kidman) blonde hair is in a messy bun and her Pilates body is in a Blondie t-shirt. As she cleans her office, that band’s 1979 hit ‘Dreaming’ booms out of Harwood’s vintage LP player. Hollywood superstar Chris Cole (Zac Efron) walks into the house, looking for his young assistant, and is astounded as he regards her mother. “Did you have her when you were in kindergarten?” he exclaims. Cole is 16 years her junior, but that is not a plot point. Minutes into this scene, the pair is sitting dangerously close to each other on the couch, tequila glasses in hand, chatting about the myth of Icarus, surgically enhanced quads and grief; an easy chemistry smouldering between them.      
 “…Hunger hurts, but starving, it works / when it costs too much to love…” Fiona Apple’s voice is drenched with pain in the background of a scene in Michael Showalter’s The Idea of You (Prime Video), as 40-year-old art gallerist Solène (Anne Hathaway) lets 24-year-old boy band hunk Hayes Campbell (Nicholas Galitzine) into her cottagecore-style home. The song, 1999’s big hit ‘Paper Bag’, marks their age gap and portends a difficult future in store for them.    
In Showalter’s film, Solène is a divorcée who is routinely courted by men who may be age-appropriate, but also consider their pets to be their children and think “splitting up” is too specific a term. Naturally, she is deeply flattered by Hayes’ attention, but she is also old enough to know what he needs: not a public meal in a popular LA spot, but conversation and sandwiches in the privacy of her home.

And just like that, Kidman and Hathaway transform the dreaded middle age into an aspirational thing for women everywhere in the world.  

In addition to the fact that both these films have riveting soundtracks scored by Indian-origin composers (Siddhartha Khosla and Savan Kotecha respectively), A Family Affair and The Idea of You are also notable examples of what is shaping up to be the year of May-December romances in Western cinema, commonly known as the age-gap romance. Except, instead of crusty old Humberts in pursuit of nubile Lolitas, the trope is inverted to older women who find paramours in significantly younger men. Scandalous? Well, only sometimes—and maybe that’s a good thing.  

It’s interesting to consider how the trope has evolved over the years, from the days when the ‘cougar’ character was viewed with suspicion and derision in cinema around the world—from the predatory moves of Mrs Robinson in the 1967 classic The Graduate to the overt MILFness of Stiffler’s mom (played to great effect by Jennifer Coolidge) in the rambunctious 1999 cult favourite American Pie, and the sugar-mama vibe of the titular spinster in 1971’s Harold & Maude. Closer home, in Dil Chahta Hai (2001), even young, urban Akash (Aamir Khan) could only make sense of his friend’s relationship with an older woman through crass jokes, and it took months for him to get over his suspicion. Compare that to 2016’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, in which older woman Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is in a relationship with much younger Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor) but it is done with dignity.

Todd Haynes’ dark comedy drama from last year—actually titled May December (Prime Video)—explored a real-life scandal from 1980s America in which a teacher initiated a sexual relationship with a sixth-grade student. In the movie, Gracie (Julianne Moore) plays a 36-year-old pet store manager and mother of two who has an affair with 13-year-old Joe Yoo (Charles Melton) who works with her, is tried in court for the rape of a minor, and, several years later, is seen living a life of married domesticity with Joe.   

May December is a meta commentary on the nature of tabloid obsessions, public-opinion trials, and film creatives looking for ‘inspiration’ from such incidents. But it also questions the very human impulses that have brought this cast of characters to this place (were Gracie’s brothers as beastly as her estranged son made them out to be?) and shows how easy it is to rupture the delicate webs of the stories they’ve built for themselves.    

Catherine Breillat’s 2023 erotic drama Last Summer, the story of middle-aged lawyer Anne (Lea Drucker) and her 17-year-old stepson Theo (Samuel Kircher), stands firmly in forbidden territory—incest has not had such a display since Game of Thrones. But rather than judge, it offers a clinical consideration of one woman as a whole—libidinous, accomplished, flawed. Breillart, a legend of French arthouse cinema, has, in her five-decade career, often investigated the female sexual experience. In an interview around Last Summer last year, she observed: “Eroticism is men gazing at women as consumer goods.” This isn’t just a reaction to seeing her films sit in the vault for years on end, but it does put that criticism of the age-old hypocrisy of society’s horror at older women-younger men relationships—indeed, of how women are written for the screen—in a certain perspective.

With the rise of these movies comes the question: when women do break from these impositions, say by daring to desire someone younger than themselves, are they reclaiming more than their right to be loved? Or are they being something they dare not be—themselves? Could they also be claiming their right to be seen?       

In a recent interview Nicole Kidman—who will be seen in another age-gap dalliance with a younger co-worker in the upcoming film BabyGirl— has made a point of noting that A Family Affair was written by a woman, Carrie Solomon. She also emphasised that age-gap romances in movies have always featured older men, and now, the inversion of the trope needs to be demystified, and told from a woman’s perspective. That, at least, comes through in this year’s crop of age-gap romances. The Idea of You is based on a 2017 novel by Robinne Lee; May December has Natalie Portman play an actor with questionable motivations, who wants to get under the skin of her subject. These are the stories of, not simply about, Gracie, Solène, Brooke, and Anne. These women might be ashamed, delighted or devastated by their choices—but they are their own to make. What is so transgressive about love when it is ‘the other way round’?  And what can be revealed about human nature if we remove our own judgements from the equation?        

It could also be that these films are part of a larger strategy to bolster an audience for the so-called renaissance of the romantic comedy—including the always-online Gen Z, who supposedly cannot stomach earnest love stories and those who came of age when the genre was at its peak in the 1990s and 2000s. But if that means we get to see the icons of the era return, now playing women who have to reckon with ungrateful teenagers, sagging breasts, menopause, the terrifying prospect of invisibility, and come out the other side of 120 minutes with a shot at happily ever after, sign us up for that fantasy.