Written by noted Belgian author Zidrou and drawn by Dutch illustrator/animator/cartoonist Aimée de Jongh, Blossoms in Autumn tells the story of a man and a woman who become romantically involved late in life. Though at first they seem to be polar opposites, the focus isn’t on their differences, as it would be in a typical romantic comedy, but on their shared sense of making the last chapter of their lives count—of making up for lost time. While there are a couple of weakly imagined story points, it’s a sweet, skillfully rendered piece.
Zidrou takes his time to properly introduce us to his protagonists. His heroine is Mediterranea Solenza, a former model now in her early sixties who runs the cheese shop that has been in her family for a few generations. Having just lost her mother to cancer, Mediterranea is understandably thinking a lot about her own mortality and mourning the loss of her youth. When her brother tells her that she is now “the oldest Solenza!” she likens his words to being bitten by a viper.
We then meet Ulysses, a widowed blue-collar guy who is forced into early retirement at age 59, when the moving company he works for downsizes during an economic downturn. Ulysses is quite unhappy to lose his job and feels at loose ends. Though he has a good relationship with his adult son, a doctor, he’s lonely. He doesn’t appear at first to have much of an inner life and has no artistic outlet–in fact, early on he informs us that he hates reading. He joylessly ticks off the non-events of his day like grocery shopping, feeling at a loss for anything exciting that the future might hold. He does, however, make regular visits to a prostitute who offers him sexual release, but no lasting inner satisfaction.
With their pre-conceived notions of how life will play out—scripted by a consumer culture that reserves fun, satisfaction and adventure for the young and beautiful— Mediterranea and Ulysses appear ready to give up on future happiness. But when the two meet in the medical waiting room of Ulysses’ son, they establish a quick, flirtatious rapport. Mediterranea invites Ulysses to stop by her cheese shop sometime, he soon does so, and a romance sparks to life.
Zidrou’s text makes several metaphorical references to the timeline of human life. When Mediterranea shows Ulysses the cheese wheels she is aging in the basement of her shop, she tells him how the process “allows the cheese to develop its full flavor and take on its final texture…cheese is a living thing.” Zidrou is also sensitive to aging and body-image issues. In one memorable sequence there’s a juxtaposition between Ulysses gazing at a centerfold in an old magazine featuring a young, gorgeous and naked Mediterranea. Meanwhile, in her home, Mediterranea gazes in the mirror at her nude, aging body, appraising herself unsparingly: “The body gives up faster than the soul.” When the two finally have sex, de Jongh renders it in tastefully romantic soft focus, while convincingly capturing the couples’ passion for one another. It is refreshing to see the sexuality of older adults depicted in such a naturalistic, positive fashion. Ultimately the relationship between Mediterranea and Ulysses leads to some unusual complications that should genuinely take readers by surprise.
A couple of points in the story did stick in my craw. There's a sequence that comes dangerously close to the iteration of the old "kind-hearted prostitute is secretly in in love with her customer" trope that has always felt false (and even slightly offensive). There's also use of the dead child/spouse device (here specifically, Ulysses daughter) which, more and more, has come to feel like a lazy way to add depth to a character (for example, it has become a running joke regarding actor Leonardo DiCaprio's filmography and how many of the characters he plays have dead wives). Luckily, Zidrou has imbued Ulysses with enough depth that the cliché is mostly transcended, but I was still a little disappointed to see it here.
As the couple contemplates a possible future together, Ulysses tells Mediterranea a bedtime story he made up years ago for his daughter, about a little fish living at the bottom of the sea who always longed to be able to look out over the ocean. The fish does eventually get his wish but dies in the process. "But who cares," Ulysses concludes. "At least he got to see the ocean." At its best, Blossoms in Autumn captures the poetry of human relationships along with the belief that life might hold a few surprises in store, should we allow ourselves to welcome them.