This post is pure Tony Comstock bait, by which I mean: I genuinely want to know his answers to the questions I’m asking here. (BTW, the post should be considered reasonably safe for work, but I’m planning to talk pretty frankly.)
So, last night we rented and watched Dona Flor and her Two Husbands, a classic of Brazilian cinema. (Trailer here) The film was billed as an erotic triumph and, given that it stars Sonia Braga, and is about a woman who so misses her good-for-nothing-except-in-bed first husband that she conjures up his ghost to share her bed alongside her sweet and caring but not-exactly-an-erotic-powerhouse second husband, that would be a reasonable expectation.
But I found the film, while excellent, rather sad, and not really erotic. Why?
I’ve been puzzling over that all day, what the problem was. And I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have to do with the moral failings of the first husband, Vadinho. Rather, I think it has to do with his style of lovemaking.
The word that came to mind watching him “at work” was hunger. And, indeed, his style of lovemaking puts the “carne” back in “carnal” – he practically chews poor Sonia Braga’s face off. I’ve certainly experienced that kind of hunger, that ferocity of feeling. If you asked me, do I think I was at my best as a lover when I felt that way, I’d say no – you can’t be terribly sensitive when you’re in those kind of throes. But if you asked me, how badly do I hope to feel that way again, and yet again, of course the answer would be: badly.
But watching is not experiencing. I think it was Nabokov who said that art moves one to contemplation, pornography to action. So perhaps it was a sign of artistic merit that watching Vadinho moved me not to action, but to contemplation, a melancholy contemplation at that. But that can’t have been the director’s intent. Can it?
Erotic realism doesn’t have to be fraught, of course. Take The Sacred Mound which – if you can find it – I heartily recommend, as it will make you want to fly to Iceland immediately. I saw the film at a film festival many years ago, and we heard the director speak – about, among other things, how the film was received in different countries. When he flew to India for a screening, he was startled at the lines that formed around the block for this obscure film. “But there’s a naked blonde lady!” a young man informed him. In Egypt, by contrast, there were no lines, because the film was shown at an “invitation-only” all-male screening. And in Sweden, the film was used as part of the elementary school curriculum. Every one of these responses makes perfect sense to me; this is a very sexually frank film, including about the erotic feelings of children, that is also incredibly sweet and warm-souled. You would think this would move one to, if not contemplation, at least a kind of diffuse good feeling. But in my mind’s eye – hey! There’s a naked blonde lady!
And when it is fraught, that doesn’t necessarily dampen the erotic charge, but can enhance it. Take A Late Marriage, an Israeli film that contains what is certainly the most simultaneously realistic and erotic sex scene I’ve ever seen. (The trailer doesn’t really do the movie justice.) It’s a phenomenal scene, not only because of how it manages to bridge that chasm (of realism and eroticism), but because of how fully engaged both actors are, with each other, with their intimacy – how fully there they seem – and then you discover that it’s not just they were just actors acting: one of the characters wasn’t really all there, mentally. But we, the audience, are there – totally.
And then, of course, there’s this infamous scene from Tampopo. I guess it says more about my own sensibility than anything else that I find it an incredibly charged scene (actually, the one after it on the clip is pretty charged, too, and certainly more disturbing) – but where does this fall on the realism spectrum? It’s pretty much totally unrealistic, right? But not at all in the way that we think of “unrealistic” movie eroticism being totally unrealistic, right? And why is this hunger – and it’s palpable; I mean, there’s actual food involved, you know? – different from Vadinho’s? Would I actually want to do what this couple does? If not, why is watching it thrilling?
I have no idea where I’m going with this, and this is all probably film-school-101 stuff I’m asking. But I’ve been brooding about it all day and, being a blogger, I’ve wound up brooding about it in public. If this is at all of interest, feel free to take the discussion where you will.