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Telluride: Three very different looks at sex

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Three of the best films at this year's Telluride festival deal with unusual frankness with sex. Sally Potter's "Yes" (2005) stars Joan Allen as a scientist trapped in a loveless marriage, who begins a passionately physical affair with a Lebanese cook. Bill Condon's "Kinsey" stars Liam Neeson as Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, whose research revolutionized conventional ideas about human sexual behavior. And Todd Solondz's "Palindromes" is a story of messy, sad teenage sexual experiences.

The Solondz film has sharply divided audiences: Some hate it; some think it is the best work yet from the director of "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness." No one seems indifferent. I thought it was brilliant and bold, especially in the way Solondz uses many different actresses to play his heroine, a young girl who in various versions of the story seeks sexual experience, wants to get pregnant, seeks or avoids abortion, runs away, and is involved in the murder of an abortion doctor.

Solondz uses actresses of different sizes, ages and races to play versions of the same character, in a device that makes the film not simply the story of one young woman's experiences, but a meditation on various possible scenarios and how the same personality might respond to them. His use of many actresses makes the material universal. There are no rapes in the film, although the men are singularly unskilled or uncaring; his heroine in all of her manifestations is naive and unprepared for the emotional anguish that sex causes for her.

What a contrast "Yes" is. Has a movie ever loved a woman more? Sally Potter celebrates the classic beauty of Joan Allen not by making her look glamorous, but simply by observing her private moments as she falls into love with a Lebanese man who picks her up at a party. He was once a surgeon, is now an exile working as a cook; they fall helplessly in love, but there are issues caused by her wealth and his poverty, and by her Western values and his Muslim background. The film's dialogue is all in rhyming verse, which sounds so natural and flows so smoothly it deepens rather than distracts.

In many scenes Allen wears no makeup, and Potter's camera sees her pure, unadorned and breathtakingly beautiful. The film is willing to be quiet with her, to observe her, to allow us to empathize. Then it has a curious counterpoint: Several maids and housecleaners, led by the film's narrator (Shirley Henderson) provide a variant, starkly realistic view of the same world, about the debris we leave behind -- how the world never rids itself of anything, but simply moves it around. This quasi-Marxist running commentary puts the romance in stark relief.

"Kinsey" is likely to be the best-received biopic since "A Beautiful Mind." Liam Neeson gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the sex researcher who began by collecting a million moths and then moved from etymology to the bedroom and became obsessed with collecting sexual histories. Laura Linney plays the student who becomes his wife and calm, wise companion as his monomania grows.

When Kinsey came on the scene, sexual misinformation was epidemic; the list of alleged results of masturbation sounds like a catalogue of medical catastrophes. Kinsey, a virgin on his wedding night, began to provide more realistic advice to students at Indiana University, but as a scientist realized no data existed on real people and what they actually do. His best-sellers in the 1950s revealed that most people have more sexual partners and forms of sexual expression than anyone had guessed. Neeson plays Kinsey as a man obsessed with his message, who had little sense of how he affected other people and whose findings were attacked in Congress as a communist plot.

Director Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters," the screenplay for "Chicago") says he was surprised when "Kinsey" got an R rating from the MPAA, with no cuts. "We thought it might get the NC-17 and be an ideal test case for challenging that rating," he told me, "but they thought it was a serious and informative film and they passed it with no cuts." How "Yes" and "Palindromes" will be rated is a good question; neither has explicit sex, but both deal so directly with the subject that the MPAA may be roiled.

Lots of other good films have unreeled here over Labor Day weekend, in a festival that combines premieres with revivals. I especially enjoyed screenings of two Hitchcock classics: "Secret Agent," based on a novel by Maugham and introduced by the author's biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, and "Blackmail," Hitchcock's final silent film, with a live score performed by the Alloy Orchestra, an institution at Telluride.

There were two surprise sneak previews. "Finding Neverland" stars Johnny Depp in the story of J. M. Barrie, whose fixation on a young widow (Kate Winslet) and her four boys provides the inspiration for his play "Peter Pan." It's a poetic, gentle film that faces and disposes of the possibility that Barrie was in some sense a pedophile; it sees him as a romantic fantasist, led helplessly by his idealism.

The other sneak was one of the festival's great word-of-mouth successes, "Up and Down," by Jan Hrebejk, about two Czech families, one affluent, one poor, and how their lives intersect because of a stolen baby. It's a busy comedy involving issues of race, immigration, soccer hooliganism and emotional need; maybe he tries to cover too many topics for one movie, but there's quite a payoff.

I saw five movies on Saturday. What else could I do? It was raining most of the day, and then for a change it snowed. As I was standing in a tent waiting to get into the screening of "Yes," a young woman appeared out of the downpour, her coat drenched, wet hair in her eyes, and said, "I hate it how I love movies so much that I put myself through this!"

"Kinsey" will be the opening night selection of this year's Chicago International Film Festival on Oct. 7.

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