PARK CITY, Utah--Here is the most fundamental rule of film criticism: A movie is not about what it is about, but about how it is about it. The subject does not and cannot make a movie good or bad. Only the style, the approach, the method, the craftsmanship, the purpose and the message can make a movie good or bad.
"Will the American public accept the sex scenes in this movie?" I was asked by a French TV crew after the screening of Patrice Chereau's "Intimacy" at the just-concluded Sundance Film Festival.
"Why not?" I said. "The American public spends billions of dollars on pornography, and the sex scenes here are not pornographic." Yet they do involve full frontal nudity. So the movie will be released either unrated or with the dreaded NC-17, and will not play in most U.S. cities or states, for that matter.
The whole matter will be interpreted in terms of the movie's sexual content. And yet here is the crucial point; will anything useful be said about the style, approach, purpose and message of the sex?
"Intimacy," a film in English by a French director, stars Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox as a man and woman in their late 30s who meet for anonymous sex on Wednesdays. Eventually, he grows curious about her, follows her and discovers that she is an actress with a husband (Timothy Spall) and young son. She teaches drama classes and is appearing in "The Glass Menagerie" in a small London pub venue (the door from the main bar helpfully says, "Toilets and Theater").
This is not a review, and so I won't go into detail about the plot. I want to talk about the sex. My inspiration is a talk I had with Kristina Nordstrom, who runs the Women Filmmakers Symposium in Los Angeles. We found ourselves eating sandwiches on the steps of the Eccles Center between screenings.
"Of course no woman would be attracted to sex like that," she said.
"The sex in the movie all involves the bottom of the ninth inning. A woman would be turned off by a man who doesn't spend time being tender and sweet, and showing that he cares for her. There's no foreplay. She walks in, they rip off each other's clothes, and a few seconds later, they're in a frenzy. Any woman would know that this movie was directed by a man."
I knew after seeing "Intimacy" that I had problems with it, including the way the lover approaches the husband and the way the husband reacts. I also had admiration for it, especially the non-sexual aspects of the performances by Rylance (from "Angels and Insects") and Fox (from "Shallow Grave"). The movie is based on stories by Hanif Kureishi, a London writer.
What Nordstrom said helped the movie click into focus: Yes, the sex is wrong. It will be described as frank, fearless, bold and risk-taking, etc. There will be a controversy over whether the film should get the NC-17 rating or go out unrated. But all of this will miss the point. The movie is not about sex. It is about how it is about sex.
Consider "An Affair Of Love," a French film by Frederic Fonteyneby released in 2000. It was about a man and a woman who meet once a week to do something, we don't know what, behind closed doors. They met through personal ads. Apparently their mutual interest is so rare that they are surprised to find a partner who shares it. We never find out what it is, and we never see what happens behind the closed doors.
Both "Intimacy" and "An Affair of Love" deal with what happens when the anonymity breaks down; when the man and woman become individuals to each other and grow curious about more than the sessions they share. "An Affair of Love" handles this in a poignant way: Shyness and fear set in. "Intimacy" handles it with the man tracking the woman, meeting her husband, and insolently dropping transparent hints about what the woman does on Wednesdays. The film is in sympathy with this behavior, which is the social equivalent of the man's sexual style. The husband is set up as a clueless dupe, and the typecasting of Timothy Spall makes it impossible for him to be anything else.
Ninety-nine percent of the sex in movies is useless as information, as inspiration, as provocation. It is simply behavior, recorded on film. Occasionally a film comes along that has something to say about sex. We may agree or not. It is our job as moviegoers to make up our own minds. The sad thing is, our society makes that difficult by marginalizing the most useful of such films. Our society is saturated with sex, but it is juvenile, denatured and thoughtless. We love swimsuit issues and music videos with lots of T & A. We allow pornography, so long as it is kept in its ghetto. But when a film comes along that wants to say something about sex, we cower and flee. And the Motion Picture Acadmy of America and the movie industry make sure it is marginalized.
"Will the American public accept the sex scenes in this movie?"
That isn't the problem, I should have said. The American public will not see the sex scenes in this movie. And even seeing them is only the first step. Then you have to think about them. Even if you disapprove, as Nordstrom does, the film has served a purpose. Even this article about it has been more useful than all the millions of words and pictures devoted to the lives of Anna Nicole Smith, Pamela Anderson, Chyna and the other founts of American sexual inspiration.