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Intimacy (Patrice Chereau) 2001

The winner of the Berlin Film Festivalís Golden Bear, Patrice Chereauís Intimacy is most notable because itís the first English language major motion picture, to my knowledge, to feature actual sexual penetration by the actors. As a sort of retelling of Last Tango in Paris, the film is a fairly fascinating study of Jay (Mark Rylance), a bartender, and his weekly trick an actress named Claire (Kerry Fox). The film begins with one of their nearly wordless meetings, and launches almost immediately into an exceptionally explicit sex session. Jay initially seems to be rather callous about these meetings, even bragging to his coworker at the bar about the exploits, setting up an incorrect audience expectation that weíre watching a grittier version of the Tom Cruise vehicle Cocktail, but with more cock and tail.

Once we get to know more about Jay, however, we understand that he is slowly rebounding from a failed marriage that has left him fundamentally scarred. We only get tiny suggestions about what exactly went wrong in his last relationship, but in one telling scene, we see Jay masturbating as he smells a pair of his wifeís underwear. The implication seems to be that Jay was unable to establish neither an emotional intimacy with his wife (he tells a friend that he came home one day to an empty home, suggesting a profound lack of communication) nor a carnal one (the masturbation scene has a distinct feeling of guilt surrounding it.)  When he stumbles into his relationship with Claire, they seem to have no problems establishing an understanding of each otherís carnality. Their understanding that she will come, fuck him, and leave is mutual and, at the start, mutually satisfying.

When Jay, in an attempt to see if the emotional intimacy that he never had with his wife can be established with Claire as easily as their carnal intimacy was, follows her, the film begins to shift to Claireís point of view. We find she is an actress (in a production of Williamsí "The Glass Menagerie") with a husband (beautifully played by Timothy Spall) and child. We find she has initiated the affair in an act of selfishness. She has the impression that she does nothing but give in her life, and sees her relationship with Jay as an attempt to take something. The filmís dynamics revolve around the implications of these two characters gaining an emotional understanding of each other. The film is interesting in that it reverses typical gender roles (Claire wants just sex, Jay wants more) as it reinforces them (the film introduces Claire properly only as it begins its quest for emotional attachment). We come to realize that both characterís motivations were more selfish than originally hinted at, and as the characters draw closer to a true emotional intimacy, their sexual sessions become more guarded, and more clothed. The film manages to use the specifics of its sex scenes in the same way that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon used its fight scenes. The body language is exceptionally telling. These scenes manage to show us a great deal about the charactersí unstated emotions. When Claire allows Jay to fuck her without a condom, and then later reverses that decision, the dynamics of the relationship are laid bare. Itís a bold film in that sense. Its unflinching attitude toward sex is only weakened by the lack of enjoyment that the characters seem to have while actually having sex. Perhaps, the real sexual revolution in cinema will come when a film doesnít feel guilty for allowing its characters to indulge themselves sexually, but this is certainly a promising start.


October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman