Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Film Art of Intimacy

By Susan Thea Posnock

While romance has long been a subject of movies, there is a more recent trend in film that I think takes the concept to a less-Hollywood, more mature level. Intimacy. It isn’t just exploring conventional movie relationships. These are films that interpret love in more realistic and often surrealistic ways.

Going back to 2003, the first film in this series is Lost in Translation. Was it a love story? I think in some ways yes. But more than that, it was a story of true connection, of intimacy, that reached beyond whether or not the two characters ended up lovers, or even kissed.

Among the Oscar hopefuls from 2004 are four more “intimacy” films. The first, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I mention only as part of the group. In a year in which I didn’t see many films (but I plan
to catch up), it is near the top of my incomplete list. I wrote about “Sunshine” months ago, and my feelings about it – and in particular Jim Carrey’s wondrous performance, remain. I’ll put it to the side for now to talk about the three other films that struck a chord with me: Before Sunset, Closer, and Garden State.

Before Sunset, the sequel or continuation of 1995’s Before Sunrise, offered me a unique experience. Not only could I see the film in terms of being a moviegoer and appreciating the writing and gentle to rough character beats, but also through my eyes as a 34-year-old woman. This was key to my appreciation, since as a 25-year-old watching the first film, I had a similar perspective to the young 20-something characters. Like me, Celine and Jesse have grown up.

It was especially striking to watch the films back-to-back on DVD recently. The romance and impulsive beauty of the first film, the naivety of the characters, now evolved into something that is much more painful, yet even more beautiful and real. Because of the much-discussed use of “real time” in Sunset it really does play like the most dialogue-heavy non-action suspense thriller ever made. It takes a while for the characters to put down their defenses and really communicate. I felt the clock ticking and desperately wanted them to get there before it was too late to say what really mattered. I really hope that the film will be recognized for the performances of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Delpy in particular manages to fully capture the sincere, passionate and confused inner workings of a modern day independent woman.

While Before Sunset manages to poke inside the sincerity (even if it isn’t always perfect) of intimacy, Closer, examines its often cruel insincerity. It’s a film about the selfish and manipulative aspects of love. While two of the characters are women and are featured prominently--Anna, as portrayed by a steady Julia Roberts and Alice, a stars-in-her-eyes Natalie Portman--I think the film is really about the men. The scene that really brought that home for me was the
Internet chat between Jude Law, who plays Dan, and Clive Owen as Larry. It’s a cockfight, a tease, certainly a manipulation. And it plays out through the rest of the film. I think the intimacy of Closer is between these two men. It isn’t an intimacy that involves love, but hate and jealousy and competition. I think there is definitely a stream of homoeroticism to it, male sexuality fighting it out for the control of a woman. Larry, as played by Owen, is the master manipulator. I hated him, but admired his ability to be clued into the other characters. Closer shouldn’t be forgotten Oscar time, especially Owen, who is one of the sexiest actors in film today.

Getting back to Portman, she has different stars in her eyes in Garden State. In some ways this last film is more simplistic than the others. But there was something about that lack of the profound (not that it wasn’t trying) that felt very genuine to me. There are easy clich├ęs people use to talk about this type of film (perhaps “quirky” is one?) but while I don’t think either character plunges the depths of Celine or Jesse, in some ways they seem more real to me. I also think it does a wonderful job of demonstrating how coming to terms with oneself is often the real path to being intimate with another. Writer/director and star Zach Braff perhaps makes it too easy for his character to have this epiphany, but it’s still extremely effective. Portman, who is good in Closer, is even better here. Despite the abominations that are the first two Star Wars prequels, the girl can act. And Peter Sarsgaard appears to be the new great cinematic scene stealer.

All of these films affected me in different ways. Like in real life and love and intimacy, they all end with a question mark. This, come to think of it, is a lot
sexier than “happily ever after.”

*This column originally ran on OscarWatch.