Intimacy (2001)


By Kirsten Markson

Sex Between Strangers

Intimacy has become somewhat infamous for its graphic sex scenes between protagonists Jay (Mark Rylance) and Claire (Kerry Fox). Directed and co-scripted by Patrice Chereau, and inspired by several of Hanif Kureshi’s novella (also titled Intimacy) and other short works of fiction, the film follows the weekly sexual trysts of two working class strangers in London. Their affair, though, unravels when Jay follows Claire home one afternoon, and the outside lives of the two lovers begin to interfere with the pleasures of their anonymous sexual encounters.

First things first: explicit sex scenes do dominate Intimacy (especially the first third), including one showing fellatio—apparently the first such scene to grace a film not populated by porn stars. What is most interesting about these scenes, though, is how unerotic they are. Jay and Claire’s couplings are desperate, raw, and fumbling; they barely speak. Chereau films them with a claustrophobic intensity: the camera is so close at times to the actors’ bodies that they become almost abstract, a blur of skin much like the extreme close-up of hardcore porn. Amazingly, Fox and Rylance silently communicate loneliness and neediness in these scenes, showing more about the protagonists’ inner lives than the exposition that comes later.

Flashbacks reveal that Jay left his wife and two young sons, without explanation, a year before the affair with Claire, and that he has worked for years as a head bartender in a trendy restaurant. Images of Jay with his children are instructive: he treats them with a tender detachment, his darting eyes and visible discomfort intimating that he’s dreaming of his escape even as he goes through the motions of being a good father. Jay’s story has the shape of a typical male midlife crisis. He is a musician who has finally given up his dreams of fame. His wife Susan (Susannah Harker) appears in these flashbacks mostly as an out-of-focus “presence.” At one point, Jay masturbates desperately, sniffing a pair of his Susan’s knickers while one of his sons bangs on the door to the bathroom, after he has wet his bed. Jay must switch quickly between his sexual self and fatherly persona, and he is clearly alarmed at the tenuousness of his privacy.

When Jay does leave his family, wordlessly and in the middle of the night, all he takes with him is a photo of John Lennon. This gesture underlines his (and the film’s) post-sixties disappointment: the dwindling alternatives for a generation that once dreamed of artistic, sexual, and political freedom. Victor (Alistair Galbraith), Jay’s longtime friend who has also left his wife, declares that they live “in thrall to their desires.” For Victor, this is apparently something positive, because it means that he and Jay are free to do drugs and sleep with as many women as they please. The reality, however, is that Jay and Victor are slaves to their desires, unable to find balance. As a result, their supposed freedom mostly allows them to ruin their bodies and live wretchedly in lonely apartments. While Jay at first seems to think he has found the most desirable circumstances in his initial encounters with Claire, he soon finds that her willingness to have sex without emotional demands unnerves him.

At first he is casual about the affair, but is increasingly intrigued by this mysterious woman who returns to his apartment each week and wants nothing more than sexual pleasure. Jay’s attempts at nonchalance about their relationship cease when he follows Claire one afternoon, to her working class flat and then to the small theater (housed in the back of a pub), where she is an amateur actress, playing Laura in The Glass Menagerie. Here Jay secretly meets Claire’s kind but clueless husband Andy (Timothy Spall) and their young son. Jay later returns to the pub, baiting the unwitting Andy into “hypothetical” and somewhat sadistic conversations about what he would do if his wife were unfaithful. These scenes disclose Jay’s tendency towards self-destruction (because Andy’s knowledge of the affair eventually ends it), as well as his growing interest in Claire.

For most of the film, Claire is presented as men see her, first through Jay, and then Andy. To Jay, she is mysterious, sexy, and ultimately maddening. He is frustrated by the fact that she appears unruffled by their affair, easily moving between her roles as lover, wife, and mother. To Andy, she is also mysterious—he doesn’t understand her decision to take up acting at middle age, but he enjoys hearing strangers discuss her performance, and he sometimes proudly interrupts to let people know that she is his wife.

While Kureshi’s novella focuses on Jay, the film explores Claire’s feelings, in part through the invention of the character, Betty (Marianne Faithful), a student in an acting class Claire teaches, who becomes her friend as well. The women’s relationship helps to show Claire’s heartbreak over her affair, and her steely resolve when Jay starts making demands. Claire maintains her indifference when he confronts her but finally has an angry breakdown in front of her students that is fueled by her frustration over Jay’s need to discuss and understand the terms of the relationship they have been having.

Claire is initially drawn to Jay because the prospect of rediscovering her own desire for sex excites her, but she is unwillingly to leave Andy. Unlike Jay, Claire is able to live in contradiction and take from the affair what she needs, without expecting much in return. The film, then, is less an analysis of male crisis than a balanced look at heterosexual desire. Despite Jay’s self-justifying rhetoric about freedom from emotional obligation, it is he who cannot divorce his feelings from physical intimacy.

The film loses momentum towards the end, when it focuses on the aftermath of the affair, a sluggishness that is somewhat ironic, given the film’s beginning. Early on, some dialogue might have been sweet relief from the unsavory spectacle of frenzied screwing, but once Intimacy focuses on the love triangle (completed by Andy’s budding friendship with Jay and disintegrating marriage to Claire), wordless sex suddenly seems more appealing than the nasty arguments that repeatedly erupt.

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