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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2002

Sex and sensibility


Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Patrice Chéreau
Running time: 121 minutes
Now showing

Sex. Say it like Lucy Liu on "Ally McBeal," and you'll know what people want, expect, desire when they hear this word. But somehow in cinema these days, what we want is not what we get. The most sexually explicit films are also, defiantly, the least sexy.

News photo
Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox in Patrice Chéreau's "Intimacy"

"Intimacy" -- an English-language film by French director Patrice Chereau, based on stories by Hanif Kureishi -- is of a type with the recent wave of art-core cinema. Like "Romance" or "Happiness," its title drips with irony; like in "Lies" or "Baise-moi," the on-screen sex is (at times) for real. And like all these films, "Intimacy" -- despite its salacious scandal (involving unsimulated fellatio) -- finds no joy in sex. Rather, the film posits physical union as a poor antidote to gaping emotional wounds, that there is no such thing as a "zipless f**k."

"Intimacy" begins by forcing us to become intimate with a body, an average, middle-aged body, unprotected by makeup, plastic surgery or artifice. The camera moves in ultra-closeup over the body of Jay (Mark Rylance), asleep on a couch in his dingy bachelor pad. Every hair, every pore, every inch of pallid flesh is exposed in pitilessly harsh lighting.

He's awakened by a woman at the door. With barely an attempt at conversation, they rip off their clothes and go straight for it, on the floor on a well-used bedcover. Their sex is fumbling, panting and over too soon, with not even a trace of fantasy to eroticize this slightly squalid coupling. But Chereau is also daring us: Don't we recognize this? Is this not more familiar to us than Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz and immaculately lit satin sheets?

Yes, you may say, but then what do we want from films? A reminder of our frailty, a deglamorization of sex, or something idealized, something that turns us on and makes us romanticize the act of love? How you answer this question will determine whether you love or hate this film.

But beyond the sex -- and there's a lot of it, in the slightly alienated style of "Last Tango in Paris" -- there's a cutting character-study on display here. Jay is in the midst of a classic midlife crisis: He has walked out on his wife and kids to return to the "freedom" of his youth: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, a re-embrace of irresponsibility.

So Jay gets to work as a bartender in a trendy club, to wake up late, never wash the dishes, play The Clash as loud as he wants and to have commitment-free sex with Claire (Kerry Fox, "Shallow Grave") every Wednesday afternoon. Indeed, they barely even say a word to one another.

But -- and this is a big change from Kureishi's worldview, in which the author has justified his own real-life abandonment of married life -- Jay can't remain happy with just the sex, he needs to know more about Claire and begins to follow her around London. It's a classic look at male psychology: the need for "freedom" banging into the need for control, and maybe even for love. But it reveals his weakness and her silent strength.

Jay tracks Claire to a pub where she performs in amateur theater. He meets her husband, Andy (Timothy Spall, "Secrets & Lies"), playing pool, and baits him with some dangerous talk about his "Wednesday f**k," asking, "What would you think of a woman who got f**ked all day and then went back to her kids?" Jay then gets freaked when he bumps into Claire's son after the performance, who blurts out "Mum was wicked tonight!" Ummm, yeah . . .

Claire discovers that Jay is following her and turns the tables on him, which results in a messy confrontation as everyone finally lays their emotional cards on the table. Commenting with a bit of distance are the (far more likable) minor characters, Philippe Calvario as Ian, a younger gay bartender who works with Jay, and Marianne Faithfull as Betty, an older drama student of Claire's. Both are wiser, more grounded types, and we watch from their perspective as the central couple flail about emotionally, not even sure what it is they want.

When Jay tries to explain his divorce by saying, "Things happen . . . one day you just walk out." Ian can only gaze back and try to fathom the impulse. "Enthralled to our desires," he murmurs. So are we all, but whether such quotidian comings and goings will keep you enthralled for two hours may well depend on the agony level of your current relationship. "Intimacy" is either cathartic or depressing; there's no in-between.

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