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Thinking pop culture

The Judge, The Old Lady and the Incest Spectre

The Judge - now showing.

A confronting minute or two with Hank (Robert Downey Jr) and his title character father (Robert Duvall) in a bathroom together encapsulates the strength of The Judge; their rough rapport is executed with aplomb and it makes the film thoroughly worthwhile.

While Vera Farmiga is vaguely insipid as Hank’s girlfriend-from-the-past and Vincent D'Onofrio as Big Brother is yet another Detective Goren reprisal, the John Grisham meets Jodi Picoult plot is well-executed and it’s beautifully - if disingenuously - shot. (Filming in Massachusetts and calling it Indiana fools nobody).

While plotwise The Judge shares much with This is Where I Leave You (which I wrote about recently) - a son with a collapsing marriage returns home to bury a parent and wrangle with his siblings - and, incidentally, both films utilised Dax Shepard in minor roles - one subplot that I found particularly intriguing is shared with a very different new-release: My Old Lady.


My Old Lady centres on a late-50s, down-on-his luck, unpublished writer (Kevin Kline) who’s in Paris to collect his inheritance: an apartment bequeathed to him by his estranged father and one which comes with an old lady (Maggie Smith) due to French viager laws.

(Think a reverse mortgage with the Dowager Countess of Grantham thrown in).

Daddy issues give The Judge and My Old Lady content in common, but more so, it’s both films’ coincidental use of the well-worn, post-fact incest panic plot that interested me.

My Old Lady - opening in Australia on November 14.

While incest, unsurprisingly, is a theme apparent in quite a few films - think Chinatown (1974), Flesh and Blood (1976), The Grifters (1990), Gross Misconduct (1993), Spanking the Monkey (1994), The House of Yes (1997) just for starters - a far more common presentation is the incest possibility, the mere incest speculation which frequently takes the form of an after-the-romp realisation that - Good God! - my lover might just be my daughter/father/sister/brother.

Incendies (2010) and Code 46 (2003) are two worth-watching executions but in fact, this “surprise incest” plot is common enough to have a dedicated page on TVTropes.

Why? What’s the appeal?

Doesn’t it seem just a tad ridiculous that that of all the gin joints in all the towns in all of the world you end up not merely bumping into your estranged relative, but putting your hands down their pants?

Part of the appeal likley centres on some of the big clichés of romantic love: that the attraction was divine and bigger than the both of us; that it was as though we’d known each other our whole lives; that it was like we had each others’ blood running through our veins.

Such themes are a nod to the overwhelming appeal of being so very known by our lover, but then raise the possibility that such depth is probably only likely if we share DNA.

More interesting however, is the opportunity that such a plot provides for both a) taboo challenge and b) audience titillation.

Culturally we denounce all kinds of things as taboo: incest, paedophilia, bestiality.

We make them illegal, we prohibit erotic representations and we publicly condemn anyone who expresses even the teensiest interest. We do this of course, all the while having our own deep-seated curiosity about them continually satisfied through our pop culture.

More than just piquing our interest however, such presentations have the ability to actually turn us on. More so in fact, than any ordinary sex scene because it’s naughty and it’s wrong and because we’re most often seduced by the stuff that’s the most verboten.

In an episode of the sitcom Will & Grace, Grace (Debra Messing) made a quip bout a novel: “By the way, I read that book. And there’s a double flip at the end that proves that he is her brother. But it’s still pretty hot.”

Here, Grace not only referenced the surprise incest trope, but more importantly noted that such a depiction can still be “pretty hot”.

In my book Part-Time Perverts I discussed the Will & Grace scene - and incest on screen more broadly - and noted that “although many of us recoil in horror at the thought of sexual relations with our own family members, the taboo challenge presented by… random familial couplings, reminds us that incest can be "pretty hot” if our participation is restricted to spectatorship.“

By depicting incest outright or simply alluding to it, a safe thrill is gifted to us by that ol’ dream factory of Hollywood where it can be excused as mere fantasy. That we get to experience the arousal and then leave the cinema not feeling too perverted, our dignity apparently still in tact.

Inevitably the post-fact incest panic actually turns out to be a mistake in most films; the suggestion is sexy, sure, but for most films the reality of it would be too heavy and plot-hijacking.

The Judge and My Old Lady for the record, are actually both enjoyable and worth seeing for reasons beyond their little light incest offerings.

The Judge - now showing.

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