Can a love story for the geriatric set be as engaging as an affair romp about sexy young people? It certainly can, at least in Andreas Dresen's brave, remarkable Wolke 9 (Cloud Nine), a tale about an older woman who has an affair and falls in love with an even older man. The film opens as Inge (Ursula Werner), a seamstress, delivers a pair of pants to Karl (Hosrt Westphal). He tries on the pants, she makes an adjustment, and next thing you know, the two of them are rolling around on the floor in the throes of torrid passion.
Inge returns to her husband, Werner (Horst Rehberg), and tries to slip back into her day-to-day existence, but she can't get Karl out of her head, nor can he just forget about her. As the two continue their affair, Inge struggles with her feelings of betraying her husband of 30 years, but can't let go of the joy she finds in her relationship with the charming and affable Karl.
When Inge confesses her affair to her daughter, Petra (Steffi Kühnert), she encourages her mother to continue the affair if being with Karl makes her happy, but to keep it to herself. The guilt of betrayal weighs on Inge, though; she first tries to infuse some of the light and humor she's found with Karl into her relationship with Werner, who's a good man, if a little dull. When that doesn't work, though, she ultimately feels compelled to tell Werner about the affair. She's seeking absolution and understanding of her anguish, but instead, Werner lashes out at her and sinks deeper and deeper into depression.
Dresen shot the film in a naturalistic style, using lighting and framing to set the emotional tone of each scene. When Inge's in her apartment with Werner, the space feels darkish and cramped, and the couple moves through the moments of life with an ever-present sense of the sameness that permeates long-term relationships over time.
Where Werner is comfortable with the ruts of their life, though, Inge finds herself chafing against them; she desperately wants a change and, unable to find what she's seeking within her relationship, she looks outside it for something that will bring light into her life again. The scenes between Inge and Karl, by contrast, are brightly lit; the sex scenes in particular are infused with a glowing whiteness that evokes the inner joy radiating from their love and tenderness they've found in each other.
It's not often you get to see a film where love (not to mention sex) between older people is portrayed with such reflective beauty. The nudity in the film seems perfectly natural, never gratuituous or exploitave, and the performances by the three leads are powerful, drawing you into their story. Wolke 9 won the "Heat Throb Jury Prize" from the Un Certain Regard jury, which I expect reflects their appreciation for the film's portrayal of sex and love as not something that belongs exclusively to those with youth and typical big-screen physical beauty on their side. I'm not sure how much play Wolke 9 will get outside the fest circuit, but if it makes its way to the independent European cinema near you, it's well worth catching.