Year: 2001
Director: Patrice Chéreau
Writers: Anne-Louise Trividic, Patrice Chéreau (from Hanif Kureishi’s short stories)
Starring: Mark Rylance, Kerry Fox


Intimacy charts the decline and fall of a casual but regular ‘no strings attached’ relationship between an introverted couple, Claire (Kerry Fox) and the recently separated Jay (Mark Rylance). On first release the film generated a shudder of excitement with the undeniable on-screen evidence that the multiple sex scenes between the two leads were real. This creates a double layer of transgression: Rylance and Fox are not only portraying socially frowned-on casual sex but are actually committing it. In spite of—or perhaps because of—this sense of transgression, Intimacy received a generally favourable reception, winning Best Film, Best Actress and Best European Director at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival.

The film begins with Claire’s arrival at the dishevelled digs that Jay calls home. Jay makes coffee and fills the obvious distance between them with small talk, but the raison d’être for her visit soon surfaces and it’s off with the clothes. How or when they arrived at this unusual accommodation is never revealed. The raw sex is reminiscent of the hallway scene in Unfaithful; it’s almost sex as punishment, though who is punishing whom and for what is, at this stage at least, unclear.

After the sex Claire exits silently, leaving both Jay and the audience suspended without context, though it’s obvious that the experience wasn’t particularly rewarding for either of them. There’s no war over sexual access rights between emotionally committed partners, as seen in the last chapter. But something equally destructive has taken its place, though it will take a few more bruising encounters between Jay and Claire for its shape to emerge.

Intimacy

The following scenes fill in the details of Jay’s life. He’s a bar manager who has left his wife and kids for reasons unknown. Cue a flashback to Jay bathing his children in the well-appointed family home a world away from his slovenly digs. His ex-wife Susan arrives; her throat palpitating with fear, she questions whether Jay loves his little ones. Jay’s answer, cutting back to the present in the film’s single most effective moment, is a cigarette and a can of Heineken. But he doesn’t have time for either as the doorbell rings: it’s two o’clock Wednesday, otherwise known as ‘shag time with Claire’.

Claire pushes past Jay into the hallway before he can close the door on her and their loveless relationship. They start grappling, fully clothed. There’s a momentary lapse when both parties stop to consider what they’re doing: it’s the distant pull of society’s covenant against casual sex. Jay runs his fingernails down Claire’s calf. Her body arches in response and the intermission is over. The sex scenes are from the European school: unafraid of the human body, particularly the penis. The result is a film often regarded as crossing the line between legitimate cinema and pornography[1].

Afterwards, they lie exhausted but joyless on Jay’s filthy carpet, seemingly prisoners of the same animal need to fuck displayed by Stella in Asylum and Connie in Unfaithful. As Intimacy unfolds it becomes evident that things aren’t that simple. The film’s narrative pace—never much more than a dawdle—then dissipates in some stuff involving Jay’s best friend Victor, another man on the scrapheap of life, played with sweaty volatility by Alastair Galbraith. Unfortunately it’s tangential to the central plot, which resumes with Claire’s latest visit to Jay.

This time the camera picks up the action after the sex, with the two of them asleep on the floor. Jay wakes and carefully disentangles himself from Claire so as not to wake her, an unexpected tenderness that subtly signals the film’s future direction. In the meantime he watches Claire sleep. Unlike Caroline in The Comfort of Strangers who spies on Colin and Mary for the guilty pleasure of seeing them naked, Jay begins to wonder who Claire is besides a sexually available woman napping on his carpet. Jay follows Claire after she leaves but loses her in a crowd. Nonetheless, some emotional wheels have been set in motion.

Intimacy

The next sex session pushes Intimacy furthest towards porn, as Kerry Fox’s Claire takes Jay’s—make that Mark Rylance’s—penis into her mouth[2]. Unlike The Brown Bunny, the film would be equally effective without the explicit fellatio shot but the entire hoo-hah over its inclusion illustrates our collective shame. Specific figures aren’t available without a lot of hands-on (well, mouth-on) research, but the practice deftly executed by Fox on Rylance is a frequently performed sex act[3]. That images of such a commonplace activity should be deemed offensive speaks volumes about our inability to accept humanity’s fundamentally sexual nature.

Afterwards Jay follows Claire again, this time as far as the tiny theatre beneath the Earl Derby pub where she plays Laura in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Here Jay befriends Andy (Timothy Spall from the Oscar-nominated Mr Turner) and his son—Claire’s husband and child. Andy is the third point of a triangle that Jay has unwittingly created through his supposedly ‘no strings attached’ trysts with Claire. Jay’s thoughtless pursuit of Claire has brought him smack into the realisation that she isn’t just a stray fuck; she’s a wife and mother too. Shocked, he decides to end their weekly sex sessions.

However, in the first intimation that Claire is in the driving seat, the next Wednesday she doesn’t show. Jay curls up in pain, hurt by the non-appearance of a woman he supposedly cares nothing for. Conventional logic suggests that Jay should be able to fuck her without any emotional side effects; in fact he has unconsciously developed an attachment to Claire to emotionally legitimise their sex.

Conventional logic suggests that Jay should be able to fuck her without any emotional side effects; in fact he has unconsciously developed an attachment to Claire to emotionally legitimise their sex

The fundamental negativity of our sexual covenants creates a conflict between the urge for sex and the shame of that urge. As seen in Elena’s emotional acrobatics in À Ma Soeur! and the post-coital legitimisation of Diana’s million-dollar night in Indecent Proposal, this is usually achieved by making sex a display of romantic love. The logic is that sex is ‘bad’ but love is ‘good’; if sex takes place inside the envelope of love then the socially disruptive sexual impulse can be safely contained and thus reclassified as ‘good’—hence our society’s obsession with finding our ‘other half’ who, in addition to meeting our emotional needs, allows us to engage in a mutual slaking of our sexual urges.

The outcome of this pressure to contain our potentially dangerous sexual impulses within socially approved relationships—see Stella Raphael, Marcello Clerici, Erika Kohut, the Pingot sisters, Maureen Trant et al—are the destructive booby-traps seen not only between married couples in Eyes Wide Shut, Unfaithful and Indecent Proposal, but also between supposedly free-and-easy singletons in Intimacy.

The pain of Jay’s bond with Claire, unconsciously developed to legitimise their sexual relationship, propels him back to the pub and the talkative Andy, an easy-going cabbie happy as “a pig in shit” to be married to Claire, leading light of the Earl Derby’s microcosmic theatrical world. Cutting straight to the point, Jay asks Andy how he would feel if his wife met a stranger every week for sex.

Intimacy

Andy, sweating in the glare of the billiards table lights, unconvincingly claims that as long as his wife came home at the end of the day then everything’s fine. Andy has fought and lost the battle for Claire’s sexual access rights; the only way he can hang on to her emotionally is to release her physically. He knows full well that if push came to shove she would leave him. As for Claire, she probably couldn’t care less who Andy screws. Although she may have claimed the right to have sex with whomever she wishes, the use to which she puts this right is driven by her shame, as will eventually become evident.

Intimacy is based on several of Hanif Kureishi’s short stories; the various sub-plots cast too little illumination on the central question of Jay and Claire’s struggles to balance their sexual and emotional lives. After Claire’s no-show and Jay’s sobering encounter with Andy, the film treads water in a muddled sequence that ends with Jay in bed with a girl called Pam (Rebecca Palmer).

In stark contrast to the silent Claire, Pam babbles incessantly as she wanders around her squat naked, sipping a cheap merlot. “Don’t you think it takes time to get to know people,” she muses as she almost absently impales herself on Jay. The scene is a breath of fresh air after the emotionally stunted lives of Jay, Claire and Andy. Like Nicole Kidman’s monologue in Eyes Wide Shut, Pam points the way to a simpler life: unburdened by shame, she satisfies her sexual impulses without the need for any associated emotional return. Jay tries to erase the pain of Claire’s non-appearance through bedding Pam; having become emotionally attached to Claire he now experiences sex with Pam as a transgression which triggers further shame: when Pam asks for round two he flees down the stairs.

From there it’s back to the Earl Derby, Andy and Tennessee Williams. Intimacy is an endless round of scenes in the same locations, some barely distinguishable from each other. Jay corners Claire in the squalid confines of the Derby’s dressing rooms and it is here that Intimacy reaches its apotheosis in a bitter monologue from Jay: “I thought that if what we did together was all that you wanted, it was because you knew more than me. I thought you’d found something… and that in the end you would tell me what you knew.” Jay—and millions of others with him—desperately seeks an exit from the Catch-22 that cripples his life: when he has emotional intimacy he’s ashamed of his unmet sexual urges; when he meets those urges he’s ashamed at the lack of emotional intimacy. This is caused by his unconscious judgment of sex as shameful and the resulting sexual-spiritual split within his psyche. An adult version of Renato in Malèna, he is forced to choose between expressing his ‘good’ (non-sexual) and ‘bad’ (sexual) aspects. His bitterness stems not from a sense that Claire has used him but from the soul-destroying realisation that she is equally lost.

Intimacy

Intimacy fails to capitalise on this moment and wanders into another underwhelming sub-plot featuring singer Marianne Faithfull. This happens with frustrating regularity; the result is a film disproportionally tangential to its theme. As Eric Harrison wrote in a review for the Houston Chronicle, “There is an interesting story here, but the movie circles it at a distance.” The film cycles back to Claire and Andy, where to no one’s surprise it emerges that Jay isn’t her first affair. Feeling a similar guilt to Caroline in The Comfort of Strangers and Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet, Claire uses sex to punish herself in a string of demeaning encounters. The root of this is, of course, shame about the sexual aspect of her existence. But, as Pam demonstrates, love isn’t necessary for sex to be fulfilling: what is necessary is an absence of shame.

Jay finally moves out of his shabby digs but not before Claire turns up one last time. She admits that she was considering starting a new life with Jay: what began as casual sex has morphed into love. She, too, has developed an emotional attachment to legitimise their weekly trysts. Jay cries as he begs Claire to stay. Reciprocal tears fall from her eyes as she shakes her head and restates her allegiance to Andy and her son. Jay and Claire have sex for the umpteenth time—though now with genuine affection for each other—but it doesn’t help. They’ve just moved from one untenable position to another. This is a portrait not of intimacy but its opposite, alienation. For all their sex, Jay and Claire inhabit the same emotional wasteland as Bud in The Brown Bunny and Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher.

Like Indecent Proposal, Intimacy portrays loveless sex between two people who only later fall in love, belatedly aligning with societal expectations. The sex may be cinematically risqué but, emotionally, the plotline is entirely conventional. Intimacy is ultimately a disappointing film with too much time wasted on underperforming sub-plots and two lead characters that learn little from their time together, which leaves the viewer feeling pretty much the same. A film with a much sharper message is Rob Reiner’s hugely popular 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. This film investigates society’s sexual programming by questioning whether sex can ever co-exist with friendship.


Start: Sexcatraz Pt. 1 – Welcome to Sexcatraz
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Next: Sexcatraz Pt. 30 – When Harry Met Sally


Footnotes

[1] The film is unavailable from Amazon UK’s DVD rental branch, LoveFilm.

[2] Even cinema’s definition of real sex isn’t real: in Indecent Proposal it’s Demi Moore’s real nipple that Woody Harrelson sucks on. This is called acting, and requires a lot of training in complicated techniques with Russian-sounding names; it is only genital interactions that are classified as real sex. Like all aspects of sex, cinema has created shame-based false boundaries that generally go unquestioned.

[3] Although some people find oral sex too shameful to perform. This fear is termed ‘fellatiophobia’.

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