Standing by while my partner performed in the explicit film, Intimacy, I experienced a strange kind of controlled jealousy. I was her voyeurby Alexander Linklater / July 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
I got my first serious taste of jealousy when I was 18. Just like falling in love, first time jealousy plunges you deeper into yourself, and is harder to comprehend than any sexual experience that will follow in a lifetime. It is unrepeatable. But of all animal emotions, jealousy is the purest excruciation. It is the knowledge of nearly possessing what you desire most on earth, then watching as someone else enjoys it instead of you. The watching is important, whether real or imagined, because jealousy works its cleverest tricks with visual distortions.
In Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, the king, Leontes, sees things which are not there. He sees his wife doing things she is not doing. He plans to kill his best friend who, in fact, has done nothing wrong with his wife. But, as Leontes hisses, “Is whispering nothing? Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?” There follows a delirious litany of betrayals which have not occurred. For Leontes, however, the unreal things he has seen are everything: “Is this nothing? Why, then the world and all that’s in it is nothing.”
What’s odd is that the neurosis of envisioning an entire world saturated with humiliation is exactly the same when the betrayal is real, and you do see it. Late one night, 14 years ago, outside a small town in east coast America, I was being driven back to the accommodation block of a theatre called Shakespeare & Company, where I was acting minor parts in, among other plays, As You Like It. Driving the car was the sexy, worldly, 24-year-old dancer from Manhattan who I had fallen abjectly in love with. To my green as cut grass 18-year-old self she seemed incandescent; it was a tentative relationship, but I was concussed with infatuation. In the play she had the small role of Audrey, a country girl who is seduced away from her devoted simpleton boyfriend, William. The seducer, one of Shakespeare’s best wits, is the fast-talking cynical clown, Touchstone. I had the walk-on part of William. In the back of the car was the bald, wisecracking, 40-year-old New Yorker playing Touchstone. He was fun, and I liked drinking with him.
But this was theatreland, and a clich? was begging to be fulfilled. I got out of the car and hurried upstairs to my room. We had rehearsals early in the morning, and we’d all see each other then. Getting into bed, I reached for my cigarettes. They weren’t there. I must have dropped them on the stairs. Retracing my steps I looked out of a window into the brilliant moonlit Massachussetts night and glimpsed an image that punched my natural lights out and made me see stars which weren’t the ones in the sky. I pressed my face against the glass to take a better look. The car was still there, and its front seat had been pushed back flat. Touchstone, his visible flesh bluish in the moonlight like a corpse’s, was having sex with Audrey.
In the time that immediately followed this introduction to a world of conspiracy, shame and consuming jealousy, something peculiar happened to my eyesight. I’d get on stage or go for a walk and my vision would flicker in black-and-white. It was like watching a movie with sections filmed intermittently in negative. Briefly, the curiosity of this delusion would take my mind off what was actually happening.
The memory of watching Touchstone and Audrey came back to me periodically as my partner, the actress Kerry Fox, was preparing for her role in Patrice Ch?reau’s new film, Intimacy. Although it doesn’t come out until the end of July, Intimacy has already attracted a particular kind of British press attention. I had a good idea this might happen a year and a half ago when I read the script Kerry had been sent for consideration. It was loosely based on Hanif Kureishi’s notorious novel of the same name, about the break-up of his own relationship. From Kureishi’s exercise in self-disclosure, Ch?reau had taken a title and a general theme, that of a man spinning free from the obligations of family into an anguished selfishness. More specifically, however, the plotline of the film had been developed from a neat and haunting short story called Nightlight. Here Kureishi describes an encounter which takes place every Wednesday, between two people who meet to have sex but never speak to each other.
The first draft of Intimacy that Kerry received contained directions in elaborate prose, rather than the normal concise idiom of a completed film script. It had been written in French, by Ch?reau and his screenwriter, Anne-Louise Trividic, then translated into English. Each episode of “Wednesday” sex was minutely described, skilfully developing atmosphere and meaning as the story progressed. But the sex scenes now spanned large swathes of text, and had little to do with Kureishi’s original, taut narrative; they were innovations of the screenplay.
Kerry wanted to know what I thought. I didn’t really know. It was elegantly written, which was a start. Patrice Ch?reau is one of the most respected names in French theatre, and his films include the extravagant period drama, La Reine Margot, which suggested that he also knew how to make proper cinema. Kerry has made a career out of tackling difficult material. Intimacy was unlikely to be as daunting as her first big role playing the traumatised author Janet Frame in the 1990 New Zealand film An Angel at My Table (for which she worked through some harrowing asylum scenes and pushed her weight up by a stone and a half). There have been a scattering of sex scenes in the 15 or so films she has made since. On paper, this looked like another interesting challenge. Nevertheless, the sex in the script sounded significantly different from anything Kerry had come across before. One line in particular caught the attention of us both: “She sucks him off for a long time.”
No doubt about it, that was a puzzler. It was just one line in a complex narrative, in which the sex was an integral but not dominant part. Still, it made us laugh. How would Ch?reau’s cinematography trick the audience into believing that one? Head bobbing on air in the male lead’s lap? Nifty handling of a prosthetic organ? The truth was glaring, but took some reckoning with all the same. It wasn’t going to be a trick. In fact, this lonely line was a useful indicator that, if Kerry accepted the role, the sex in Intimacy would be far more demanding than the normal perfunctory erotic interlude of most mainstream movies. To some indefinable degree, this sex would be real.
My first response was just a quick journalistic reflex. The papers will be interested, I thought, and for reasons that’ll have little to do with the quality, or otherwise, of the movie (the French press wouldn’t care: standard cultural contrast). If the film got made that might be a good thing or a bad thing, but Kerry and the male lead, Mark Rylance, would certainly run the risk of being held up to ridicule. In fact the British Board of Film Censors only relaxed their guidelines on sexual content last year, so the timing ended up being good, and there haven’t been daft arguments about how many seconds of film to cut. With one or two particularly silly exceptions, most of the coverage so far has not reflected badly on the actors. And it has been noted, rightly enough, that Intimacy marks a shift in taste for English language cinema.
Next came a private reflex. Forget Kerry, this wasn’t going to be easy for me. She has since become the mother of my son, but at the time we’d only known each other for six months. I was in the flush of the most important relationship of my life and had no doubt that I was also, in the immortal words of John Lennon, a jealous guy. Jealousy, as far as I can make out, is nature’s way of telling you to dispose violently of anyone who interferes with your mate (a crime passionnel is not just the preserve of the French). Patrice Ch?reau, using Mark Rylance as his instrument, would mess around with Kerry, with her willing participation, to a degree that in any comparable real life situation would be unacceptable to me. If the film went ahead, I’d have to wait while she left for rehearsals to practise sex with Mark, and came back home. Then, I’d have to wait as she went on set, undressed with Mark, took him in her arms, helped him reach a state of arousal, and came back home again. And eventually, I would have to watch, along with a sizeable public, in the magnificent magnified detail of widescreen cinema, everything they’d done together. Or, after editing, not quite everything. Which is the worst? Seeing nothing, or something, or everything? I thought of Touchstone and Audrey, and the world seemed to flicker in negative.
I did have another response, however, which crept in gradually and stayed with me for the duration of filming, right up until the moment I first saw Intimacy. It wasn’t the classic fantasy of being hidden while watching your partner have sex with someone else. But it wasn’t entirely unconnected to it, either. It was an impulse to know how far I could extend the boundaries of my possession of Kerry, and still feel the same about her. Or, rather, I knew I wouldn’t feel the same about her. Ahead lay an obscure destination of the heart. Would it be better, or worse? If it didn’t ruin us, would it make us stronger? Frankly, neither I nor (despite her experience) Kerry had any idea what it would be like, or what effect it would have on us.
Regardless of the content of the script, the single most important influence on Kerry’s decision to work on Intimacy was Patrice Ch?reau. After their first meeting, Kerry thought she’d never see him again. His English was not great, and mostly he just seemed to be watching her. Patrice is a looming presence in Parisian cultural life, both as an actor and director, with a reputation for having survived a wild life. In person, he is a gentle, cryptic, 56-year-old gay man, with the appearance of being kind of crouched in on himself. He has a strange magneticism which makes you want to impress and confide in him simultaneously. When Kerry, to her surprise, met him for the second time, they talked about the sex scenes in exacting detail. He watched Kerry carefully to see how she would respond. She responded by trusting him. She saw a director with a serious purpose who could handle actors. So she took the part of Claire, the Wednesday woman.
What happened next, to me, was that I felt an overwhelming urge to blether. I subjected any friends who would listen to a barrage of my personal dilemmas. Most responded by ignoring the requirement for intricate psychoanalytic comment, asking instead, “so is she going to, you know, do it for real?” I didn’t maintain philosophical equanimity. At a restaurant in Glasgow, a sympathetic gay couple made the mistake of opining, almost in unison, “it’s only a bit of sex.” I launched into a half hour tirade about how, although it might be a worthwhile film, and I didn’t have a problem, you couldn’t just whistle away visceral responses. I rambled on to the embarrassed sound of pudding being scraped off plates.
Yet, as Kerry and I talked about it, a sense of adventure emerged. We developed a new solidarity. If jealousy is about watching-or imagining you are watching-an infidelity, then this would be an experiment in controlled jealousy. I met Mark Rylance and felt not the slightest twitch of resentment. Mark has a calm, almost elfin presence. He speaks with the faintly displaced accent of an American who has lived most of his life in England. As an actor, he is unique. Last year, playing Hamlet in London’s Globe theatre, of which he is also the director, he gave the most powerful account of Hamlet’s relationship with his father’s ghost I have ever seen. As the male lead in Intimacy, he would appear in 90 per cent of the scenes, and have to work almost every day of the shoot. He was coming straight out of another job to do it, and going straight back into the theatre afterwards. The sex scenes would be tougher and physiologically more complex for him than for Kerry.
The final question was, would they be having penetrative sex? Logical or not, that was the impassable barrier for me, and for Kerry also. If they did, it wouldn’t be the first time it has happened in a mainstream movie. There are stories about actors in a relationship having real sex for the standard type erotic interlude, without the crew even realising. Unknowingly, you may have seen a film where this happens. But that is decisively not what happens in Intimacy. There is oral sex, which you see, and there is the extremely effective illusion of two ordinary people making desperate love, but that’s all it ultimately is: an illusion.
So why, if it’s an illusion, the need to go as far as the film does? Why the need to show real oral sex, even if only briefly? And why the need to show, more often, Mark with an erection? The answer is simple. It is to take the internal logic of a work of art to a conclusion; that is its integrity. In this case, it is to take a story that deals with sex as far as the actors can allow, without compromising their personal lives, and to elicit from them the most powerful performances of which they are capable. Patrice Ch?reau does not mess about. He is the best kind of theatre-turned-film director. At ease with the technicalities of cinema, his most intense concentration is devoted to actors, and he knows that an actor working at full pitch operates with the substance of his or her own life.
We now live with a very confused entertainment culture, which wildly overstates the importance of movie stars, transforming every weekend supplement into a marketing arm for Hollywood. By the same token, though, the actual job which those actors do is downplayed to a negligible minimum. It sounds almost pretentious to talk about “serious” movie actors (as opposed to celebrities), but they do exist. And this is an example of what they do, when prepared to take a risk, with the material of life.
There’s another, subtler reason for the oral sex in Intimacy. Although brief, it completes the illusion for the audience. Because we can see this thing happening, we are allowed to feel that everything is. References to it in the press have been amusing for the purse-lipped literalness it has produced. “Fox takes Rylance’s penis in her mouth,” squeaked the Sydney Morning Herald after she won the Silver Bear for best actress at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. “Blowjob,” is the affectedly relaxed demotic deployed by columnists. To my mind, a blowjob represents the mechanical, bobbing up-and-down motion you get in porn films. What Kerry does in Intimacy is not as formal as that. Her movements are gentle and humane. We’re not used to it. We don’t see much sex in Britain. In fact, strangely enough, we see very little realistic sex at all. We see lots of sexually-charged advertising images, a huge amount of semi-pornographic magazine representations, some desultory stuff on television, but almost no truthful images of it at all. Intimacy is irrelevant to debates about pornography. It doesn’t blur the line between art-house movie and top shelf video. It makes it clearer.
“Nine-tenths of the appeal of pornography is due to the indecent feelings concerning sex which moralists inculcate in the young,” Bertrand Russell wrote in 1929. “The other tenth is physiological.” The sex in Intimacy looks real; it is achieved beautifully; but it is not particularly erotic. It is the fumbling of two bodies craving one another. When it turns nasty, as it does one “black” Wednesday, it is frightening without even resorting to explicit rape. It will do absolutely nothing for what Julie Burchill, in full command of her distasteful lexicon, recently called “the po-faced, seat-sniffing desperation of the public masturbator.” Intimacy doesn’t even have Russell’s one-tenth of physiological appeal. It’s about what Norman Mailer called “the dark, gritty business of sex.” Should someone find themselves turned on by the film, that would be odd, though not aberrant. But if the emotional complexity of a real, or realistically conveyed, human relationship inspires equally indecent feelings as watching the bumpety-bump burlesque of hard-core pornography, then you have a problem which no degree of censorship will solve.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film Boogie Nights was about the booming of the California porn industry in the 1970s. It showed no sex, and the logic of the film suffered because of it. Almost as an excuse, it revealed a final image of the actor Mark Wahlberg wearing a hilariously long prosthetic penis. It was as if the film were confessing that it was a mainstream story about the sex industry that could show nothing substantial of what the sex industry actually does. It was like a war film without battles. Boogie Nights showed you the weapon of the sex industry and left its use to your imagination. Not showing things in films can sometimes produce potent suggestivity. In The Big Sleep, there’s no mistaking the erotic heat in the dialogue between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (you know they sleep together, and the director, Howard Hawks, stretched the moral conventions of his time to create an intense atmosphere of innuendo: he benefited from not being allowed to show them do it). But, as a general principle, not showing something runs counter to the instinct of cinema. It should be no surprise that violence and sex are its continuing obsessions. These are events which, as they occur in life, are fast, fleeting and blurred. If we are involved with them, we have no visual distance; we see confused images. The whole purpose of a movie camera is be our voyeuristic eye and-whatever its aspirations to high seriousness or low frivolity-to magnify and let us see in art what we can’t in life.
When I asked Kerry why she wanted to take a chance on the kind of sex Patrice was portraying in Intimacy, she said, first, “because I’ve never seen it done before.” For me, the reasoning was much the same. There would have been a point of no return, if Patrice had asked Kerry and Mark to perform penetrative sex. But, perhaps uniquely, I was being offered a safe emotional laboratory, with parameters I understood, in which I would find out how far the elastic of my trust would stretch. Like a movie camera, jealousy is a voyeuristic eye; it desires to find out how much can be seen before the picture breaks up into misery. I would be the passive, observing male of Intimacy. And I felt, deeply, that the active female in this scenario was strong enough and wise enough to be trusted. “It’s showing the growth of a relationship,” said Kerry. “It’s portraying it through pictures. And showing the growth of a relationship physically is what cinema is about.”
When shooting for Intimacy began, the strains on Kerry became apparent. The entire story of the film takes the characters on a descending emotional spiral, and the nadir for Claire, the Wednesday woman, occurs when she confesses to Betty, played by Marianne Faithfull, that her whole life has been nothing more than a talentless “dabbling.” But there is no question that the sex scenes, concentrated into a single week of filming, were the most demanding. She described it as exhaustively “plodding your way through scene work.” The floor was hard, giving her carpet burns. She would come home exhausted and almost ill. Patrice had agreed to make it safer than just a “closed” set. When a scene ended, the crew were not allowed to rush in and rearrange things. Kerry and Mark needed time gradually to pull themselves out of a punishing experience.
Much of Intimacy is shot handheld. But, during the sex, the camera was stationary. Both actors knew which parts of their bodies were being looked at. Nevertheless, Kerry realised that Mark had further to go to accept his nakedness. Actresses have been cultivated in the industry to undress, and are better used to it. Kerry said she felt “protective” of Mark because, between him and Patrice, there was the tension of males pushing each other to an extreme. Then there was the matter of displaying physical arousal in front of a cameraman. For Mark, the most difficult scene was what Patrice called the “beautiful” Wednesday, in which Kerry takes him in her mouth. Kerry’s toughest moment came on “black” Wednesday when Mark, albeit ambiguously, rapes her.
For me, by this stage, the dominant anxiety had become more simplistic. Would the film justify Kerry’s work? Would Intimacy be any good? At the time, two French films were being released in Britain thanks to the relaxing of BBFC guidelines. I never saw Baise-moi, but Catherine Breillat’s Romance was perhaps the ugliest, clumsiest, most pretentious and revolting movie I have seen. It used an Italian porn star to penetrate the pathetic looking lead actress, merely to show that it was being done. The film was a kind of comfort. Knowing a little about Patrice, I knew Intimacy would at least be better than Romance.
The first time I saw Intimacy, it was with an audience that consisted only of Patrice, Kerry, Mark, Hanif Kureishi and Timothy Spall, who was playing Kerry’s cuckolded husband in the film. It was an overwhelming and inspiring relief. Intimacy had originally been due to receive both British and French funding, and might have been granted a major budget. At the last moment, the British money vanished. Although made for less than Patrice had hoped, it was stunningly shot. The film moved with gripping intensity. Dirty London had never, I felt, been portrayed as honestly and luminously as this. There was a sublime ugliness to the film. As Timothy Spall said afterwards, with a signature twisted grin, “it even makes New Cross look beautiful.”
That, however, was the “beautiful” screening. Later, at a press event, I would have to confront the “black” screening. In a small theatre in Soho I sat surrounded by critics, my own editor, PR reps, and an elderly New Zealander: Kerry’s mother, Margaret. Never let anyone persuade you that a film is the same film whoever the audience is. In this cramped, nervous atmosphere, I saw faults that hadn’t been there before. I wasn’t convinced by a subplot. The tone wasn’t always right. As my editor, David, said afterwards, “that was French discourse put in the mouths of Londoners.” The film is an utterly un-ironic journey through personal anguish, leavened by only two good jokes. “Well, that was nothing to worry about,” Margaret said afterwards. But this was the kind of intelligent, yearning, serious material that can bore British audiences. For a moment, a nausea of jealousy gripped me. What were these people looking at my woman for? What if they don’t think the sex scenes are necessary?
There are only two films I know with sexual content equal to that of Intimacy’s. There is the extraordinary effect of the editing in Don’t Look Now, that reveals Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie intermittently making love and putting their clothes on. (It is an unforgettable analogy for the temporal disturbances in the rest of the film.) Ai No Corrida, the Japanese erotic classic, shows a couple having sex from beginning to end. It is has an amazing stylised precision, which delicately distances the audience from the degeneration of a sexual obsession. In many ways, however, Last Tango in Paris is the closest parallel to Intimacy. There is a strikingly similar fascination with anonymity. Just as Mark and Kerry hardly speak during the Wednesdays of Intimacy, so Marlon Brando refuses to let Maria Schneider tell him her name. “It’s beautiful without knowing anything,” says Schneider’s character. But, despite the fact that people seem to remember it as sexually explicit, you see surprisingly little. Last Tango in Paris was a film of its time. Most of what you see is of the woman, Maria Schneider, naked. In Intimacy, both partners are more or less equally revealed. I think Patrice Ch?reau has made a rare film. It shows ordinary human lovemaking, catching its roughness and darkness, but also finding in it a thing of beauty.
In fact, the one thing I am absolutely certain of is that the sex scenes are some of the most brilliantly executed aspects of Intimacy. If anything, it is a question not of whether the film is justified in including them, but whether the rest of the film lives up to the sex scenes. Even during my “dark screening,” I was moved. I knew the Kerry who was on screen, yet she was also someone else. To do it, she says, she had to tap random different memories to come by her performance. Watching her, I felt a rush of past confusions and abandonments. “Drama is there for you to feel sympathy with others,” Kerry explains. “People can see they’re not alone in the world. You don’t have to be worried that you’re the only one.”
Once I had seen the film-both “beautiful” and “black” versions-the jealous urge to find out how far Kerry and I could trust each other disappeared. Everything did change. We now have a small son, and that speaks for itself. When I try and explain to myself what I like about Kerry, I think of an odd talent she has. A New Zealander, she has lived in London for only six years. Yet she knows her way round the city better than most natives. I came back to London from Scotland. It is with a foreigner’s awe that I sit in a car as she drives, in possession of a mysterious clarity of mind, through this loneliest and most labyrinthine of capitals. Drivers of black cabs don’t get better than this. I am not kidding. This woman has a kind of occult knowledge.
Fourteen years ago, driving that car with Touchstone in the back, Audrey taught me a tough lesson. I obviously learned it well. Now, even if I were fleeing the jaws of hell and it was Friday afternoon rush hour in London, I’ve got a driver I’d trust to find the highway. The inferno receding, and special effects blazing, this is a movie in full technicolour, all 24 frames per second flashing positive.