Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sex & Cinema

I am obliged to make a correction regarding the opening of Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. I'd been reporting that it opens with a hot and steamy 15-minute love-making scene, which is one of the reasons I trotted off to see the movie last night. It does open with a passionate scene --of the riot that erupted at the Paris premiere of Rite of Spring -- but, it wasn't what I was expecting. In other words, this was no Betty Blue! Too bad, although I did enjoy the depiction of this legendary event where "the pagans on stage made pagans of the audience." People just don't seem to riot over art the way they used to.

After the film I ran into Paul Tiessen of the Laurier film department and his wife, Hildi. In comparing notes on the film, my first response was to say the movie was "restrained," which seemed to surprise them a little. They didn't know I'd been anticipating a lot more sex --not that this film doesn't deliver it, because it does-- it just doesn't deliver 15-minutes of sustained sex at the outset. When Coco and Igor are finally alone in a bedroom together, I almost said out loud, "Get it on!" (or "Take it off!"?) It was what I'd been waiting for, yet oddly, the inter-species coupling between Adrien Brody's character and Dren in Splice was more titillating than Igor and Coco's affair, simply because in Splice the sex was dirty and just wrong. Chanel and Stravinsky make a brooding fashion statement out of their ruts of spring. Coco & Igor is gorgeous to look at, but ultimately the passions are as tightly bound as the laces Coco cuts from her corset at the beginning of the movie, and that's probably the point. As far as affairs go, this one --like all affairs-- is a wash-out. If they don't end in tears then they end in marriage, and how boring is that? I'm not against marriage of course, I just don't like Hollywood endings.

Ideally, sex in the cinema (on the screen please, not in the seats!) should act like foreplay: it's best if you have a partner and a bed to go home to, rather than having to come to the cinema with your trench coat on (and believe me, we've seen a few of them over the years.) Everyone has their favourite sexy film: mine is Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I saw over 20 years ago at the Original Princess Cinema with an old boyfriend (not John, by the way, although John did rather proudly tell me that he took three different women to see that movie during its long run at the old Waterloo Theatre. The cad!)

Watching a sex scene in the cinema is always interesting. For one thing, it's not the same as watching it at home by yourself (or at home with your honey, for obvious reasons.) When the drama gets intense and well, what do you know, intercourse is being depicted, the atmosphere in the cinema electrifies most palpably. Sure, most likely --hopefully!-- it's being generated by your own brain, but it's in the air, too, and it's a heady mixture of hormones, pheromones, awkwardness and discomfort. It's wonderful. The best on-screen sex is when the leads bring that magical, ineffable "chemistry" to their performance. This is why I love The Unbearable Lightness of Being, because the chemistry between Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin is incredible.  The source material wasn't bad either!

The notion of chemistry can be very personal. I remember being decidedly turned-off watching Neil Jordan's 1999 adaptation of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, because in my mind there was no chemistry between Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore. I can take or leave Ralph Fiennes as a romantic lead: he's a nice-enough looking man, but there's something too ethereal and airy about him (not enough Scorpio!) and sometimes he's just too skinny for my liking; whereas Julianne Moore can be (at least in this film) too earthy. It wasn't a good match in my books. I'm also an avid reader of Graham Greene's novels, so my critical radar was probably finely pitched at this screening.

Sex in the cinema can also be instructive --sure, in the art of love-- but also outside of the bedroom: in the moral arena. I don't think I have seen one film about affairs that has a happy ending; indeed, most of these films end horrifically badly. I'm reminded of Louis Malle's Damage, starring Juliette Binoche and Jeremy Irons (another awkward coupling between actors); Polanski's Knife in the Water and Bitter Moon; Kieslowski's Dekalog 6 & 9; Wolfgang Petersen's (Das Boot) Shattered and of course, Fatal Attraction. The titles of these films say it all!

One of my all-time favourite movies is My Dinner with Andre. There are no sex scenes in this film; in fact, there's just one scene: old theatre pals, Andre and Wally, sitting at a table enjoying a meal at a respectable restaurant in New York. I try to watch this movie once a year, as I am as fascinated as Wally is by Andre's stories of his esoteric adventures and philosophies. (By the way, I consider My Dinner with Andre to be an occult film, but that's a blog for another day.) At the end of MDWA, Andre reflects on fear of death and the ephemerality of life and, in doing so, he talks about sex and relationships. In essence, he says that people have affairs because it makes them feel that they're on firm ground. "You know, there's a sexual conquest to be made, there are different questions: does she enjoy the ears being nibbled, how intensely can you talk about Schopenhauer in some elegant French restaurant. Whatever nonsense it is. Well, have a real relationship with a person that goes on for years, that's completely unpredictable. Then you've cut off all your ties to the land and you're sailing into the unknown, into uncharted seas. I mean, you know, people hold on to these images: father, mother, husband, wife, again for the same reason: 'cause they seem to provide some firm ground. But there's no wife there. What does that mean, a wife? A husband? A son? A baby holds your hands and then suddenly there's this huge man lifting you off the ground, and then he's gone. Where's that son?"

Those are some of the most beautiful words ever spoken in cinema, and I cry every time I hear Andre speak them! While Andre's logic appears to be counter-intuitive --that a brief affair gives the sensation of firm ground while a long-term relationship provides no assurances-- he's absolutely right. We grow old, we change, people come and go. It's all fleeting. Watching a movie is quite the same: it provides us an escape from terra firma, but in the best films, we can take something quite concrete --instruction-- from that ephemeral experience of watching light flicker on a screen in a darkened room.

And that's what I love most about the cinema. See you at the movies!


  1. I'm chuckling a little for a number of reasons: a) you had posted about twitter on the Princess Cinema's facebook page about how you were about to launch a blog "as soon as you stop feeling shy." I think, having read the above post, it's safe to say you've stopped! LOVE IT! and b)I am beginning to feel a bit of a stalker as I seem to be the only one commenting right now - hopefully others will begin to feel less shy. This post really intrigued me. I absolutely LOVE Betty Blue and remember the shock (and, need I say, excitement) of its opening scene. I remember vividly the English subtitles below the lovemaking "I had known Betty for a week. We made love every night. The forecast was for storms...". Amazing! I also love The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one of my favourite scenes being the encounter between Juliette Binoche's and Lena Olin's characters - the photography session they take of each other. What a fantastic film! The last intense lovemaking scene I recall feeling awkward about on the screen in the dark of a cinema was watching the sex scene on the stairs in A History of Violence. I have lots of thoughts on that particular scene, but I recall vividly feeling a huge mixture of emotions as it was one of the last films (if not THE last film) I saw with my ex-husband just before leaving him weeks later. The film, of course, had nothing to do with my decision which had built up over years, but it certainly awkward scene to watch in the context of the emotions I was going through at the time. One lovemaking scene that I recall as beautiful was between Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly's characters in Bound. I just recall it being so tastefully done and beautifully rendered and BELIEVABLE(which is often a difficult thing to accomplish). Having graduated a theatre major I am ashamed to say that I have never seen My Dinner with Andre (a crime, really). But as an acting major, I would like to say how much I admire actors who make lovemaking believable on camera where we can all forget that they are surrounded by a plethora of crew and lights and off-camera noises of sirens, other distractions, etc. That kind of intimacy is very difficult to make it feel believable and I commend actors who have had to film the scenes themselves. As Dianne Lane once said, when asked was a sex scene on camera easy to do, something along the lines of: "if it's easy to do, then I think you're in a different profession".

  2. Ha! You're right, b, about the shyness thing. Now that I'm feeling a little more comfortable with the notion of blogging, I'm beginning to find my voice and a fair amount is spewing out. THANK-YOU for your interest; it's not stalking at all! Are you kidding me? I appreciate and am interested in your thoughts and feedback. It's great! I'm still navigating and finding my way in this space and I only noticed a moment ago that you had commented on this post. Thanks for the encouragement:^)

    I realized that there was a connection between Coco & Igor and Betty Blue: Gabriel Yared did the music for both films (and the music in both is great.) Of course, the music in Unbearable Lightness of Being is outstanding. Janacek! So passionate and a big part of that movie. I still have my cassette of the soundtrack floating around...

    Cronenberg -- oh yes -- lots of sex in all his films. He really pushes boundaries and comfort levels, that's for sure. He's a topic of another discussion entirely. Actually, he's the topic of several discussions!

    Personally, I don't know how actors can do sex scenes. It's clear though, that some don't, because I can think of a lot of leading actors we never see naked. And then there are those who seem to be dropping their drawers all the time (Julianne Moore?) And then there are the actors who use body-doubles for sex scenes! So, I guess some do and some don't. I remember reading that Lena Olin had given birth only a month before shooting ULOB. Can you believe that? Her body is amazing in that movie... maybe that's why her tits looked so great!