Living in a Body

I watched a film last night called “Catch the Wind.” Well, that was its English title; it was a French film, and featured a nuanced performance by Sandrine Bonnaire who I hadn’t seen in anything in probably 20 years. Whenever she smiled that impishly dimpled smile of hers, it returned her younger face to the surface, but as she was stoic during much of the film, the years of life and time showed on her features and in her eyes, especially.

I seek out these films, particularly the French and Scandinavian, and some British, too, for the aging faces of actresses and the stories imagined about women in mid-life and beyond. I love many of Isabelle Huppert’s films and Charlotte Rampling’s collaborations with the director Francois Ozon. You can see that Ozon appreciated Rampling’s beauty—age did not diminish it in his eyes—in “The Swimming Pool” and “Under the Sand.” Although, Rampling has been a sex symbol since “The Night Porter” in 1974, so it’s possible that Ozon only continued to see her in the way he had before, much in the way that Marilyn Monroe was viewed as a sex symbol until the time of her death. Whatever Ozon’s motivations, Rampling is even more alluring in these films. Her maturity and complexity are sexy as hell. And those eyes. In “Under the Sand,” she sits astride a new lover, her bare breasts exposed, her expression as enigmatic as ever.

Isabelle Huppert’s performances are ferociously sexual. A strong woman defined by intelligence and agency, her sinewy body is not lush, but desirable in its provocation, its intention. Huppert makes no concession to age. You can see that she feels sexy; refuses to be consigned to the junkheap of sexlessness. In films like “Elle” and, 15 years before it, “The Piano Teacher,” she is a lesson in female empowerment. 65 years old now and at the height of her career, she is no one’s object. Maybe that is what it takes, what is required of us as we age, in order to maintain our power (in spite of society’s never-ceasing efforts to diminish it).

I seek out these films yet find it difficult to see myself in the same way I do Bonnaire, or Rampling, or Huppert. Still, I look to them for inspiration. American actresses aren’t much help in this as they are disguised to look like younger women. I don’t say this with any judgment. I feel (and have felt) the same pressure myself. But there is no comfort in seeing a woman trying very hard to appear younger than she is. It’s like she is saying: “accept my mask because I no longer trust you to accept my face.” I understand it. I put on a full face of make-up every day. I don’t know that I would allow a man to see me bare-faced in the bright light of morning. But I would like to be more like Isabelle Huppert. This self-condemnation is something to be gotten over, to be mastered. Watching these films, I find the European actresses so beautiful, not in spite of their imperfections, but because of them. I want to appreciate my own face and body in the same light. I want to accept myself without needing to camouflage the scars and marks of aging.

While I am alive, I want to be alive.

I am living in a body that has been alive for 60 years; it’s true. But what does it mean? This was really the kernel of inspiration for my new novel, and why I titled it: While We Have Bodies. My character is called “Shel” because she is a vessel, a shell for whatever it is that is other than a body.

Imagine if we were to be only souls without physical form. Wouldn’t we kill to have bodies then? Without bodies, there would be no contact with others. No kisses, no hugs, no smiles, no hand-holding, no ruffling of hair, no discovery of ticklish spots, no arm across our shoulder, no foot rubs, no being held. No way of making any physical contact. I mean, imagine the longing, the desire to have any body at all. An old body, a disabled body. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.

My body is 60 years old but it is still a body. It is not a 30-year-old body or a 40-year-old body, but it can run around the reservoir and up five flights of stairs. It can do many things I want it to do and could do more if I allowed it to. Provided that I don’t restrict my behaviors according to an ageist culture that says my body and I are finished, that we should stay hidden, that we should forget we have a body at all.

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