Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Tag: Marriage

Up in the Air

YEAR: 2009
DIRECTOR: Jason Reitman
KEY ACTORS: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 91%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ Rewatchable – it’s soft and gentle and sweet and funny and thought provoking and easy watching, and I could watch it every week!
✔️ And yes, I do want to fuck the cast. I’d even argue that this film is George Clooney’s hotness peak!
✔️ Hotel sex with a handsome stranger was certainly a fantasy before this film, but it added the idea of luxury and exclusivity to this fantasy; a frisson of transience and possibility on expensive sheets.
✔️ Although it is another movie that has a possible cheating plot, I do think it’s sex positive as the main focus is on being OK with who you are. Whether you’re frequent flier Ryan or his home girl sister, it’s OK to have the life (and the love and sex) that you want and in the absence of significant sex negative themes, I’m going to give it the mark.
❌ But does it pass the Bechdel test? Can it be only the second 5/5 movie?? In the end, this comes down to accepting nuance in a binary question. There is one conversation between two named female characters that isn’t about men or dating – Natalie fires Karen Barnes, the women who later takes their own life. It’s an important plot point, but it is only one conversation and the women’s name is only revealed later. She is also not listed in the credits. Is that enough to scrape over this lowest of bars? I don’t think it is…

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.99), YouTube (from £2.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The Up In the Air poster showing silhouettes of Clooney, Kendrick and Farmiga against a big airport window

George Clooney is a good looking man. I don’t think this is a controversial opinion. But when was he hottest? Young and spunky in ER? Slick and tuxedoed in the Oceans movies? Cocky and criminal in Out of Sight, a strong candidate?

I’d argue that George Clooney’s peak hotness is in this week’s film, Up in the Air. Not only does he look incredible in a suit and is at a perfect level of silver foxness, but he’s also playing an unattached business man, moving from hotel to hotel and maxing out on perks and upgrades. He oozes the pleasures of an anonymous nomadic lifestyle and you just know he’d be the perfect hotel stranger to fuck! Yes, this is George Clooney at his absolute best.

Clooney and Farmiga sat in a bar and laughing

But I love this film for many more reasons than just the beautiful men and the hotel sex. It’s a beautiful film and it makes me really happy, even though it objectively doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a real ending with real growth for the characters, and I love it.

The film follows Ryan Bingham (Clooney), a travelling business man who visits companies to fire their employees, a particularly pertinent role in 2009 during the financial crisis. His whole raison d’etre is to be anonymous and impersonal – he’s the bad guy, he’s the face of the faceless corporation that wants to fire these people, allowing their bosses to remain sympathetic and unaffected. And this impersonal existence has bled into his entire life. Ryan is on the road over 300 days a year, living in hotels and flying American Airlines across the country. He has hotel membership, he collects air miles by the million, he lives out of a carry on suitcase to save time at each check in. As the Guardian review noted, Ryan essentially neglects the ‘real loyalties of family and emotional commitment’ in favour of reward schemes and loyalty programmes. He feels light and free and unencumbered by his transient lifestyle – so much so that he gives motivational speeches about discarding the unnecessary weight in our lives.

‘How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Feel ’em? Now I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life…Make no mistake – your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Do you feel the straps cutting into your shoulders? All those negotiations and arguments, and secrets and compromises. You don’t need to carry all that weight. Why don’t you set that bag down? Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically for a lifetime – star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not those animals. The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We’re sharks.’

Clooney stood in front of a bed with all his belongings laid out and waiting to be packed

Except, of course, that he can’t stay in his bubble forever. Two women break through – one personal, one business – and change the way he sees his freedom. The first, Natalie Keener (Kendrick), is a young woman who is sent on the road with him to learn about firing people. She’s enthusiastic and ambitious and everything Ryan is not, yearning after a long term commitment. During their work trip, she breaks up with the boyfriend she gave up everything for and has an existential crisis of sorts. She is an interesting character as she is both the stereotypical needy marriage and baby loving woman that the film gently mocks for having such homely goals, and she’s the modern breath of fresh air that starts to make Ryan feel like he is missing out on something in his solitary world.

Clooney and Kendrick sat at a conference table. He is looking confidently forward; she is looking quizzically at him

The other woman, Alex Goran (Farmiga), is yet another example of a woman that I want to be. She’s cool and sophisticated and sexy, and I had to look up Vera Farmiga’s age when it was filmed as the fact that she was 34, as I am now, makes me feel very uncouth. I’m beginning to think I have some sort of suit or office wear kink as all the women I love on screen tend to dress pretty sharply, wearing trouser suits or pencil skirts with blouses. Actually, they tend to have a lot of sex too so maybe the office wear thing is a red herring…! When they meet, Ryan and Alex spar and flirt over the reward schemes and frequent flier perks that they’ve accumulated – as Alex says, they’re both people who ‘get turned on by elite status’ – and they end up having an affair in many hotels in many states, matching their schedules and making additional flights to ensure their paths cross.

Ryan and Alex’s chemistry is just so hot. I absolutely adore each of them talking about their experience of the mile high club – Ryan hasn’t ever managed to have sex on a flight unlike Alex who fucked on a daytime regional flight, a status symbol that is far superior even to Ryan’s concierge card! It did also amuse me that Ryan and Alex are shown to have Good Movie Sex. All the signs were there – ending up on different levels from each other, one on the floor, the other on the bed, with sheets ruffled around them and covered in sweat. That’s how you show Good Movie Sex!

Also, I need to make a quick side point about fucking in hotels. Why is it so hot? Is it the transience or anonymity, as it is for Ryan? Or the fact that someone else cleans up afterwards?? I don’t stay in hotels for business so I know that for me at least, hotel sex is usually so hot more because of the reason I’m in a hotel – a holiday, an erotic writing conference – than because of the literal room but still. Wow!

Anyway, and more importantly, after meeting Alex, Ryan starts to see the benefits of having someone in his life – perhaps someone exactly like her, someone who understands his need to roam – but his attempt at making their relationship more than just hotel sex backfires when he discovers that she has a family at home; a husband and children who she keeps separate from her own travelling existence.

I struggle with this cheating plot line as I really like Alex but I don’t agree with her ‘what happens on the road, stays on the road’ attitude. It’s never explicitly stated that her husband doesn’t know about her other partners but her anger at Ryan turning up on her doorstep suggests otherwise: ‘you could’ve seriously screwed things up for me. That’s my family; that’s my real life.’ Being polyamorous with great relationships with my metamours, I hope that she’s just talking about protecting her children from the reality of her life away from home and her husband consents to her extramarital affairs. It would seem the most sensible way to survive long periods apart. I hope that her husband knows and understands and agrees, even if it’s with a don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach, and although she still couldn’t commit to Ryan as he’d hoped, it makes their relationship more real and less…casual.

I find this ambiguity particularly sad as the film makes a point of clarifying that their relationship isn’t casual when that description is used in a derogatory sense, but Alex’s lies undermine the suggestion that there are different ways to have a relationship and that they’re all good. When Natalie questions whether Ryan and Alex have any future, questioning whether the casual relationship that they have could ever be real, Ryan responds by telling her that ‘your definition of “real” is going to evolve as you get older.’ I liked this; I liked the idea that the fairytale relationships that we’re brought up to believe are the only way to find happiness might not actually be the only way, which is why the reality of Alex’s deception upset me almost as much as it upset Ryan:

Ryan Bingham: [over the phone] I thought I was a part of your life.
Alex Goran: I thought we signed up for the same thing… I thought our relationship was perfectly clear. You are an escape. You’re a break from our normal lives. You’re a parenthesis.
Ryan Bingham: I’m a parenthesis?

So much in this film is about how life isn’t going to be how you’d planned it. Whether it’s an employee being fired or Ryan discovering Alex’s ‘real’ family, there’s a sense of danger when looking forward – there are too many unexpected outcomes, too much risk. Or perhaps it’s better to say that there’s that sense of danger with too much forward planning, as exemplified by Natalie’s shock at being dumped when she’d planned her whole future around a guy:

This is the scene that stuck with me the longest after I first saw this movie. The contrast between the very specific and frankly superficial needs of younger Natalie and the simpler but perhaps more important desires of older Alex struck a chord with me. I was 24 when this film came out but was horrified by Natalie’s wish to be engaged by 23 with children already, and her plans to have her career sorted and be ‘entertaining by night.’ Do people really want that at 23?

I’ve often wondered if studying medicine, and so being at university for years longer than my contemporaries at school, delayed my need to be ‘grown up.’ At 23 or 24, I was still studying and could think of nothing worse than being settled with a family and hosting dinner parties but I knew many who did want that and many who achieved it. Such is an the grip of the patriarchy that being a successful wife and mother also remains the way that many of us measure our achievements, particularly when measured against our careers. As GOTN wrote a few months ago, women are still judged by how well we take on household admin so, even though Up in the Air does depict Natalie as an extreme example, she’s certainly not unusual in wanting to put a marriage and household above a career.

It is interesting rewatching the film now I’m 34 like Alex. When I was in my early twenties, I may not have wanted the commitment Natalie does but I did have a checklist of superficial qualities that I was looking for in a partner – older than me, taller than me, smarter than me, ginger, blue-eyed, bearded – but I had given up on that sort of list long before I met my future husband (although anyone who knows him will realise that it’s a frighteningly accurate description. It seems I have a type!). Even by my mid-twenties, I knew that finding someone with similar family values or shared views on children etc really is more important than what they look like or how many syllables are in their name.

The scene is played to show Ryan and Alex as the wiser, battle-weary elders who are gently laughing at Natalie’s naivety, but it also shows that the reality of dating in your thirties and beyond does require compromises. Both agree that having a nice smile is important but, other than that, Alex’s wish list seems much more focussed on avoiding conflict than about desirable qualities. Is that what is meant by settling? Is that a bad thing? Again, I now agree with Alex that what feels like settling changes as you get older – it’s more about realising what is important and widening your options.

Clooney and Farmiga; she has her hand on his shoulder as both look towards the left

Even though Ryan is apparently on the wiser side of that discussion, he is the one whose character arc involves the most growth and change when it comes to relationships. Early on, he is dismissive of marriage, asking Natalie to ‘sell it to [him]’ and effectively countering each of her arguments. It sounds like a practiced speech, a well-worn discussion. Slick and certain. In contrast to this, when talking to his future brother-in-law, Jim, and trying to warm his cold feet before his wedding, he is less sure of himself, less certain but wholly more believable: ‘If you think about it, your favourite memories, the most important moments in your life… were you alone?’ It’s almost as if he’s coming to the realisation himself, persuading and comforting Jim and reaching the conclusion that ‘life’s better with company’ at the same time.

It is only after this realisation and after he discovers Alex’s family that Ryan achieves his lifelong ambition of earning 10 million air mile goal, but his success becomes so much more poignant with his new attitude towards having more people in his life. It’s everything that he’s worked for and is the ultimate symbol of his isolation and transience, but it seems to feel so hollow once he has it. The film’s tagline is that it’s a ‘story of a man ready to make a connection,’ and by the end, I certainly believe that he is.

After all, everyone needs a co-pilot.

Next week: Dirty Dancing

Sorry for the delay posting this week – holidaying with a baby has even less writing time than I expected!!

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Imagine Me and You

YEAR: 2005
DIRECTOR: Ol Parker
KEY ACTORS: Piper Perabo, Lena Headey, Matthew Goode, Celia Imrie, Anthony Head
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 6.8
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 34%

I’m so happy to be posting another guest post from another fabulous sex blogger, Amy Norton from Coffee and Kink! Amy writes hot erotica, detailed sex toy reviews and insightful personal essays – do go and check out her writing!

SEX SCORE: 4.5/5
✔️ Passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Main characters Rachel and Luce are shown talking about a wide range of topics from flowers to football.
✔️ Fuckable cast – Lena Headey (yes, as in Cersei Lannister) as a dorky lesbian florist? Sign me the fuck up. Piper Perabo is also super hot. The men don’t really do anything for me; Matthew Goode’s Heck is cute enough but not my type, and Darren Boyd’s Cooper is way too obnoxious to be hot.
Fantasies inspired – Half a point here. No specific sexual fantasies from this one (there’s hardly any actual sex in it!) but definitely plenty of romantic fantasies. This movie was the first piece of media which gave me hope that queer women, too, could have cinema-worthy mushy happy endings.
✔️ Rewatchable – Endlessly. I’ve probably seen this film at least a dozen times by now, and it’s a frequent cheer-me-up choice when I’m sad or sick.
✔️ Sex positive – This was difficult to decide. I’m torn primarily because there’s a major theme about cheating, which is hard to classify as sex-positive. However, it’s also a story about following your heart when your sexuality turns out to not be quite what you thought, and it’s unashamedly queer-positive (despite coming out only two years after the end of Section 28.) So, yes, it gets the point.

As ever, this post contains spoilers, so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Shockingly, this film is on neither Netflix nor Amazon Prime. It is available on Sky for £3.49, or you can buy the DVD for around £5 on Amazon. For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The Imagine Me and You poster, showing Rachel laughing with both Luce and Heck behind her

When I was an undergraduate, a decade or so ago, we had monthly LGBTQ film nights. As a baby queer of nineteen, I’d seen almost no LGBTQ cinema before. These evenings introduced me to some films which I still love years later. One of them was Imagine Me and You, a British queer rom-com starring Piper Perabo as Rachel, a young newly-wed who feels inexplicably drawn to florist Luce at her wedding… and eventually begins to wonder if the love of her life might not be her new husband, Hector (“Heck”), after all.

Perabo is a wedding dress, laughing with Headey why stands back to back, looking over her shoulder towards her m

There isn’t much actual sex in this movie (it’s only a 12 certificate, after all!) It’s really a film about the fluidity of sexuality, and about sexual and romantic tension rather than sex itself. But that’s part of what makes it so delicious! Rachel’s attraction to Luce is immediate and overpowering, and she spends much of the movie (which spans a period of a few months) trying desperately to deny her growing feelings. That said, sex is alluded to plenty, including in some of the movie’s most memorable moments:

Heck: [When Rachel wants to have sex in a park late at night] “We’ve got a flat. It’s a good one! And I’ve confiscated your mother’s key so she can’t sneak up on us any more. I swear that woman’s got a sex radar.”

In this scene, Rachel and Heck run into a gay male couple who also seem to be getting ready to have sex in the woods. The two men explain that they have only just met, and there’s a hilarious, excruciatingly awkward handshake and exchange of names. (This movie does painful awkwardness so, so well – just search Youtube for “Imagine Me & You supermarket scene” to see what I mean.) This film even manages to poke fun at outdated puritanical beliefs about the supposed “degrading and offensive” nature of pornography:

Heck: [After nearly catching Rachel watching a lesbian porn film she has “accidentally” rented from the video store] It’s porn, right? It’s degrading. It’s offensive.
Rachel: God, yes.
Heck: Yeah… Let’s watch it anyway! Come on, Rach, I mean, things have been getting slack in that department recently. I know it’s my fault, but…
Rachel: No, it’s mine… I… uh… but I don’t want to watch this.
Heck: Why not?
Rachel: It doesn’t turn me on.
Heck: Makes one of us.

We’re also reminded of the hypocrisy of the heteropatriarchy in the form of Heck’s best friend, Cooper. “Coop” is an obnoxious womanizer who believes himself “the cure for lesbianism” and proudly boasts about all the married women who have cheated with him. (Real talk: in reality, these two men would never be best friends. They have nothing in common!) However, when Heck confides that Rachel has fallen in love with someone else, Coop realises the person in question is Luce and doesn’t hesitate to chew her out for “wrecking another couple.” Please remember: Luce and Rachel have shared exactly one kiss by this point in the film, and Rachel has tried to end things and decided to stay with her husband. Coming from a man whose answer to the question of what to do if you like someone who’s already in a relationship is, “me? I shag ‘em”… the hypocrisy and double standards are thrown into sharp relief here. Luce, to her credit, basically tells him to fuck off.

Headey is in her flower shop with Goode looking in at her

But again: the sex jokes are fun and the movie occasionally makes a serious point about sex, but this is really a film about the slow burn of sexual and romantic tension leading to blossoming love. Rachel and Luce repeatedly find themselves in each other’s orbit – ironically, Heck keeps making efforts to throw them together, thinking that Rachel could use more female friendships in her life. There are a number of moments where something so nearly happens, and then doesn’t. In one particularly exquisite and painful moment, the two women come inches away from kissing at the end of an evening out together, until Rachel breaks the spell and runs off.

When I watch this scene I am always viscerally reminded of times, before I was quite ready to come out, when I might have had the opportunity to kiss a girl but wasn’t yet able to deal with what it could mean about me if I did. Experiences like this are, I think, a near -ubiquitous part of the coming out process. I’m sure that’s why so many young queer women say they see themselves represented in this film. As the newly-out, newly-adult queer woman I was when I watched this film, Rachel’s coming-out story resonated profoundly with me. It still does.

The tension and slowly escalating pull Rachel and Luce feel to each other is so beautifully executed that when they do finally kiss, it brings tears to my eyes every single time. A heartbroken Rachel tells Luce they can no longer see each other because she is married, goes to leave… then rushes back into Luce’s flower shop and kisses her passionately. This scene is hot, tender and funny (“Thorns! Thorns in my bum!”) all at the same time. Just like the best sex, the best kisses and the best relationships in real life.

Perado and Headey smiling and hugging

And this is of the reasons the Rachel/Luce relationship is so compelling. They genuinely seem to like each other! Laughter is a major part of their interactions. Despite its unusual beginnings and the strange circumstances, their relationship seems based on genuine affection, mutual respect, and a deep sense of fun and friendship.

Films need conflict, of course. Otherwise there is no story. But the conflict in Imagine Me & You exists internally for each of the characters – Rachel as she battles with her changing sexuality, Luce as she struggles with the guilt over loving a married woman. Their relationship itself, though? It consistently strikes me as one of the healthiest on-screen romantic relationships I can think of, gay or straight.

Speaking of conflict, I do need to address the “cheating” element of this story. Having been on the wrong end of it, I feel comfortable saying I take a harder line on cheating than most. And, yes, Rachel does cheat on Heck in this film. What redeems it for me, though, is that the film does not glorify or romanticise cheating. Rachel fights her attraction to Luce every single step of the way and attempts to put physical distance between them when it seems that something is about to happen. Luce doesn’t push her to do anything, and also wrestles with her own guilt for wanting someone who is already married… even to the point of nearly leaving the country to put distance between them when she believes Rachel has chosen to stay with Heck.

When the two women do share that amazing kiss in the flower shop (and are nearly caught by Heck, coming at precisely the wrong moment to buy some flowers for his wife,) Rachel realises what she is doing and again tries to put an end to it. Later, she tearfully confesses to her husband.

“I went crazy, Heck. I went crazy for someone and it wasn’t you.”

Additionally, the scene where Rachel and Heck eventually split up is heartbreaking – for both of them. Heck, and their marriage, are not treated as disposable or easy to throw aside in favour of the “new shiny.” They genuinely love and care about each other! However, Rachel has come to understand something new and profound about herself and her sexuality, which is incompatible with the continuation of their marriage. Heck, I think, realises this very clearly while Rachel is still vainly trying to deny it to herself. He chooses to step aside, over allowing his wife to stay with him out of guilt or a sense of obligation when her heart is elsewhere. To me, it’s his last act of profound love towards her.

“What you’re feeling now, Rachel, is the unstoppable force. Which means I’ve got to move.”

I think this storyline represents an extremely common experience for queer people in opposite-sex relationships who cheat or who break up with their spouse for a same-sex partner. The new love, the new understanding of sexuality, does not negate what came before or make it somehow less real. It’s a difficult, painful, heart-wrenching decision to make. It’s wrapped up in guilt, loss, shame and fear of leaving the known for the unknown. And this film just shows that reality so beautifully.

Perado and Goode smiling at each other at a bonfire party

Finally, this storyline gets a pass from me because it neatly avoids two tropes: bisexual women as serial cheaters (she does it once and she feels terrible about it!) and the idea that the husband should be chill with the affair because relationships and sex between women “don’t count.”

Thinking about it, avoiding tired queer cinema tropes is one of the things this film does best and one of the reasons I love it.

My best friend and I like to watch LGBTQ films together. Last time we did this, we challenged ourselves to find queer films that featured none of: Death of any queer characters; violent homophobia; an AIDS storyline. It was shockingly difficult to find anything (my favourite film of all time, Pride, doesn’t clear this test either but gets a pass for being a true story.) I don’t want to diminish the fact that these things are all big, important, painful things to grapple with, which were and are a major part of collective queer history. However… we don’t necessarily always need to see that misery on-screen All The Fucking Time.

Bury Your Gays” is a trope many of us are sick of, and lesbian and bisexual women often get the worst of it. (It’s almost like homophobic patriarchy views queer women as expendable, or somehow only acceptable when made into tragic figures.) Imagine Me & You turns all that on its head. Instead, we get two happy women kissing in the middle of a busy street while a love-song plays, and then having a stable and functional relationship.

I might be a tad jaded in many ways, but I’m a hopeless romantic at heart and a sucker for a happy ending. I love so many things about Imagine Me & You but one of them is that everyone – including Heck, Rachel’s now ex-husband – gets a happy ending. And goddess knows we need more happy endings.

Next week: Up in the Air

If you’d also like to write a guest post, click here for details on how to get in touch!

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

The Before trilogy

YEAR: Sunrise 1995, Sunset 2004, Midnight 2013
DIRECTOR: Richard Linklater
KEY ACTORS: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: Sunrise 8.1, Sunset 8.0, Midnight 7.9
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: Sunrise 100%, Sunset 95%, Midnight 97%

SEX SCORE: 4.5/5
✔️ Definitely rewatchable – and I’d recommend watching the full trilogy in one sitting if you can.
✔️ The cast are definitely fuckable. Julie Delpy is all sorts of fantastic and although there is something, well, weaselly about Ethan Hawke, the chemistry between them is so hot that I still want him despite his somewhat wiry facial hair!
✔️ And these movies did inspire lots of fantasies – meeting a hot stranger on a train, fucking in a park, missing a plane home because I needed to fuck someone right there and then…
✔️ On balance, I think these movies are sex positive. This is mainly as there isn’t much sex negativity so it gets a mark by default!
❓ Only Before Midnight passes…but it’s the only one with more than two named characters after all. The films are so focused on those two characters that this test feels, well, irrelevant.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99 but not Sunset!?), YouTube (from £3.99, Midnight from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The three posters side by side - Sunrise showing them lying under a dawn sky, Sunset on a boat under a bridge and Midnight walking by a quay

Oh, what am I thinking attempting to write about the entire Before… trilogy in one post?! This may be my most ambitious (and is definitely my longest) post yet!

But having just watched all three films over two nights, I cannot imagine writing about them in any other way. Although the first, Before Sunrise, is a unique and self-contained film, the others become increasingly dependent on the previous ‘episodes’ as the series progresses and themes tend to run through them all so talking about them separately would be either repetitive or disruptive. So here goes…

The three films of the Before… trilogy follow the lives of Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) essentially in real time. Before Sunrise, in 1995, is about their meeting on a train approaching Vienna. They are both in their early twenties and single, although newly so in Jesse’s case. He persuades Céline to get off the train in Vienna with him and they fall in love over one night, walking through the city at night and eventually fucking in a park. In a ridiculously tenuous plan that could only be made by people so young and naive, they agree to meet back on that platform in 6 months but don’t share any contact details – this was before the internet or smart phones and, anyway, it was more romantic that way.

Jesse and Céline sit opposite each other, pretending to talk on phones made of their fingers

Nine years then pass, both for the characters and for the viewers, as the next film was released in 2004. In Before Sunset, Jesse is now an author on a book tour to promote his supposedly fictional novel about a young man who meets a beautiful woman on a train and spends a night walking around Vienna, falling in love with her. Céline, obviously, attends the reading and they reunite, walking through Paris from the bookstore back to Céline’s flat. It turns out that Jesse did fly back to Vienna all those years ago but Céline could not as her grandmother had just died and so they had not seen each other again until now. Both have materially moved on – Jesse is married with a son and Céline is in a long distance relationship – but it becomes clear that they never stopped loving each other; never stopped wondering and wishing and looking. So, of course, Jesse misses his flight home to be with her.

Jesse and Céline sit in the back of a car, talking to each other

Finally, after another nine years in 2013, the final instalment was released – Before Midnight. Jesse and Céline are married with young twin girls, who are likely around eight, and on holiday in Greece. Sadly, the romantic ideal of the early films has faded and this film is about an epic argument. Jesse is worried about his son living with his estranged wife in Chicago, Céline feels trapped in a life as a wife and mother that she doesn’t want, and a romantic night in a hotel turns into a row that culminates with Céline claiming she doesn’t love Jesse anymore and storming out. Although there is the suggestion of reconciliation, the film ending with them sitting together on a quay, there is no doubt that their relationship is on rocky ground.

Jesse and Céline are sitting, having dinner. Jesse is looking at her as she makes an exclamation

Fuck. What a journey!

I both love and hate these films in equal measure. They feel too personal, too prescient, and so I have complicated feelings about how they fit into my life. The fact that I even wonder how they fit me at all says a lot about the quality of these films. Obviously, my life is nothing like that depicted on screen but the depth of emotion and realism in their interactions felt and still feels so familiar, even before I fell in love myself, that I cannot help but have a visceral reaction to the stories, more than I ever have with other movies.

I know the first film, Before Sunrise, the best and watched it often during my twenties, falling in love with both Jesse and Céline a bit more each time. They are so idealistic, so hopefully and so obviously young in their earnest discussions on philosophy and life. Similar to my declaration that the men in Y Tu Mamá También are such teenage boys, both Jesse and Céline are such early twenties students! But so was I – I recognised myself in their musings and in their youthful optimism. And I cannot tell you how much I wanted to travel and meet someone exciting and have that kind of romantic and erotic adventure. It seemed so possible and so real, and it was intoxicating.

That sense of reality is what is so perfect about Richard Linklater’s films, which, combined with his infinitely patient use of time, turns his movies into masterpieces. The films and the plots are deceptively simple, with lots of tracking shots as they walk and talk and lots of scenery and architecture, but it means that you as the viewer are firmly rooted beside them. I know I felt connected to them; to the possibility of their future that was teased by the knowledge of sequels!

And I’ve only ever seen the other films in marathon viewings, first near Valentines in 2015 and now this weekend, so I have only ever been completely immersed in the rest of their story. As Before Sunset had been out for over a decade by the time I saw it, I was roughly the same age as Jesse and Céline when I did see it. I had also just met the man who would turn out to be the love of my life and, in an ultimately futile attempt to protect myself, I was desperately trying to persuade myself that I couldn’t have fallen in love after so few dates. So I really felt every look that sizzled between them; every hopeful glance, every wistful remembrance, every time Jesse looked at Céline as if the heat of his eyes alone could melt her clothes away, and it made me hope that I wasn’t being reckless to be hovering so close to my own big love story.

Jesse and Céline are walking through Paris and he is looking at her as they walk

The anticipation in Before Sunset is just so fucking hot! Unlike the other two, it’s almost in real time. Jesse only has an hour or so before his flight back to his miserable life in America with a wife he doesn’t love and the film is just as short, lasting only 80 minutes. You can feel their love growing with every passing minute but, more, you can feel their desire. My husband, EA, told me that Céline putting her arms around Jesse’s neck and asking ‘Are you trying to say you want to kiss me?’ in Before Sunrise was the sexiest thing ever put on film, but I disagree – it’s the look on Jesse’s face as he watches Céline sing and dance at the end of Before Sunset. And when I watched it, I knew that I was standing at a similar junction in my own love life and I wanted to stop pretending, just as they had.

Which is why I found Before Midnight so upsetting and frustrating when I first saw it, writing at the time in my sex blog about my fury at the destruction of this romantic dream being thrust into my face. Why can’t they live happily ever after? Why can’t I remain deluded and just believe in ever lasting love? Why did I have to be reminded of real life and real heartbreak and why did it have to be this amazing, beautiful story that smashed my delusion? Watching it first in that marathon sitting, barely 30 minutes had passed since the end of Before Sunset when I had accepted my own romantic dreams might come true and I was genuinely devastated that this might be my future too.

But, of course, that is why this trilogy is so fucking fantastic. Time passes, real time, and everything changes. It is deluded to think it won’t, no matter how much we might wish otherwise. Watching it now, for the second time and with knowledge of what is to come, I can see beauty in this part too. There is comfort and familiarity in their conversations before the argument, as I would hope in long term relationships. And they could always talk easily with each other but their discussions of their now shared nine year history were just as heartwarming as their exploratory conversations in the earlier movies.

Jesse and Céline are in a car with their daughters asleep in the background

But that’s not to say that I didn’t find it just as devastating. I really, really need Richard Linklater to write a fourth part for 2022 – Before Noon, perhaps? I really need to see Jesse and Céline in another nine years, in their fifties, looking back at that destructive argument and that difficult time from a place of recovery. I almost don’t care if they’re still together. I just need to see that they’ve found a peace and I need to know that their complaints have been resolved.

Because watching Before Midnight now, married with a young baby, it was the specifics of their argument that really got to me, not just that they were capable of such an argument. There was so much regret – Jesse regrets his failed marriage and subsequent impossible relationship with his ex-wife, which has been made more difficult because of the overlap with his reconciliation with Céline and is now affecting his access to his son. Meanwhile, Céline regrets the speed at while she fell pregnant and the loss of her creativity and potential in her new role as a wife and mother. None of these apply to me; I don’t have these regrets, but neither did they when they first got together and it frightened me that such core features of their relationship could become sources of regret.

Jesse is standing in a doorway of a hotel room, looking aghast

‘I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing!’ Jesse says to Céline at one point, and I flinched. That was the moment that I loved the most and yet here it was being used against her. And the fact that such deep seated and all consuming resentments could be revealed in an argument that started because of something as trivial as not passing the phone when Hank, Jesse’s son, called suggested that they had been bubbling for a while, and I hated that. Actually, no need for the past tense – I hate that.

Because it is just so real that it hurts. How many marriages and relationships fail because of an accumulation of small dissatisfactions? How easy is it to let small issues fester and grow until they poison the whole? As a film, it’s brilliant. As an example for life, which I had clung to in the first two films, it was heartbreaking.

What made the trilogy more complete and more extraordinary is that the inevitability of their collapse is foreshadowed in the early films. There are so many callbacks that I cannot imagine watching the films individually as there is so much richness that might be missed.

For example, the trilogy starts with a German couple arguing. There are no subtitles so the reason for the argument is not known, but the bickering tone and back-and-forth suggests a well worn conflict. It is this argument that encourages Céline to change seat and sit near Jesse; it is literally what brings them together. They mock the couple, all but promising that they will never be like that and would instead love more deeply with familiarity:

‘When you talked earlier about after a few years how a couple would begin to hate each other by anticipating their reactions or getting tired of their mannerisms – I think it would be the opposite for me. I think I can really fall in love when I know everything about someone – the way he’s going to part his hair, which shirt he’s going to wear that day, knowing the exact story he’d tell in a given situation. I’m sure that’s when I know I’m really in love.’

Of course, it doesn’t end up that way.

Another big call back that really resonated with me now involved Céline’s difficulty balancing her creativity, career and motherhood. By Before Midnight, she is uncertain about her career direction, no longer writing songs or expressing her creativity, and the bitterness in her statement that she became pregnant ‘the first time they had sex without a condom’ suggests that becoming a mother so soon had not been her plan.

Her dissatisfaction at her current situation made me incredibly sad, mainly as it blandly shows that I am right to fear a certain loss of self now that I am a mother myself. I don’t have as much space to be creative now, my household responsibilities have magnified to absorb almost all of my time; I fear becoming as regretful and bitter as Céline. I’m hopeful that I won’t – EA and I talk a lot about exactly this, as well as other areas of concern that have developed for us since becoming parents, and I do believe that being realistically forewarned means that I am forearmed, but the fears do remain.

My sadness was exacerbated as Céline’s bitterness represents a loss of innocence that broke my heart almost more than the possible collapse of her marriage. Because young Céline, Before Sunrise Céline, knew the risks to her sense of self and wanted it anyway. She wanted to be loved that deeply and entirely, and yet it didn’t make her happy:

‘I always feel this pressure of being a strong and independent icon of womanhood, and without making it look my whole life is revolving around some guy. But loving someone, and being loved means so much to me. We always make fun of it and stuff. But isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?’

It was also creativity that brought them back together – Jesse wrote his novel in the hope that she’d read it and track him down, Céline wrote a song that ensured he fell in love with her – so is it a surprise that they’re struggling if her creativity is squashed? And I have to once again complain about the patriarchy (maybe I need to make this a tag?!) as, of course, Jesse’s creativity isn’t affected. In fact, Céline has given up a lot to allow Jesse to write and be creative. She has sacrificed; he has flourished. Of course.

For me, the power of this trilogy comes from how real it is – in the way the characters speak, the emotions that they reveal, and the progression in their relationship over 18 years. Even how they’ve aged! Each film was made without a planned follow-up so the future wasn’t known when it was released. Did they meet again in Vienna and fulfil that youthful romantic dream? Did they get together after Jesse missed his flight and was the sex as good as the anticipation promised? And can they fix the rift that has now forced itself between them?

But we can’t know until the next film is released, just as we can’t know our own futures until they happen. And as someone who usually dives into movies to escape reality, I love and hate these films in equal measure for reminding me, so beautifully, that sometimes reality is a dream come true – it’s a song that sparks a lost love, a train journey with unexpected consequences – but sometimes, maybe all the time eventually, reality fucking sucks.

So please, Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy – please write another film. I really need to know what happens next!

Next week: Death Proof

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Eyes wide shut

YEAR: 1999
DIRECTOR: Stanley Kubrick
KEY ACTORS: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 75%

SEX SCORE: 3/5
✔️Definitely want to fuck the cast – this film came out at my peak Tom Cruise loving age (I was 14) so although I didn’t see it for a few years, I still want to fuck 1999 Tom Cruise for nostalgic reasons if nothing else. And I don’t want Nicole Kidman as much as I want her in Moulin Rouge but she’s still looking ridiculously hot!
✔️ It does pass the Bechdel test (Alice talks to a named babysitter, Ros, about their daughter) but I am getting a little disheartened at how many films barely scrape over this low bar.
✔️ Whether or not it was the point of the film, this is where my curiosity about sex parties started so yes, it certainly inspired fantasies!
Not really rewatchable – it’s SO long and complicated that it’s not a film I’d rush out to see again.
I don’t think this film is sex positive – it’s a cautionary tale about jealousy and excess where sex is a punishment and a temptation, not a delight. Also, it uses the f-word, and I don’t mean fuck, so no…

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: YouTube (from £3.99), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), iTunes (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), Rakuten TV (from £7.99)

[Content warning: discussion of professional and emotional abuse]

The poster showing Cruise and Kidman kissing but she is looking at that camera rather than her husband

I don’t normally like films that take a lot of Thought with a capital T. I love clever films, complex films and films that get better and become more interesting when I’ve read up on them or the more I watch them, but I don’t like films that are incomprehensible or difficult to understand without that work. It’s why I don’t really get Bladerunner, why The Shining is my favourite Kubrick even though 2001: Space Odyssey is arguably the better film…and it’s why I never really took to Eyes Wide Shut.

I first saw it when I was about 21, drawn in by a teenage crush on Tom Cruise and the promise of sex and debauchery. What I found instead was just weird. Fuck, it was weird. I didn’t get it at all!

And eighteen years later when I considered reviewing it for this blog, it was because the only thing I could remember was the glamorous orgy set piece in the middle. Yay, sex parties, I thought. I love sex parties!

I’ve written about my own hedonistic experience of sex parties on my other blog but, as much as I loved the experience, I can now see the detrimental effect that Eyes Wide Shut had on my expectations. When we arrived at the venue, my first thought was that it was seedier than I’d imagined. It was just a warehouse with fabric draped on the walls and mattresses in the corner. I mean, it was perfect – functional, clean and comfortable – but there was no opulence. No luscious red carpeting or mirrors to reflect the soft candle light and no jazz pianists playing in the background. Eyes Wide Shut had led me to expect more glamour!

Despite this, I prefer my reality. Since the release of this film, upscale and glamorous sex parties organised by big companies like Killing Kittens have become almost mainstream. Public sex is portrayed as extravagant and, thanks in part to the billionaire dominant trope popularised by Fifty Shades, sexual excess is something for the wealthy. Except that it isn’t and shouldn’t be like that at all. I’ve never been to a Killing Kittens party and I don’t want to go as I am put off by their strict beauty criteria and I’ve heard rumours of an age cut off, both of which are completely at odds with my idea of sex positivity. The practical and adequately decorated warehouse full of horny people across the whole spectrum of size, sexuality and gender who were all having a great time was the debauched orgy that I want! (Sadly, and hopefully not tellingly, this company has gone out of business…) Sex should be inclusive, not exclusive, and I resent the implication of division that was propagated by this film.

Rewatching Eyes Wide Shut, I’m beginning to suspect that Kubrick didn’t think much of that decadent ‘reality’ either. As I will get into later, I don’t think too much of Kubrick and his process but there is no doubt that his previous filmography were works of genius. Eyes Wide Shut just doesn’t feel in the same league – it’s clunky, disconnected and overly long – unless this was what Kubrick wanted. Considering this film holds the world record for the longest continuous shoot at 400 days and Kubrick reportedly performed 95 takes of Cruise just walking through a door, it only seems logical to conclude that this effect was intended, Cruise’s flat and wooden affect and all.

Because it’s all a dream.

Once I’d realised that perhaps it wasn’t intended to be a film of reality, it all fell into place. The coincidences, the odd language, the abnormal concentration of stunningly beautiful women and fucking ever present male gaze with unnecessary tits on display at the drop of a hat all make sense because it’s Dr Bill Harford’s vision; his jealousy manifest in a surrealist nightmare. And in this existential vision of self-flagellation, it also starts to make sense why he appears so dull in this Christmas-light illuminated glamorous sexual wonderland.

And it’s not really a film about sex – it’s a film about marriage and jealousy. At the start, Alice and Bill exist in a sort of bland intimacy, complimenting each other’s appearance without looking and appearing to live in harmony, and it takes the kick of jealousy to set the events of the movie in motion.

My opinion of their jealousy is undoubtably affected by my own polyamorous marriage but I think they’re being ridiculous. Bill claims he doesn’t get jealous because Alice, as a woman, isn’t evolutionarily capable of wanting more than one man. What the fuck? This feels particularly troublesome and misogynist as Bill is allowed fantasies but his wife is not, telling her that he wouldn’t stray simply because he’s married rather than because he never wants to. To me, and this may well be the polyamory talking, this is monogamy – occasionally wanting others but not acting on those feelings or allowing them to develop as you’ve made a commitment to your partner. It feels unreasonable to expect any couple to be together for years and years without looking and fantasising about others. Looking and wondering isn’t cheating; acting is cheating.

Alice gets it. She’s rightfully annoyed at Bill’s unbalanced and unfair opinions and, when talking about her intense attraction to the naval officer, she admits that her husband felt ‘dearer to [her] than ever.’ She may have wanted someone else but that made her love and appreciate her husband more. Her acceptance of these fantasies and her surprise that Bill doesn’t think she has them is more realistic than Bill’s utopian and frankly sexist belief that his wife (and women in general) don’t have those sorts of desires.

Kidman sitting against a radiator and looking intently towards Cruise who is out of shot

But Alice’s revelations seems to cause Bill to suffer a psychologically collapse as he wanders around the city, stumbling across all sorts of sexual encounters, each more bizarre than the next. These episodes further convinced me that this was Bill’s dream as each event was much more potentially damaging to men than women, as discussed in the Fatal Attraction podcast, suggesting a conflict of masculinity as well as within a committed relationship. Underage girls, jocks questioning his masculinity, sex workers – these are all dangerous to the classic red blooded male and threaten his clean image. Throughout it all, as Roger Ebert notes, Bill is ‘forever identifying himself as a doctor, as if to reassure himself that he exists at all.’

A large circle of men in clocks and masks surround Cruise

These encounters also act to emphasise Bill’s own sexual attraction. All of these women throw themselves at him in most unlikely situations, such as the grieving daughter confessing her love in the presence of her father’s body. And the women are stunning – and have the same body type, Kubrick explicitly asking for a ‘Barbie-doll type.’ Is this just the effect of the male gaze or is Kubrick highlighting the fact that these are figments of Bill’s imagination and he has a type? These are the runaway fantasies of an insecure guy who needs to reaffirm his attraction in the wake of the discovery that his wife doesn’t only have eyes for him.

Thinking of Eyes Wide Shut as a film about a film about marriage brings the action on screen back around to reality, and I wish Kubrick was still alive to answer whether this was exactly what he intended. Because unlike any other that I’ve reviewed so far, it feels impossible to critique this film without connecting it to world in which it was produced. After a prolonged and secretive shoot, Kubrick died six days after submitting his final cut, which could only enhance the mystery surrounding his final project, but it is the casting of Cruise and Kidman at a time when they were married and arguably at the peak of their Hollywood stardom that feels most significant to me. This was a deliberate choice by Kubrick, allowing their on-screen and off-screen identities to flex and merge, adding to the dream-like state that he was keen to cultivate. Film School Rejects describes ‘the reality behind the fiction’ as ‘an extra layer of voyeurism that it will never escape.’ Whether this was part of Kubrick’s plan, the design of the poster also brings the director firmly into the action on screen, crediting him like a third actor, and this feels right – his influence in their performances extends beyond just his direction.

Cruise and Kidman, in their underwear, sitting on a bed and he is kissing her cheek

And the more I read about him, the more convinced I am that Kubrick was a twat! His filming ‘process’ requiring multiple takes with limited communication to aid development is notorious for causing Shelly Duvall to suffer a mental health crisis during the filming of The Shining but I don’t know that his role in the breakdown of Cruise and Kidman’s marriage just two years after the release of Eyes Wide Shut is as widely appreciated, nor how this film adversely affected Tom Cruise’s subsequent career. Honestly, it sounds abusive. Was Kubrick a genius or was he just a bully, manipulating and gaslighting his cast who were in awe of his reputation and would do anything for him? In a sexual situation, this misuse of power really would not be tolerated!

As discussed in an enlightening and somewhat horrifying article for Vanity Fair, Kubrick knew exactly what he was doing and intended to ‘break’ the actors so that he could direct a unique performance: ‘The theory was that once his actors bottomed-out in exhaustion and forgot about the cameras, they could rebuild and discover something that neither he nor they expected.’ Which just feels cruel.

He also used Cruise and Kidman’s marriage as a fulcrum around which to stress them, all in the name of encouraging a great performance, but I read nothing about whether he provided any aftercare. Kubrick psychoanalysed them both, probing them to confess issues and fears within their marriage and discussing their beliefs on fidelity and commitment. But as Kidman told Vanity Fair, it was almost like marriage therapy, except it wasn’t because ‘you didn’t have anyone to say, “And how do you feel about that?”’ He broke them open and exposed their vulnerabilities but offered them no way back together.

It gets worse! The intense secrecy surrounding the production was extended to surround and divide Cruise and Kidman in order to ‘exaggerate the distrust between their fictional husband and wife.’ He directed them separately and forbid them from sharing notes. He would not allow them to discuss scenes that the other wasn’t in, exemplified by Kidman shooting a naked sex scene over six days where Kubrick banned Cruise from the set and forbid Kidman from telling him what happened. Obviously, it was Cruise and Kidman’s choice to follow Kubrick’s rules but such was his reputation and the high regard that his filming style was held that I can completely understand them following him willingly, despite the harm he was doing to them. Which makes this professional relationship sound frankly emotionally abusive.

This would almost, almost, be forgivable if they were happy with the end result; if both actors could look back and understand that it was necessary for them to give the performance of their lives. But I don’t know that they can. Cruise certainly received significant criticism as early reviews saw ‘his all-too-convincing performance as a haunted, repressed individual written off as merely wooden,’ which feels unfair as Kubrick was such a perfectionist and filmed so many takes and retakes that Cruise’s performance must have been exactly what he wanted.

A retrospective review by the BFI earlier this year takes this idea even further, suggesting that exaggerating the contrast between Cruise’s real personality and that of his character was intentional. Kubrick took ‘immense delight in subverting Cruise’s virile man-of-action image [as] Bill is almost pathologically passive, unable to acknowledge, let alone explore, his sexuality.’ I cannot remember the extent of the rumours about Cruise’s sexuality in 1999 but they are certainly an ever present part of his story now. Did this film somehow support these rumours? More importantly, did the poor response to his vulnerability on screen and slight flirting with queerness crush any future public explorations of these themes? It is perhaps telling that other than 1999’s Magnolia, which was likely in production at a similar time to Eyes Wide Shut, all Cruise’s subsequent films have him play ‘wholesome, unwaveringly heterosexual heroes.’ Imagine what his filmography might have been like if he’d not had this knock back. Imagine what performances he might have gone on to deliver. Should he have taken the criticism so hard? Probably not. Is it an understandable reaction to suffering through a prolonged filming process that sounds like hell and likely contributed to the end of his marriage? I certainly think so!

So after all this, what is Eyes Wide Shut? Is it an erotic story? A love story? A morality tale or some sort of modern day parable?

I honestly don’t think I can describe it more accurately than an article in Vulture where it claims that Eyes Wide Shut ‘plays like a sex-drenched variation on It’s a Wonderful Life, a warning to its protagonist to learn to appreciate his lot in life and love.’

Yes. That’s exactly it.

What a weird film.

Next week: Basic Instinct

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

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