Is There a Case For 35 Minutes of Sex Scenes?

Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy was adapted by Mr. Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic from the novella Intimacy and the short story “Night Light,” both by Hanef Kureishi. The result is a series of accretions to a narrative full of atmosphere that engulfs the characters without giving them adequate motivation or dramatic necessity for what they do, which in the end does not amount to very much emotionally. Still, the big buzz about the film revolves around the prolonged (estimated at 35 minutes) quasi-pornographic sex scenes between a man named Jay (Mark Rylance) and a woman named Claire (Kerry Fox), who barely know each other and exchange very few words before or after the consummation of their passion every Wednesday in the late afternoon like clockwork. Then Claire leaves the front door open on leaving one Wednesday, and Jay decides to follow her. He subsequently discovers that she has a husband named Andy (Timothy Spall) and a little boy, and that she is an amateur actress performing in a pub basement next to the toilets. At the moment, she is playing the delicate Laura in The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams-and from what I could see, playing the role poorly, with excessive hysteria. But that is the point: Claire herself feels life is passing her by without her accomplishing anything. Acting is one escape from her quiet desperation; Jay is another, in the realm of desire.

Ms. Fox is a brilliant actress who was truly memorable in Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1990), Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992) and Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave (1994). Here, she plays a bad, amateurish actress superbly and a casual mistress with mostly quiet eloquence. Mr. Rylance has been hailed in British theatrical circles as the new Laurence Olivier, though he seems subtler and less spectacular than his illustrious predecessor. Hence, it may seem almost sacrilegious for two awesome talents to participate in the first on-screen blowjob in a film without subtitles in the history of non-pornographic cinema. I do not pretend to be the ultimate authority in these matters, but I seem to recall that Marco Bellocchio’s Italian-French Devil in the Flesh (1986) had Maruschka Detmers perform an act of on-screen fellatio, reportedly for the first time in a non-pornographic picture.

Most of the critics have so far dismissed Intimacy as a turgid piece of sensationalism, and I doubt that the film plays well with general-even so-called adult-audiences. I will not discuss the protective veil of denial for a viewer after leeringly surrendering to the come-on. Mr. Chéreau has argued that the nudity is meant to be beautiful rather than erotic, and I can see his point on the level of visual intention, if not that of hand-held execution. And I think if he had compromised in the usual discreet peekaboo manner, the movie would have been completely pointless. Here we get into the problem of multiple auteurs, and the difference between literature and cinema.

The development of Claire’s character beyond its prescribed parameters has been credited to the intervention of co-screenwriter Ms. Trividic, while Mr. Chéreau has clearly identified with Jay and his feeling of alienation from bourgeois married life. And then the hurly-burly pub pandemonium in the film seems closest to the style of Mr. Kureishi, previously the screenwriter for Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987). The apparent fusion of three distinctive sensibilities was reportedly achieved amicably enough, but the fissures show through the finished work. We never understand, for example, why Jay walked out one night from his wife and two boys and never returned. Everything we see in flashbacks suggests that he is a good and tenderhearted father. And his one brief conversation with Claire’s little boy is a joy to behold. What, then, has impelled him to his self-imposed exile from conjugal feelings?

Mr. Pall’s Andy adds distracting echoes of the actor’s work in Mike Leigh’s comic character studies of East End Londoners. Mr. Pall, a Cockney John Candy type, uses his plumpish personality to explode on the screen with alternating currents of humor and pathos. Yet he, too, is somewhat mystifying in his arbitrarily shifting attitudes as the deceived husband, either willingly or unwillingly.

I never fully understood what the character of Jay was supposed to convey in his job as pub manager. Jay bobs from one noisy pub to another in the midst of his confused quest for the reality of Claire. When he finally confesses to Claire that he had always hoped she would break down and teach him something he had never known, we are led to conclude that sexual passion alone does not generate a lasting love, which, dramatically speaking, has all the force of a fortune-cookie maxim.