FILM | The Ages of Lulu
50 Shades of Grey the movie? We’ve seen it all before.
If you wanted to see lots of sex in a controlling relationship in the cinema you could have got your fill in 1990 when Almudena Grandes’s novel, The Ages of Lulu was released as a film directed by Bigas Luna; the film, like the book (published only the year before), was a huge commercial success. But The Ages of Lulu is not a better film in terms of eroticism or even coherence. Unlike Sam Taylor-Johnson, Luna failed to leave his audience wanting more.
The film follows the sexual awakening, education and downfall of Lulu by her brother’s best friend, Pablo. Ten years older, he’s the ‘dominant’ in the relationship: Lulu loses her virginity to him and Pablo becomes her mentor in the various sexual games they try out, not all of which she likes. But her obsessive love for him means that anything goes until Pablo eventually crosses the border of what’s acceptable, bedroom-wise.
He persuades his blindfolded girlfriend to take part in a threesome. And when the blindfold is removed revealing Lulu’s brother as the third party, she finally packs her bags and leaves Pablo. This incestuous experience sends Lulu into a spiral of self-destructive sexual involvement with Madrid’s seamier gay scene.
Too much sex on screen really can prevent appreciation of the characters. Compare Lulu to 50 Shades of Grey: while viewers have complained about the deficiency of scenes in 50 Shades where Christian whips and bangs Anastasia senseless (jeez guys, go watch YouPorn, ffs!), the issue with Lulu is the gaping void of character development – because most of the film seems taken up with fucking; fucking that needs to be explained. Especially when Lulu seeks out threesomes with some of Madrid’s more macho gays.
We’re left wondering why her reaction to the incest trauma is to dive into the Dark Side of Madrid’s gay scene. Why not furry sex, or some other paraphilia? In the movie, Lulu’s narration switches to erotic groaning, but what’s really needed here is Lulu’s voice (present in the book), to know exactly what’s happening in her head. Without this commentary, we’re left baffled.
When it comes to explaining the difference between men and women, Lulu is mute. Luna cannot use his extensive sex scenes to communicate the nuances of Lulu’s relationship with Pablo in the way that Grandes’s novel does. This wasn’t inevitable and suggests a flawed cooperation: author and director co-wrote the script. It would have been easy to add further brush-strokes to Lulu’s character and history. In the book Lulu creates a Lolita-like identity by her choice of wardrobe and by being economical with the truth about her sexual history. The film shows a very controlled passive Lulu, simply along for the ride and not responsible for her downfall. It fails to tell us that although she plays the submissive in their relationship, Lulu is just as deviant as Pablo. It’s as if the film relies on its audience having read the book, which, back in 1990, they probably had. Fortunately for our generation, filmmakers have developed the art of cinema. Thank God we didn’t need to read 50 Shades to enjoy watching the film.