Director: Sophia Hyde (UK). Year of Release: 2022
We open with separate shots of two people preparing themselves for an assignation. She is older, and seems a little up-tight. He young, cool, playing with his mobile phone in the café. They both check their appearance, he in the window of a passing car, she in the mirror in the plush hotel room – all double bed and settee. As she waits in the hotel, there is a firm knock on the door. She answers, tentatively. He appears, smiling. “You must be Nancy. I’m Leo”.
Nancy is 55, a retired RE teacher. She has 2 children, neither of whom she gets on with. Her son is too boring, doing a Masters in Chemistry, the daughter is too wild, living off her parents’ money in an Artists’ Community in Barcelona. Nancy is also a snob – she considers her daughter in law to be beneath her because she’s a Primary School teacher, which isn’t proper teaching, is it?
Leo is tall, handsome and charming. He confuses Nancy because he defies stereotypes by using the occasional polysyllabic word. At first you think he might be a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, but that’s not really fair. Manic Pixie Dream Girls may not exist in real life, but at least they are quirky and somehow interesting. Leo is an idealised figure who doesn’t seem to have any characteristics of his own. All he has is a little back story with a disapproving Irish Catholic mother who only appears off stage.
Leo is also a sex worker, hired by Nancy to deal with her own neuroses. She’s only had sex with one person in her life, and her husband died 2 years ago. Their sex life was perfunctory, but now Nancy is ready to experiment. Well, not that ready. After making the leap of hiring Leo, she is a bundle of nerves, repeatedly calling off their assignment when it looks like the two might get physically close.
As a way of warding off the inevitable, Nancy and Leo talk. A lot. She tells him about her disappointment in her family, and he gradually opens up about his family and – despite having promised to have been the soul of discretion – his clients. In fact, to help develop the drama, Leo is highly unprofessional, telling Nancy about his other transactions as an attempt to reassure her that what they are doing is perfectly normal.
Gradually, Nancy opens up, and returns with a list of demands – fellatio, cunnilingus, 69, her on top and doggy style. It would be great if they could do this all within the allotted 2 hours, as she isn’t made of money and can’t afford too many sessions. It is presumably no accident that Nancy’s first demand is that she performs oral sex on Leo, as she seems to lack the belief that she could have gratifying sex. She seems less interested in pleasure than in checking off her Bucket List.
Even then, she once more falters when they come close to carrying out any of the acts on her list. Leo’s role is more of a therapist than a gigolo – a performance that he carries off with his usual charm. It all seems to be headed towards an interesting examination of the gap between sexual expectations and needs of elder women, particularly those who have been brought up less permissively than a younger generation.
The problem is that Nancy is not sympathetic enough for us to care too much about her. Remember the statement that she can’t afford endless sessions with Leo? This has led at least one critic to conclude that she is poor. But just look at the size of the hotel room. See how she takes champagne from the minibar without even thinking. That’s before we consider how much Leo must be charging. Nancy might think she is poor, but she embodies privileged entitlement.
Watching the film made me think how Emma Thompson has developed since the KenandEm days 40 years ago. Then, many critics presumed that she was common, because she occasionally swore, and her husband Kenneth Branagh was a middle-class luvvie. It was always a myth – he was the son of an immigrant tradesmen while she was born into Stage and Magic Roundabout royalty. In more recent films, she has reverted to type and played middle to upper class women.
So Nancy’s tragedy isn’t our tragedy, or even the tragedy of all ageing women. It is specifically the tragedy of a woman who can afford to pay for a man to come and be her sexual/psychological crutch. A chance meeting with one of her pupils shows that Nancy once called out her class for all being sluts (wearing short skirts would encourage the male teachers, apparently). She learns that this is wrong not by sharing their experience, but by hiring Leo. That is, she buys her salvation.
We don’t really feel sympathy for Nancy, far less empathy – more pity. At one point she crosses a line and starts behaving, as Leo says, “like a nutter” (for all the film’s laudable wokeness towards female sexuality, it seems less sensitive about mental health). He ups and leaves, saying that’s the end of their transactions. Does this mean that we’ll never see him again? What do you think?
Meine Stunden mit Leo contains all the sentimentality of a Richard Curtis film, with a few feminist statements tacked on, but it doesn’t really have much to say. I’m sure some people will ask: “what if it were an older man and a young female prostitute” which entirely misses the point of the balance of power within sexual relationships. The problem is not that we see an older woman with (a very limited amount of) sexuality. More that the film does little of interest with this.