[11 August 2008]
Scenes of a Sexual Nature opens and ends with shots of giant kites soaring, looping, and diving over London’s Hampstead Heath. It’s doubtless a sort of visual metaphor for the vicissitudes of love, but it called to mind a different connotation: My wife and I have a category of DVD we refer to as “light-and-airy”. Light-and-airy movies are comedies, usually romantic comedies, that are entertaining enough in their way, provided that you don’t ask too much of them.
Most of the time we’ll want to watch something else, but there are certain nights when something pleasant yet conventional allows you to check out for 90-minutes or so. To make, under such circumstances, our happiness complete, the film would be either an earlier John Cusack movie or a Working Title film. I bring this up only because Scenes of a Sexual Nature is a nearly canonical light-and-airy movie.
The film is a ronde of seven stories set in Hampstead Heath on a sunny afternoon. Each story is about a couple interacting in the park in some way. It is a more-or-less literal enactment of the commonplace activity of imagining lives for the people one sees walk by; indeed, the camera occasionally underlines this point by lingering on a character in one story watching characters from another in their promenades around the park.
The stories are not told sequentially, but intermittently, to stress either points of similarity or difference among the various stories. A narrative throughline of sorts is provided by the story of Iris and Eddie, played by Eileen Atkins and Benjamin Whitrow, who meet by chance on the heath and discover that, now widowed, they had in fact met as teens in the park and had fantasized about each other their entire lives. Focusing on Iris and Eddie in this way allows the movie to emphasize questions of fantasy and commitment, and the meaning of marriage, and gives some shape to the whole.
Scenes of a Sexual Nature largely scrutinizes fantasy by dramatizing it as voyeurism, which is sensible given its setting and narrative structure. Setting aside Iris and Eddie for a moment, the film’s first and last stories are dramas of voyeurism.
In the first, Andrew Lincoln’s Jamie is busted by his wife, Molly (Holly Aird), staring indiscreetly at Sophie (Eglantine Rembauville), who is so engrossed in reading Camus that she has somehow failed to notice her sundress riding up past her panties. Molly tries to humiliate Jamie by outing him to Sophie, but, after the scornful wife storms off, Sophie offers Jamie another look, observing that we all could use a glimpse every now and then. He drinks it in, then goes sprinting off to appease Molly.
At the film’s end, Gerry (Hugh Bonneville) and Julia (Gina McKee) are embarked on the most awkward blind date imaginable for 40-somethings—there are accusations and cross-accusations of racism, Gerry offers to pour by saying, “Shall I be Mummy?” It all comes crashing to a halt, though, when Gerry attributes Julia’s momentary indecision to her slavering lust for a man across the park—a man that she may not even have seen.
Between Sophie and Gerry, we’re offered the spectrum of heterosexual responses to the casual admiration of passersby: It’s a harmless spice to allow one to tolerate relationships, or it’s a destructive habit that undermines a partner’s confidence. (Both of these have an element of truth, of course.)
In between these stories we’re offered the film’s gay couple, Billy (Ewan McGregor) and Brian (Douglas Hodge). Billy’s cruisy, and Brian’s brainy, and so, unlike the heterosexual stories, Billy’s wandering eye turns inescapably to sex. A moment’s eye contact, and he’s inventing pretexts to duck around the corner.
At first, Billy and Brian seem ever so much healthier than, say, Gerry or Molly and Jamie. There’s a certain honesty about desire that seems to allow them psychic freedom. However, this freedom turns out to be a bit forced: Billy uses his sexual wandering as a bargaining chip with Brian, which sounds like an admission that Brian’s not happy about it—that he wishes, perhaps, that cruising entail no more than looking.
For Billy, the true fantasy is one of change: Let’s have kids! It’ll fix the relationship! By contrast, one of the other couples, Pete (Adrian Lester) and Sara (Catherine Tate), try to understand why they’re divorcing despite their evident friendship, sexual chemistry, and shared love for their daughter. Meanwhile, another man hires a prostitute to walk around the park with him and be his (nonsexual) companion, precisely because she won’t try to change him.
The possibility that the other changes us is a promise and a threat in Scenes of a Sexual Nature, and its sweetest moments are given to Eileen Atkins, as she slowly comes to realize that she genuinely did love her husband, despite and because of his follies. As she says, “You see, once you commit yourself to something, however bizarre it might seem to other people, you kind of owe it to yourself to enjoy the experience.”
There’s a slight irony in this emphasis on the problems and potentials of long-term relationships, because Scenes of a Sexual Nature was apparently the work of a moment. Despite the presence of a first-time feature director and a first-time writer, the movie nonetheless features a staggeringly talented and recognizable cast. Apparently the key to the production was only asking for two or three days from each actor, which both made it possible to for them all to commit, and held down costs.
They also filmed for twice as long as usual on each day (approximately six minutes of screentime per day). The film went from initial meetings with investors to shooting in less than two weeks. As a result, the movie has an improvisational feel, despite being scripted thoroughly. (Indeed, many of the participants asserted that Aschlin Ditta’s script was the reason for their interest in the project.) The presence of so much high-profile talent means that Scenes of a Sexual Nature is always watchable, especially when Atkins and Whitrow are on screen, though Tom Hardy, Hugh Bonneville, and Gina McKee are also excellent, and, really, there are no bad performances.
Scenes of a Sexual Nature is an almost perfect DVD under two different circumstances: an early date in a relationship where one or both partners is slightly pretentious (or an English major), or couples in longer-term relationships looking for a lighthearted affirmation of the challenges involved in keeping a relationship afloat. At other times, the movie will—with some justice—be regarded as a trifle.
The extras include making-of featurette, commentary track with director/producer Ed Blum and writer Aschlin Ditta.